KIEV | Ukrainian authorities have imposed a six-year prison term on a Russian man convicted of spying for China who was assigned to steal military secrets for Beijing’s program to build and operate aircraft carriers.
The Russian national, Aleksandr Yermakov, was blocked from attempting to transfer to China classified data that would have significantly accelerated the Chinese army’s effort to field its own operational aircraft carrier, according to reports in the Ukrainian newspaper Segodnya and other news outlets.
China’s military announced last year that it had begun construction of its first aircraft carrier, confirming Pentagon and U.S. intelligence reports that Beijing was seeking the power-projection platform that requires highly skilled pilots who can take off and land from the relatively short space of a carrier deck at sea.
U.S. and defense and intelligence officials said China’s deployment of an aircraft carrier would pose significant problems for U.S. plans to defend democratic Taiwan if the communist mainland were to use force to retake the island, which broke away after China’s civil war.
“It not only extends the range of Chinese strike aircraft that would take out [Taiwanese] military installations, but it also would complicate U.S. Navy assistance of the [Republic of China’s] defense if the mainland should attack,” said a naval officer and Chinese carrier program specialist assigned to the Pentagon.
China’s intelligence service directed Yermakov to steal classified information about Ukraine’s Land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex, or NITKA, its Russian acronym, according to reports.
The facility is in the Crimea near the city of Saki and was built when Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. It remains the only training complex of its kind in the world.
The NITKA base is vital for states that operate one of the Russian-designed carriers equipped with ski-ramp takeoff decks, instead of the flat decks used on U.S. and French aircraft carriers.
The only two ski-jump carriers are the Russian navy’s Admiral Kuznetsov and its sister ship, the Varyag, acquired by China from Ukraine in 1998 and initially announced in China for use as a floating casino. Russia continues training its pilots in Ukraine while building a similar facility in the Krasnodarsky Krai region of Russia that is expected to be completed in 2012.
Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) took the unusual step of going public regarding Yermakov’s spying activities on behalf of China and his long-term association with Chinese intelligence. A counterintelligence officer who spoke to news outlets and who was identified only as “Oleg N” stated that Yermakov was assisted by his 35-year-old son.
Yermakov’s son, also named Aleksandr, registered “an off-shore zoned company that provided services in the sphere of arms deliveries. The profile of the company was the providing a full spectrum of military-technical, testing methods and design information based on the initiatives of received orders,” said the SBU counterintelligence officer.
Arms-trading firms registered in Cyprus often are used as intermediaries for selling weapons and defense technology from Ukraine. These companies then interact on behalf of customer nations with the Ukrainian state-run arms export monopoly, Ukrspetsexport.
Yermakov’s activities as a source of military and defense industrial information to China lasted about 10 years. During that period, he functioned as a talent scout for a Chinese weapons industry known widely in Western intelligence and security circles for illicit acquisition of defense-related technology in the former Soviet Union.
“At the request of his Beijing comrades, he had identified former military personnel, defense industry specialists from Russia, Ukraine and other nations of the … [former Soviet Union] to travel to [China] to participate in scientific seminars and symposiums, which were organized under the guise of tourist excursions. For each one of these ‘tourists’ Yermakov received up to $1,500,” said the SBU.
China has been recruiting former Soviet military specialists since the fall of the Soviet Union, and Russian and Ukrainian authorities have tolerated the practice.
However, collecting classified and commercially proprietary information on NITKA was strictly illegal espionage, and the payoff for Yermakov was considerably greater than his long-running “tourist” business.
Chinese intelligence promised to pay the Russian father-son team “$1 million for the delivery of documentation on this training facility and its operations in the form of drawings, digital photos, information on flash drives,” the SBU said. As preparation for the operation “Yermakov’s son made several trips to the [People’s Republic of China] where he visited People’s Liberation Army Navy facilities and met with their representatives.”
The SBU and diplomatic sources told Segodnya, the Ukrainian newspaper, that in addition to “digital data, drawings, and construction documents, the Russian duo had prepared some 1,500 pages of documents to hand over to Chinese intelligence.” This information had a value “to the national interests of Ukraine in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
China’s navy acquired the Varyag from the Ukrainian Nikolayev shipyards in 1998 for $20 million using a Chinese tourism company as a cover for the sale.
The original Chinese buyers promised that the ship would be turned into a casino and entertainment complex to be moored at the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, but the ship eventually was moved to China’s Dalian shipyards, where it has been undergoing a refit for several years.
Chinese military officials have been quoted in China’s state-run press as saying they plan to create a carrier-naval aviation capability; but “the Chinese need their own NITKA” for training their own carrier pilots, according to Ukrainian news reports, “and they have already begun building their own complex.”
U.S. intelligence officials said the first indications of China’s plan for building aircraft carriers were land-based short takeoff and landing drills going back a decade.
The Chinese are building a massive carrier pilot training base at Xingcheng, in the northeastern province of Liaoning. Other facilities for training of carrier personnel and engineering support specialists have been built in Xian, Shanxi province. The Xingcheng facility has features that duplicate the design of NITKA in Ukraine.