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Bang For Your Buck Russian Arms Dealers Trade Cold War Ideology For Cold, Hard Cash

Tue., Oct. 7, 1997

Most spectators at Moscow’s International Air Show raptly watched Sukhoi and MiG jet fighters streak across the sky, but Russian arms makers trained their sights on the ground.

A MiG salesman homed in on a group of lavishly uniformed military officers from African, Arab and Asian nations. The jet carries a big bomb for a small price, he told them. And it comes packed with standard options that include anti-tank and air-to-air missiles.

Such sales pitches are increasingly persuasive. After falling to pieces along with the Berlin Wall, Russia’s arms industry has rebuilt itself into one of the world’s top exporters of high-tech weaponry.

Since hitting rock bottom in 1992, Russian arms sales have doubled or tripled, depending on who is doing the counting.

And unlike communist times, when Soviet bloc satellites had little choice about whose arms to buy, the Russians are increasingly competitive on the open market. Sukhoi and MiG jets, for instance, perform on a par with their American-made rivals but can sell at a quarter of the price.

To be sure, the Russians are a long way from regaining their position as the world’s largest arms dealer. Their sales amount to only about a third of the current leader, the United States, and they have to battle a reputation for poor service and shoddy workmanship.

But Russia’s foothold in the export market is growing firmer, and Russian arms makers more savvy and aggressive at marketing their wares.

Several factors are spurring the Russian push.

One is the cash-hungry Kremlin. In an economy that has contracted for six years, arms exports are a rare moneymaker, adding $3.5 billion to federal coffers last year, according to the government.

Another is the cash-hungry Russian defense industry. The underfinanced military has all but stopped placing orders for new weapons, so for many Russian arms makers, foreign buyers are the only buyers.

“They have to export or die,” says Peter Felstead, editor of the London-based Jane’s Intelligence Review.

What has many analysts worried, however, is not so much the quantity of exports but that the Russians appear ready to sell nearly anything to nearly anybody.

“They’re so desperate for money that they can’t see beyond the sale,” says Felstead, whose publication is a global authority on weapons and defense issues.

Of course, all arms makers - including those in the United States - are increasingly dependent on sales to developing nations, which buy about two-thirds of the weapons on the international market.

But what irks Western analysts is that in several regions, like Asia and the Middle East, Russia has sold weapons to countries on both sides of potential conflicts. And they are wooing new customers in volatile parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Russian officials insist they keep a tight lid on nuclear technology and materials that could be used to make atomic bombs. And they maintain that they observe all U.N. arms embargoes.

Still, worries about human rights abuses by customers such as Indonesia don’t register in Russia, where money woes vex politicians and pensioners alike.

“We will have to move beyond bread and butter issues before we can have some compassion for the East Timorese,” says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst for the respected newspaper Segodnya.


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