Vladimir Putin wants to build a big friggin’ army. But to pay for it, the Russian president has expanded the amount of Russian weapons sold around the globe, and he isn’t being all that discriminating about who he sells them to.
“Let’s talk about our results – they are positive,” Putin said on Monday while meeting with officials. “We are reaching a record level of weapons exports. Their total volume was above $14 billion.” That would be the highest ever for Moscow.
The problem is that a lot of these weapons are going to presidents and potentates that are not-so-friendly with the United States. There’s Assad in Syria, who Russia has sold more than one billion dollars worth of weapons in 2011, sales which continued into 2012. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is also a big recipient. Foreign military sales for Russia also underwrites domestic military production and a major Russian arms build-up. In other words, this also helps Putin’s army – while extending Russia’s influence around the globe.
Then on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Russia may have secured a major $7 billion arms deal with India for fighter jets and fighter engines, which could be announced on Christmas Eve during Putin’s upcoming visit to the country. First, India is reportedly looking at buying another 42 advanced Su-30 fighters, on top of the more than 150 Su-30s currently fielded by New Delhi. And on top of the fighters, India may also buy up to 1,000 turbine engines for the jet.
“These will be truly historical deals if signed,” Konstantin Makiyenko of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Bloomberg. “I don’t remember a contract for 1,000 engines at all and deals for over 40 planes happen twice in a decade.”
It’s also a sign that India isn’t slowing down its own arms build-up. Russia’s arms exports have grown in countries large and small, of which many fear a more powerful Chinese military. India is Russia’s biggest customer, and is paying for all the new gear with a rapidly growing defense budget that’s doubled in size in a decade. Vietnam and Malaysia have also ranked highly, according to Russian news service RIA Novosti. Outside of China’s backyard, a big arms build-up in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez has also accounted for a portion of the sales, although these are opaque and heavily financed by Russian loans.
Another big customer, at least in 2011, was Syria. Russia exported an estimated $1 billion in arms to Syria that year, but has dialed back the sales in 2012, as Bashar Assad has become increasingly isolated around the world, and besieged at home by a rebel uprising. Russian leaders have also changed their language, and while they haven’t turned against Assad, it does seem like the relationship has been put out to pasture. Last week, Moscow’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Assad’s forces were “losing more and more control and territory.”
Meanwhile, Russia is reportedly mobilizing a small fleet of ships to rescue its citizens from the country. “Unnamed naval sources,” according to Russian news agency Interfax, have said that Moscow has sent “two assault ships, a tanker and an escort vessel” to the Syria port of Tartus, where Russia has a naval base, “for a possible evacuation of Russian citizens.” The deployment was also carried out in a hurry.
Russia is caught in a tricky place for an international arms merchant, not the least of which is having clients collapse in civil war and revolution. Another reason is that the United States is still far and away the world’s largest arms exporter, at some $30 billion per year for the past several years. (Russia is second.) And U.S. military technology is pretty top-notch by global standards, although more expensive than much of the competition. That means smaller countries in Asia and Africa – that want to shop for airplanes or missiles – might instead choose Russia as a reliable bargain buy.
But China is also seeking to expand the number of weapons it sells around the world, and do it more cheaply than Russia. Moscow’s hope is that countries stick to their existing Russian equipment bought back during the Cold War, and keep going back for upgrades. “We understand that competition in this sector of the international economy is very high and very serious,” Putin said on Monday. But competition may also fuel more countries wanting to get strapped with Russian gear.