by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Crimea is now, for all intents and purposes, part of the Russian Federation. But the Feb. 27 invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula and its March 28 annexation is likely to do long-term damage to Russia’s efforts to modernize its military. The reason is because Russia is surprisingly dependent on imports of military technology to support its ailing armed forces — and particularly its defense industry.
The Russian military uses a lot of outdated, aging equipment. Its military manufacturing base is a shambles. And in order to prevent falling further behind the U.S., Europe and China, it needs to import weapons and high-tech military equipment, particularly advanced communications gear, engines and drones. In recent years, Russia has imported Israeli drones, bought French warships and tested Italian tactical jeeps.
Russia doesn’t lack a domestic arms industry — it has a huge one. But most modern militaries rely on at least some of their weapons developed in other countries, with long, interconnected supply chains joining them with their allies. The Czech Republic flies Swedish-built fighters; France refuels its< fighters with U.S.-made tanker planes; American troops throw down suppression fire against Taliban fighters with machine guns first designed in Belgium. And with modern weapons becoming increasingly wizardly and sophisticated, a tiny component for an advanced radar might only be manufactured in a few places.
Russia is vulnerable here. For example, French and U.S. foreign policy interests don’t always align, but they never diverge to the point where France and the U.S. will cut off all military cooperation to each other — or anything like the reaction by NATO against Russia’s invasion of Crimea. This doesn’t mean Russia needs to start fielding Swedish jets to stay apace. But it does need a lot of tech its military currently doesn’t have. It’s unclear the full extent Russia’s coming isolation will harm the Kremlin’s attempts to reform and modernize the military over the coming decades, but it doesn’t look good.
The United Kingdom has already suspended all “existing licences for the export of arms to Russia,” according to AFP. Last year, British arms exports to Russia totalled more than $132 million — including avionics parts for helicopters and planes. “We should only really be doing military trade with our allies and friends,” Sir Malcolm Bruce, a Member of Parliament and chairman of the parliamentary committee on arms export controls, said on March 17.
Germany has also pulled back on military assistance to Russia. On March 19, the German government halted work on a 500-square-foot training center in Mulino, Russia. Defense contractor Rheinmetall was to build the sprawling facility, which was to train Russian mechanized infantry brigades. “In the current situation the federal government considers the export of the combat training center to Russia not justifiable,” Germany’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy said in a statement.
However, France has not halted the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia — which Paris sold in 2011 for $1.7 billion for both ships — despite renewed calls for France to scuttle the deal. The Vladivostok and Sevastopol, as the ships are named, will be delivered in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Russia is currently constructing a base near the port of Vladivostok to house the carriers, giving Russia substantially increased power projection capabilities in East Asia. The carriers can base Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopters, but are mainly intended to transport and land troops and tanks with its four landing ships and two hovercraft.
The French defense ministry has defended continuing the sale by referring to the ships as “civilian hulls,” meaning Russia is the country that will arm them, not France. This is also despite the deal including the SENIT-9 combat information system designed for coastal warfare.
Over the long term, however, it’s looking as if Western defense companies will look askance at dealing with Russia. “We should be ready to contemplate a new state of relations between Russia and the West in the coming years that is different from the last 20 years,” British Defense Minister William Hague said on March 18. He added this would include a state in which “military cooperation and defense exports are permanently curtailed.”
But there’s a caveat. With declining defense budgets in Europe, the continent’s defense industries are hurting for cash. Russia is a potentially lucrative trading partner for companies starving of funds. The problem is that supplying the Kremlin’s military modernization plans will only help the Kremlin plan more invasions like Crimea.