Reports in the Ukrainian newspaper Seyvodnya (Today) and other news outlets in the country said that a Russian national, Aleksandr Yermakov, had been giving a six-year prison term following his conviction on charges of spying on behalf of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Had Yermakov’s mission been completed, it could have significantly accelerated the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) effort to field its own operational aircraft carrier.
“An operational Chinese carrier — and the ability of China to extend the range of its strike aircraft — could measurably complicate any scenario for the defense of the Republic of China [ROC] on Taiwan, or US assistance of that defense in the event of an attack by the mainland,” a Pentagon source familiar with the PLAN carrier program said. “The ROC is without question the big loser if the PLAN gained a carrier force.”
Specifically, Yermakov had been stealing classified information related to the Ukrainian Nazemniy Ispitatelno--Tryenirovochniy Kompleks Aviatsii (Land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex), or NITKA, which is located in the Crimea near the city of Saki. This facility was built when Ukraine was one of the vassal states of the former Soviet Union and was developed to train carrier pilots. It remains today the only one of its kind in the world.
The NITKA facilities are an essential land-based installation for any nation operating one of the Russian-designed carriers that utilize a ski ramp for take-off instead of the steam catapult used on US and French aircraft carriers, and an arresting cable/tailhook landing system. The two carriers of this type in the world are the Russian Navy’s Admiral Kuznetsov, and its sister ship, the Varyag, acquired from Ukraine by the PLAN in 1998.
A Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) counterintelligence officer, who spoke to news outlets and was only identified as “Oleg N,” provided extensive details on Yermakov’s activities and said he had been assisted by his 35-year old son. His son had registered “an off-shore zoned company that provided services in the sphere of arms deliveries,” the officer said, adding that its company profile described it as a provider of “a full spectrum of military-technical, testing methods and design information based on the initiatives of received orders.”
Arms dealers who act as middlemen between the Ukrainian authorities and export customers typically register these firms in Cyprus or other nations where it is relatively easy to create a corporation that is licensed to deal in the trading of weapons or defense-related technology. (A colleague researching another story on Eastern European arms trafficking once told me that he had discovered “an address in Cyprus with more than 800 arms trading firms registered at just that one location.”)
The SBU would not officially specify the PRC as the intelligence service behind the attempted penetration of the NITKA facility, but would only say that the nation in question was “in the Southeastern Asian region.” However, the Ukrainian daily confirmed that China’s espionage services were directing Yermakov’s activities “had been provided by diplomatic sources.”
Yermakov had reportedly been providing China with defense-related technology for a period of about 10 years.
“At the request of his Beijing comrades he had identified former military personnel, defense industry specialists from Russia, Ukraine and other nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States to travel to the PRC 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 US$1,500,” the newspaper said.