Ukraine’s defense industry has been experiencing another crippling slump as Kiev’s ties with Moscow have shown no sign of rapprochement, and China has seen an opportunity to cash in.
Weapons and aircraft manufacturers in the Eastern European nation, which used to be in the forefront of the Soviet Union’s armaments expansion, bore the brunt of the USSR’s collapse in 1991.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia have been on the rocks, particularly since 2008, exacerbated by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Retaliatory embargoes and sanctions slapped on each other have dealt a further blow to Ukraine’s already precarious arms industry.
Back in the 1990s, engineers and technicians from Ukraine’s key weaponry and aerospace conglomerates reportedly sought to recover some of their former activity by moving to China.
And now once again, people from such companies as aircraft manufacturer Antonov, engine producer Motor Sich, Kharkiv Locomotive Factory (aka Malyshev Factory), and Black Sea Shipyard have been making a beeline for numerous military firms affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army, as Beijing dangles attractive remuneration at a time when career prospects back home in Ukraine are bleak.
Valery Babich, lead designer of the Ukrainian aircraft carrier Varyag, since renamed the Liaoning after the PLA’s purchase and refurbishment of the vessel, is said to have been a consultant for the ship’s retrofitting. He is now with a ship research institute in Qingdao, Liaoning’s home port, New York-based Chinese-language news portal DW News reported in September.
The 76-year-old expert has been hailed as the brain behind many Soviet-era carriers and cruisers including the Ulyanovsk, which was to have been the Soviet Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier but whose construction was halted after the USSR’s demise.
Shell companies controlled by the PLA have also been active players in Ukraine’s sweeping privatization of defense companies.
Beijing Skyrizon Aviation Industry Investment Co, a little-known entity believed to be a proxy of the Chinese military, was barred by the Ukrainian Supreme Court in August from snapping up shares in Motor Sich, but just a month later the two companies were collaborating in an aero-engine joint venture in China, according to a China Daily report.
This coincides with rumors that China is exploring ways to resurrect Antonov’s heavy-airlift program and assemble the second aircraft of the An-225 series, the world’s largest cargo plane, which has been grounded for most of the time since its inauguration 35 years ago by economic issues.
Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review has noted that Antonov may have already transferred the An-225’s design drawings in a “wholesale” manner, citing sources in Moscow.
This is against the backdrop that China is eager to draw on overseas talent to propel its design and manufacture of strategic military and civilian cargo and passenger aircraft, and tapping Ukrainian expertise could in effect bypass Western countries’ stringent moratoriums on arms sales and technological transfer.
Another well-worn tactic is to emulate imported parts and products for China’s own copycat versions, as cash-strapped Ukrainian defense companies and design studios are forced to spin off their assets and sell intellectual properties.
As early as the 1990s, Beijing received help from the Ukraine-based Yuzhnoye Design Office, when the PLA’s infant nuclear division was seeking breakthroughs in multi-warhead technology and miniaturization of its nuclear warheads.