Moscow is moving aggressively to recapture its Soviet-era dominance in the global arms bazaar, and the scale of recent Russian salesmanship in Asia has raised deep anxieties in Washington. But some experts say Russia is peddling weapons it doesn't have, as part of a desperate marketing ploy initiated by President Vladimir Putin to save the bankrupt ex-Soviet defense industry from collapse.
On paper, Russian exports look feisty. In 1999, Moscow signed $3.5 billion in foreign arms sales, to rank fourth in global arms exports. This year sales are estimated at $4 billion. But the Kremlin's dazzling new arms showroom may be an illusion, built on obsolete hardware pulled from Soviet military warehouses and a lot of energetic sales talk about modern weapons systems that are still on the drawing board.
"Most of our sales pitches these days are little more than a confidence trick, because Russia lacks the capacity to produce many of the armaments it is promising," says Vitaly Shlyikov, a former Russian deputy defense minister, who is now an independent military expert with the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "Our military, as well as our arms exporters, have been living for the past 10 years on the stockpiles amassed by the USSR for World War III."
The art of selling decrepit arms
Last week Moscow said it is negotiating the sale of up to five ultramodern Beriev A-50E early-warning aircraft, similar to the US's AWACS system, to Beijing. The US recently blocked Israel from exporting a similar plane, because it could give China an edge in any future confrontation with US ally Taiwan.
Moscow has also torn up a 1995 agreement with the Clinton administration not to sell conventional arms to Iran, and will soon resume deliveries it says will include submarines, tanks, and sophisticated ordinance.
In the past year, Russia has concluded contracts to sell state-of-the-art SU-30MK fighter planes to India and China. It is currently offering advanced helicopter gunships to Turkey, and anti-aircraft missiles, warships, tanks, and fighter planes to a variety of other countries.
But after a decade of severe budget-cutting, and almost zero procurement by the Russian military, the ability of arms factories to deliver on many of these contracts appears in serious doubt.
"The Russian armed forces have kept going by upgrading existing weapons, and won't be in a position to buy new ones in any quantity until at least 2005," says Valentin Rudenko, an expert with the independent military news agency AVN in Moscow. "Money from foreign sources is all that keeps some design bureaus and production lines alive, but it's clearly not enough".
Mr. Shlyikov, a veteran of Soviet military intelligence who spent 10 years heading a secret committee that compared the USSR's defense potential with that of Western countries, says few people really know the parlous state of Russia's once-vaunted military-industrial complex.
"Of course the directors of defense plants dream that the state will step in and revive them, or that foreign money will appear," he says. Only 10 percent of Russia's 1,700 military factories are still working.
"The system of subcontractors is completely gutted," Shlyikov says. "Some people from big factories may be signing contracts, but they know they cannot produce the final product anymore. They just hope someone else will take responsibility."
A case in point is the A-50E early-warning aircraft, which has so alarmed Washington. Russia has been producing earlier versions of the plane, known by the NATO code name "Mainstay," since 1980. But the craft's electronics and radars are considered far inferior to US or Israeli-produced AWACS systems, and the Chinese have demanded a massive upgrade. Moscow insists it can deliver an equal to the American AWACS plane within five years, but needs huge sums in development money up front.
Another example is a $1.3 billion deal to sell 40 Su-30MKI fighter planes to India, under negotiation for several years. Experts say Russia has so far managed to deliver only a few modified copies of an older aircraft, the Su-27, in place of the promised SU-30s. "India has paid Russia several hundred million dollars to help develop the SU-30MKI, but the new superfighter continues to be a mirage," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Moscow-based defense expert. "It would seem that we are taking the Indians for a ride."
Earlier this month, Mr. Putin moved to consolidate Russia's military export industry, merging two key agencies and putting a former KGB colleague Mikhail Dmitriev in charge of all future Russian arms sales.
Experts say the Kremlin plan is to centralize control and concentrate income from weapons exports, in hopes of salvaging something from Russia's disintegrating military-industrial machine.
"Over the years, there has been a lot of abuse in Russia's arms trade, and money has often wound up in private pockets," says Dmitri Trenin, a military expert with the Carnegie Endowment, in Moscow. "Putin wants to channel this income into projects that might keep Russia competitive in the world's arms market. It's a rational plan. If we can develop these new weapons for other countries, they will be available to the Russian armed forces later."
But the Kremlin's reforms, even if they take hold, may be too little, too late. "Putin is on the right track," says Shlyikov. "But tinkering with the old system won't work. Our military-industrial complex needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up".
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society