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Another massive sanctions fail: Russia forges ahead with marine gas turbines

The single biggest impact of the Ukrainian crisis on Russia’s defence build-up came from Russia losing access to the Zorya-Mashproekt plant in Ukraine, which since the 1950s has built the marine gas turbines used in the engines of ships of the Soviet and Russian fleets.

Following the 2014 Maidan coup and Crimea’s reunification with Russia, Ukraine stopped all further supplies of marine gas turbines from this plant to Russia.  Moreover in July 2014 the EU imposed sectoral sanctions on Russia, which prohibited the supply of ‘dual-use’ technologies (ie. technologies that could be used for both civilian and military applications) in what appears to have been a plan to prevent Russia replicating Ukraine’s gas turbine industry on its own territory or buying marine gas turbines for its navy from the West.

There is no doubt these measures were intended to disrupt Russian naval programme, with the new Admiral Gorshkov and Admiral Grigorovich frigate classes in particular depending on supplies of marine gas turbines from Ukraine.

As recently as March this year an article in the National Interest was claiming that the block on sale of Ukrainian marine gas turbines to Russia would hold up the Russian naval programme by “at least five years”

…….the problem for the Russian Navy is that the vessel’s gas-turbine engines are built by Zorya-Mashproekt in Ukraine—a legacy of the Soviet Union. “The frigate program has run into a mess because of Ukrainian engines,” Kofman said. “They’re looking at substantial delays of probably at least five years.”

On the positive side, the Russians have learned to maintain and overhaul Ukrainian-made engines onboard their existing ships, Kofman said. However, the solution was to hire as many Ukrainian technicians as possible who were willing to work in Russia. Kofman noted Russia has not yet been able to indigenously produce its own gas turbines to replace those currently installed in its fleet.

A mere month since that article was written Russia has proved it wrong.

President Putin has just returned to Moscow from a trip to the Rybinsk, where he held a meeting of Russia’s military industrial commission at the offices of the NPO-Saturn Production Company.

Saturn is one of Russia’s leaders in gas turbine technology, designing the Lyulka engines used by Russia’s Sukhoi fighters.  There is a large technological overlap between gas turbine technology used for aircraft engines and gas turbine technology used for other applications.  Following the embargo on the supply to Russia of marine gas turbines from Ukraine and of ‘dual-use’ technology from the West, Saturn was charged by the Russian government with replicating the technology in Russia.

Putin says it has succeeded, and done so moreover in a far shorter time-frame than anyone in the West or Ukraine expected, so that the delay in Russia’s naval programme will be only 18 months not five years. Here is how the Kremlin reports his comments

Since 2014, work has been conducted here to organise the production of ship gas turbine engines for combat vessels. This will allow us to produce and service such engines on our own.

You know, we were buying such engines in Ukraine before 2014. Unfortunately, through no fault of our own, this cooperation came to an end, and even the possibility of such cooperation has vanished. We had to turn to import replacement. Frankly, this was beneficial to us from a technological standpoint, because in the time from December 2014 to the present, we created a virtually new area of research and a new manufacturing industry. Previously, this expertise did not exist in Russia.

I am pleased to note that this work has been completed ahead of schedule. We thought that we would have to move the warship construction schedule back a couple of years, but the delay will be slightly shorter, about 18 months.

The article in the National Interest speculated that Russia might import marine gas turbines from China to make up for those it could no longer acquire in Ukraine

Moscow is exploring the purchase of Chinese-built engines (which are “derived” from German engines made by MTU and China similarly benefitted from extensive cooperation with Ukraine in this sphere).

Putin confirms that this option was considered but rejected, with Russia instead deciding to develop the entire technology itself from scratch

We could have gone with various different scenarios, such as looking for replacement imports or creating other makeshift solutions. Instead, we decided to develop these industries in our country. Judging by the result, we did everything right, because not only did we acquire a new area of expertise, we also obtained innovative equipment, which is more advanced than what we used to import. Its efficiency is 10–15 percent higher, and its service life is longer. This is true of the ships of nearby and distant maritime zones.

That the new gas turbines Russia has developed are more efficient than those it used to import from Ukraine is almost certainly true, since Ukraine’s gas turbine technology has essentially stagnated since the USSR fell.  There have been significant advances in this technology since then, and it would be surprising if the Russians could not design marine gas turbines which are more technologically advanced and more efficient than those currently produced in Ukraine.  What is surprising is that they have done it so quickly.

In order to dispel any doubt that the new all-Russian designed and Russian built marine gas turbines actually exist, the Kremlin has also provided a short summary of a tour by Putin of the Saturn facility in Rybinsk, in which he is reported to have inspected them

The President was shown the company’s products and attended the launch of a project to manufacture marine gas turbines. Vladimir Putin signalled the launch of tests of the M-35R-1 gas turbine with an M-70-FRU-2 engine for marine projects.

Other reports suggest that the new marine gas turbines will not be built in Rybinsk but in a new factory already built to manufacture them in St. Petersburg.

Putin was being slightly disingenuous when he said that “previously this expertise (to design and build marine gas turbines) did not exist in Russia”.  Prior to the crisis that brought about the fall of the USSR no one in Russia would have considered the Zorya-Mashproekt plant in Ukraine a “foreign” plant, and Russia actually has an abundance of knowledge and familiarity with this technology.  The speed with which the Russians have been able to replicate both the technology and its production on their own territory is nonetheless extremely impressive.

This episode again highlights a point I recently made in connection with Russia’s successful replication of oil drilling and shale technology, the export of which to Russia has also been prohibited by the West

The West seriously underestimated Russia in 2014.  It failed to realise to what an extent the country had advanced beyond the disastrous times of the 1990s.

Whereas the sort of sanctions the West imposed on Russia in 2014 would have crushed the Russian economy if they had been imposed in say 2000, today Russia is fully capable of developing its economy by drawing on its own financial resources and its own technology, both of which it has in abundance.

What the West did in 2014, by imposing the sanctions at a time when there was an oil price fall, was force the Russians to do this more efficiently and more quickly than they would have done if they had been left alone.

Westerners always seem to cling on to their idea of Russia as a poor, technologically backward, ill-governed, irredeemably corrupt, ‘third world’ country (“Upper Volta with missiles”).  This is what leads them to make foolish decisions, such as the decision to impose sectoral sanctions, which they took in July 2014.

Just as the sanctions the West imposed on Russia in 2014 forced the Russians to replicate the West’s oil drilling and shale technology “more efficiently and more quickly than they would have done if they had been left alone”, so the West’s and Ukraine’s ban on sales of marine gas turbines to Russia have forced the Russians to replicate “more efficiently and more quickly” production of marine gas turbines on their own territory “than they would have done if they had been left alone”.

The big loser is of course Ukraine, or to be more precise the  Zorya-Mashproekt plant, whose future now that it has lost its main buyer must be in doubt.

As to the Russian naval programme, Ukraine’s and the West’s transparent attempt to sabotage it by blocking the supply of marine gas turbines for its engines has obviously ended in failure.

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