Russia’s New Arms Dealers

As Moscow's weapons get more decrepit, Europe is suddenly feeling a lot more comfortable selling the Russians advanced military hardware. But at what cost?


When Russian leaders first showed an interest in buying amphibious transport ships from the Netherlands, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop said he was "surprised." Why would one of the world’s great defense powerhouses, the producer of renowned, respected, and feared military equipment, want to buy hardware from another country?

The Netherlands’ Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding is not the only Western company that Moscow has flirted with in recent months. It has also had contact with Spanish shipyard Navantia and French manufacturer DCNS, with the latter’s Mistral warship the subject of talks between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart François Fillon in late November.

The proposals appear to have generated some debate in Russian political and military circles, with many in the elite publicly arguing that their country does not need to buy from abroad. No less an authority than Adm. Valentin Selivanov, former chief of the Main Naval Staff, has called the proposals "complete nonsense." Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has said the domestic United Shipbuilding Corporation could build a ship with the same capabilities as the Mistral. The president of the Academy of Military Sciences, Army Gen. Makhmut Gareev, has insisted that Russia "should be a self-sufficient country…. [W]e will find ourselves in a certain dependence on NATO and, in particular, France. We will have to buy spare parts, to create a system of logistics, based on Western standards … [T]his, gently said, is not very good for national security."

Even if no contract is signed, the fact that Russia is seriously considering buying a military vessel from its former NATO adversaries says much about the poor condition of its manufacturing base. But more importantly, it is an indication of how far Europe is willing to help Russia modernize its military — even at the expense of erstwhile NATO allies on Russia’s borders.

Russia’s defense industry entered the post-Cold War world outdated, inefficient, and outclassed by its major competitors. Take the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, for example, which is being developed to replace a swath of Soviet-era weaponry. The missile has failed seven of 12 test launches so far, with manufacturing flaws blamed by some in the Navy on years of underinvestment in the defense industry.

Bolstering this key sector of the economy has been a top priority for Putin and his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, who have sunk billions of rubles into modernization programs. The purchase of a warship from another country would be a clear signal that this policy is moving too slowly or even failing, as the president has already openly acknowledged.

"Unfortunately, the policy of ‘patching the holes’ is still in place, and, to be frank, the sector has not achieved the goal of upgrading its technology to the latest standards," Medvedev told an audience of defense industrialists in October. "This directly affects the quality of products delivered to our armed forces and to markets abroad…. This is a question of survival."

Indeed, deals have already been struck with foreign countries to help address the industry’s problems. DCNS, for example, has long had a close relationship with Russia. André Cherrière, head of alliances at the company, told me in early 2008 that "the development of a relationship with Russian players is a priority for R&D…. In the longer time range it has real potential." Russia has also founded partnering arrangements with French companies Thales and Safran, which are focused on improving its "high technology" sector; half of the Sukhoi fighter aircraft sold on the world market are equipped with Thales avionics.

This would not be the first time that Moscow has bought foreign equipment. Last year it acquired Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles, which it will study to improve its own domestically produced versions. But that deal was on a small scale and would be dwarfed by the sale of a Mistral-type vessel. Such an agreement between Russia and a NATO country would have dramatic political consequences.

Most obviously, it would point to the emergence of an increasingly normal relationship between Russia and the rest of Europe, one of the key foreign-policy goals of U.S. President Barack Obama. Meetings of the NATO-Russia Council are back on, following a suspension in the wake of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. The former enemies are planning a joint review of future challenges and looking to cooperate on battling the drug trade and establishing joint emergency planning. Russia is an important partner in the war in Afghanistan, allowing alliance troops and materiel to cross its territory to reach the war zone. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has even asked it to supply helicopters to the alliance, though with no response so far.

Although it would be ridiculous to characterize the two sides as bosom buddies, rapprochement is in the air. In this atmosphere it would actually be stranger for Western governments to turn down a Russian request for arms than to accept it.

"It would be impossible to call for continental stability in partnership with Russia if we refuse to sell armaments to Russia. A refusal would amount to contradicting our own discourse," Fillon has reportedly said.

But some would beg to differ — namely, Russia’s firing-distance neighbors. A helicopter-carrying ship like the Mistral makes Russia significantly more dangerous to nearby countries like Georgia and Estonia — countries that are already feeling a renewed aggression from Putin’s regime. Russian naval chief Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky has helpfully pointed out that if his forces had possessed a Mistral during the Georgia war, troops could have been landed on the Georgian shore in 40 minutes, instead of the 26 hours it actually took.

"The only destination of this kind of ship is the Black Sea," Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze has said. "The consequences might be devastating…. We are tremendously worried.

"If the French finally sell it, we should consider security measures to be taken in case the ship is deployed in the Baltic Sea," Gen. Ants Laaneots, commander in chief of the Estonian Defense Forces, told an Estonian TV station in November.

However, these protests seem unlikely to have an impact in the halls of European governments. Georgia’s NATO ambitions have appeared to fade over the past year, despite insistence to the contrary from Rasmussen and other alliance leaders. Even actual NATO members like Estonia have felt their influence begin to weaken as the West, and Washington in particular, makes a concerted effort to strengthen relations with Russia.

"There is already a concern among Eastern and Central European states that NATO is not taking them seriously enough," says Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Centre for European Reform.

This is unlikely to affect the outcome of the current talks. Selling large warships to Russia would clearly be a major financial boon for European countries. Mistral-type ships are valued at 400 million euros apiece, and with a contract also supporting local jobs and industry, a deal would certainly appeal to bean counters in Amsterdam, Paris, and Madrid.

Whether it would also be a political boon is a more complex question. Until it’s clearer that the sale will go through, it might be too early to tell how it would be viewed domestically in Western Europe. Leaders of the Georgian community in France have already launched a petition to whip up public opposition to the proposals. But when push comes to shove, the prospect of strengthening ties with the oil-producing, gas-supplying, resurgent Russia is likely to hold sway over upsetting uncertain NATO allies in the former Soviet Union.

<p> Gerrard Cowan is Europe editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. </p>