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Did Western Sanctions Actually Help the Russian Military?

The Kremlin isn’t slowing down its military modernization, and has used Western sanctions to make money, and look elsewhere for supplies

Russian T-14 Armata tanks roll along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2016.
Russia marks the 71st anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. / AFP / VASILY MAXIMOV        (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian T-14 Armata tanks roll along Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2016. Russia marks the 71st anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. / AFP / VASILY MAXIMOV (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of sanctions slapped on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin faced some hard choices. The economic sanctions placed the country’s military modernization program in jeopardy, cutting Russia off from high-end European-made military sensors, software, ship engines, and other gear that were critical to dragging the once-moribund Russian war machine from its rusting post-Soviet morass.

But according to some defense officials and experts on the Russian way of war, even with the potential for sanctions relief under the new administration of President Donald Trump, Moscow has managed to come up with some creative — and likely permanent — workarounds that might make the Kremlin’s military more adaptable in the long run, and has made Moscow some money in the process.

One of the more dramatic penalties heaped on Moscow was France’s decision in 2015 to cancel the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia, for which Paris returned about $1 billion that Moscow had paid for the ships.

While initially a public embarrassment to Moscow, in the end, the country managed to make money off of the cancellation.

Not only did Russia get its $1 billion back, but it turned around and sold 50 of the KA-52 helicopters already built for the ships — along with Russian-designed communications equipment — to Egypt, which purchased the ships from France with a loan from Saudi Arabia.

One senior U.S. Defense official told FP that overall, Moscow hasn’t felt the full impact of truly rigorous sanctions due to a lack of U.S. and Western political willpower.

“Sanctions have not been strong enough,” the official, who requested anonymity, told FP. “In order to have the type of impact you want, you have to go much, much further” than Washington and its European allies have done in banning the sale of military equipment to the Russians.

Specifically, Washington didn’t secure the buy-in from the international community that it sought, and Russia has been tireless in finding cracks in the sanctions effort in places outside of its traditional European supply base.

Take, for example, the post-Crimea German move to cut off the supply of diesel ship engines to the Russian navy.

The cancellation promised to scuttle a critical part of the modernization of the Russian fleet, as several new Buyan-M corvettes were sitting in Russian shipyards, waiting for their German-made engines.

The Kremlin found another supplier soon enough. Several years before, Berlin had sold some of the same engines to China, which the Chinese quickly duplicated in their own factories. Russian officials booked flights to Beijing where they struck a deal to buy the cheaper Chinese knock-offs, which while not as good as their German predecessors, were decent enough to get the Russian ships out of their drydocks.

In a related move, Moscow sold three other frigates waiting on now-banned Ukrainian-made diesel engines to India, recouping their initial investment.

And when it comes to some of the critical electronic components Russia had traditionally purchased from the west for its space and missile industries, Moscow has looked to South Korea and other Southeast Asian nations that never went along with the western sanctions.

If some of the sanctions currently in place are lifted by the incoming Trump administration, as the president-elect has hinted he may do in an effort to reach a broader deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the break from the European defense industry may already have become permanent.  

“I don’t think the Russians are going to rush back to buy these things,” said Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA Corp. “They learned their lesson, they not going to go back to German and French companies.”

The Defense official said that the Russians have been biding their time since the sanctions came down, and Putin is likely calculating that under the Trump administration — and after the upcoming French and German elections where some pro-Russian parties have gained momentum — the penalties can go away. “So he hunkered down to ride out the storm.”

While continuing the buildup of the Russian military, Moscow has also been showing off the capabilities it has built up in recent years. Late last year, Moscow managed to deploy its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, on its first combat deployment. Stationed off the coast of Syria last last year, the ship’s aircraft flew sorties to hit targets in Syria for several weeks, with a checkered record: two warplanes crashed into the sea after being unable to land on the ship due to mechanical failures.

Over the weekend, Moscow also announced a 50-year basing agreement with Syria that will allow the Russian navy to dock more and larger ships at the Tartus port, which will give the country the ability to conduct longer operations away from their Baltic and Black Sea homeports, extending Moscow’s reach in the Middle East.

Even with the Russian workarounds, the official insisted that the equipment Moscow is buying elsewhere isn’t as high quality as European-made technologies, and “the sanctions have had an effect because we’ve restricted sensitive technologies that have affected Russia’s development of next-generation military technologies.”

But the work continues with newly Russian-made or Chinese-sourced material that might not be up to NATO standards, yet remains lethal, and effective for the missions Moscow is undertaking.

Case in point is the Russian intervention in Syria — undertaken well after the sanctions were put in place — which has by all accounts met its objectives of keeping the regime of Bashar al-Assad in power, and showing off Russian capabilities.

On Monday, six Russian Tupolev Tu-22 strategic bombers hit what the Kremlin said were Islamic State positions in Deir Ezzor, Syria, after taking off from Russian territory and flying over Iran and Iraq to reach their targets.

And earlier this month, the Russian defense ministry announced that it was refitting five Udaloy-class anti-submarine ships with new electronic weapons systems, all of which would be made domestically.

Still, Moscow has been receiving some help from European countries not on board with the sanctions. Italian company Iveco continues to supply its Lynx light armored vehicles to the Russian army, which has since deployed them to Syria.

Other arms-related deals remain in place. The Ukrainian engine make Motor Sich, still sells hundreds of helicopter engines to Moscow a year, unable to break its dependency on one of its largest clients. Having seen the writing on the wall, however, Russia has been slowly building up its own a capacity to eventually replace Motor Sich,and Kofman says that in a few years Moscow might have the ability to make its own engines without having to look outside its borders.


Photo Credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images