MOSCOW — Russian military barracks may be crumbling for lack of investment, and the morale of troops along with them. But somehow the men and women who make weapons systems are still scraping enough money together to stay at the cutting edge.
From secret submarine bases deep inside the Arctic Circle to the empty steppes of southern Siberia, Russian scientists are manufacturing fighter planes, ships, and missiles that match or outperform the best that the West can produce. And even if their own forces can't afford to pay for the arms, they can sell them to foreign armies.
In the air, the Su-37, the newest plane to roll off the Sukhoi production line, can do tricks that appear to defy nature. More maneuverable than any other plane aloft, the Su-37 can come to a halt in mid-air, hover, and even fly backward.
Underwater, the "Severodvinsk"-class submarine, whose prototype has been undergoing tests for the last two years, is regarded by American experts as the most advanced nuclear-powered submarine in the world. It is even more silent - and thus harder to detect - than the "Akula" class subs now in service, which caused a stir in 1995 when one popped up off the United States coast without having been spotted.
Russia does not sell any of these nuclear submarines to foreign navies, but it is happy to export "Kilo"-class diesel-powered subs to countries such as Iran and China. They stand out from the competition, according to Russian designers, by their low noise levels, high maneuverability, and more powerful weaponry.
Russian arms salesmen are also pushing another top-of-the-line product wherever they can: the S-300 air-defense system, which is similar to the American-made Patriot missile system. But S-300 does some things better, international arms experts say, and it does all of them for a lot less money.
Once upon a time, Moscow let its allies around the world buy Soviet weaponry at giveaway prices, as a way of cementing its political influence. Today, as the state arms-export company Rosvoorouzheniye puts it, the government "has allowed the corporation to work out ... export policies which ensure higher economic efficiency and secure its position in hard-currency markets." In other words: Cash or credit, but either way you pay full price.