From Russia with guns

A glossy weapons catalog offers wimpy nations a chance to buy new respect from their neighbors.

Published April 3, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The most publicized nightmare for U.S. national security planners is Russia's arsenal of 20,000 nuclear weapons -- a threat made known by a classified report President Clinton publicized on Moscow's loose nukes, and made better known when George Clooney and Nicole Kidman stopped a Serbian terrorist from blowing up New York with a stolen Russian atomic bomb in (another bomb) "The Peacemaker."

But U.S. policy makers probably became even more worried last week when they saw soon-to-be Russian president Vladimir Putin trolling about in a Russian MiG. Because while Armageddon-style scenarios capture the imagination, it's Russia's frantic effort to export conventional arms -- big guns, big warplanes, and lots of ammo -- that remains on the top of Russia's defense priority list, including that of Putin.

Desperate for hard currency, and with weapons one of its few quality exports, Moscow is eagerly peddling arms to any and all comers. The country expects to sell $4.3 billion worth of arms this year, Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov has said. That's sharply down from Cold War levels, but up by nearly 75 percent from two years ago and a record since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That would put Russia at the same general level as France and England, and behind only the United States, which in 1998 (the last year for which figures are fully available) sold $7.1 billion worth of weapons for a 30 percent market share.

Russia's biggest customers are China and India, which combined account for roughly 80 percent of sales. Short-term prospects are bright because China has increased its military budget this year by 16 percent, while India has upped its by 26 percent. Russia is also making inroads in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar.

But what, exactly, is being sold? Salon got hold of the Russian arms export catalog, and flipped through the 96 glossy pages of pure military porn. Put out by Rosvoorouzhenie, the state-owned firm that handles about 90 percent of overseas sales, the catalog has a highly restricted circulation, usually limited to countries willing to plunk down $12 million for a warplane. (I got a copy from an American arms broker with ties to Moscow.)

Rosvoorouzhenie is headquartered in Moscow and has about 50 offices abroad. It lists its subsidiaries in countries that are former allies of the Soviet Union (Libya, Cuba, Iraq and Vietnam), but also in major arms buyers traditionally allied with the United States (Brazil, Indonesia and Kuwait).

Rosvoorouzhenie promises "a prompt and full meeting of customers' demands," says the catalog, and is prepared to offer the "most flexible and modern sales solutions," including "technology transfers and joint production agreements with purchasing nations." The catalog has chapters on battle tanks, high-precision munitions, warplanes, attack helicopters and anti-aircraft systems such as radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Rosvoorouzhenie promises that trading partners can buy "not only the most updated high-tech samples of Russian armaments which are in service in the Russian armed forces, but also a variety of tailor-made versions compatible with systems manufactured in other countries."

That's because, while Russian equipment is not as sophisticated as American weaponry, its simpler design means that it is frequently more reliable and easier to fix. A more important advantage, especially for cash-strapped Third World customers, is that Russian arms are far cheaper than American ones. "We have an edge in technology, but the Russians can get the same bang for the buck or better," says the broker who gave me the catalog. "We hit a target with one smart bomb; they'll take it out with 10 dumb ones."

By way of illustration, the broker pointed to the U.S. Army's Bradley fighting vehicle, considered to be the most advanced weapon of its kind in the world and retailing at around $4 million per copy. The Russians have a first-class version, the BRM-3K. At roughly $1.25 million, the BRM-3K comes with a slew of accessories, including a nuclear, biological and chemical warfare protection system that shelters the crew "from mass destruction weapon effects."

(The prices for the Russian weapons mentioned in this article come from a weapons dealer. But according to Igor Khripunov, an expert on Russian arms exports at the University of Georgia in Athens, prices for Russian arms are mostly classified, so it's hard to be precise.)

Then there are the warplanes. The SU-27, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Air Force's F-15 ($40 million a pop), goes for about $12 million, while the MiG-31, comparable to the F-16 ($20 million), can be had for $12 million. Neither Russian plane compares favorably to its American counterpart, but they're both first-rate weapons. Many a small and even medium-size Third World country could alter its respective regional balance of power with a package of a half-dozen Russian fighters (or provoke a small-scale arms race among its neighbors to prevent that from happening).

Military officials struggling with a guerilla insurgency will surely want to spend time reviewing Page 64, and what experts consider to be the world's most advanced armed helicopter, the Black Shark. Russia is too poor to put the Black Shark into production and has been able to build only three prototypes. The country is anxious to land a big foreign order so it can crank up the assembly lines for export and -- through the magic of producing in bulk -- end up with helicopters it can afford for its own Air Force. Moscow nearly sold 145 Black Sharks to Turkey last year, but that country caved to pressure from the U.S. government, which is seeking to win the roughly $4 billion order for Boeing's Apache Longbow or Bell Textron's King Cobra. (The Turks have still not decided which Western firm will get the order.)

There's plenty of other hardware available in the Russian catalog. The T-90 tank sports state-of-the-art "reactive" armor featuring a sensor that picks up incoming missiles and triggers a charge to destroy them. The Tunguska-M anti-aircraft gun -- "a tracked combat vehicle designed to ensure round-the-clock protection of motorized infantry and tank regiments against low-flying aeroplanes and helicopters in any weather" -- is superior to anything in the U.S. arsenal.

Naval aficionados can pick from a host of surface warships, minesweepers and submarines. One attractive option is the project 11541 frigate, which sports a helicopter-landing platform, and comes armed with anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, an artillery mount and torpedo and depth-charge launchers. (Prices for these items, I'm afraid, were unavailable.)

For now, Russia's export drive faces important restrictions. The country's old reliable customers in the Warsaw Pact have joined NATO or are broke (or both). The United States, as seen in the Turkish helicopter deal, has repeatedly pressed its allies from buying Russian equipment so as to retain market share for American manufacturers.

But new Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to crank up export assembly lines, as part of a broader build-up of his country's military forces. "[Putin] sees the defense sector as a driving force for the industrial sector in general," an unnamed source told Jane's Defense Weekly this month. "At the same time, he needs to fix the armed forces in order to maintain Russia's international credibility and influence." Combine that with a few favorable geopolitical developments -- for example, a real rapprochement with China, a North Korean oil strike or a loosening of U.N. sanctions on Saddam Hussein -- and the Rosvoorouzhenie publication may become more than just another direct-mail also-ran for the discriminating weapons importer.

By Ken Silverstein

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine and an Open Society fellow. Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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