Russian Realpolitik: Inside the Arms Trade with Syria

At an arms bazaar outside Moscow, military hardware and geopolitics are on display

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

The head of the Syrian delegation to the semiannual Russian arms bazaar tries out a new silencer-equipped Kalashnikov assault rifle, the AK-104, at an airfield outside Moscow

“This weapon is perfect for close-quarters combat, house to house,” the Russian arms dealer explains, gently passing a silencer-equipped assault rifle, the AK-104, to the official from Syria, who brings the gun’s sight level with his eye and aims it across pavilion C3 of Russia’s semiannual arms bazaar. Serving as their translator is Colonel Isam Ibrahim As’saadi, the military attaché at the Syrian embassy in Moscow, who chaperones the three officials in town from Damascus for a bit of military shopping. It is a rare opportunity for them. With their country sinking into a civil war, most of the world’s top arms-dealing nations have banned sales to the Syrian government. So the delegates enjoy themselves in Moscow. They spend more than an hour talking to the Kalashnikov salesman, Andrei Vishnyakov, head of marketing for Izhmash, the company that created the AK-47. Then they stroll over to other displays spread out across the giant Zhukovsky airfield near Moscow. They peruse tanks, touch rocket launchers, study cruise missiles and other heavy artillery, all of which stand gleaming in the summer sun like so many sports cars at a dealership. All of it is for sale.

Welcome to Russia’s premier weapons expo, the deceptively titled Forum of Technologies in Machine Building, a military smorgasbord for the dictators of the world that Russian President Vladimir Putin opened in 2010. Delegations from Iran, Zimbabwe, Bahrain, Pakistan and Uganda, among many others, came to the fair last week, but the Syrian presence was the most controversial. Since the 1950s, when it first became a client state of the Soviet Union, Syria has purchased almost all its weapons from Russia, making it a cherished customer. Over the past 16 months, Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have used these weapons to brutally crush a homegrown rebellion, with the death toll now estimated at 14,000, including thousands of women and children. The rest of the Arab world has joined with the West in condemning these massacres, but that has not stopped the flow of Russian arms. Indeed, the Kremlin seems willing to jeopardize its relations with Europe and the U.S. in order to defend Assad and continue to sell him weapons.

In diplomatic terms, there is nothing frustrated Western officials can do to stop it. Russia has a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and it has repeatedly used its veto power to block any discussion of an international arms embargo against Syria. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said in May that the Russian arms sales to Syria are “reprehensible,” but are not illegal. Diplomatic and moral pressure from the West, like the claim that Russia is aiding the murder of civilians, has not changed many minds in Moscow. “These are the guys we are rooting for,” an official with Russia’s state arms dealer, Rosoboronexport, told TIME on Thursday while showing the Syrian delegates a set of truck-mounted rocket launchers.

(PHOTOS: Inside Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War)

The Syrians seemed impressed, even climbing into the truck to look around before warmly shaking hands with the Russians and moving on to the other exhibits. Apart from Colonel As’saadi, the military attaché, the Syrian delegates refused to give their names or answer TIME’s questions. The man whom As’saadi identified as the head of the delegation would only say he had flown in from Damascas specifically to attend the fair. “That shows a serious intention to buy,” says Hugh Griffiths, an arms-trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which tracks the global weapons market. It was, however, impossible to tell what, if anything, the Syrians purchased. Those deals are struck behind closed doors. But if they did end up buying the assault rifles or armored vehicles that they spent hours studying on Thursday, it would cast serious doubt on the official line from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which has said that only defensive weapons, like antiaircraft missiles, are being sold to Syria, none of which could be used against civilians. The “house-to-house” capabilities that Vishnyakov touted at the Kalashnikov exhibit undermined the ministry’s claim.

The organizer of the arms expo, which included a “tank ballet” choreographed by the Bolshoi Theatre, is the Russian weapons and engineering conglomerate Russian Technologies. The company is headed by Sergei Chemezov, an old friend of Putin’s from the KGB. In the 1980s, both men worked as KGB spies in the East German city of Dresden, and after Putin became President in 2000, he gradually transferred Russia’s largest state-owned, machine-building and weapons firms to Chemezov’s corporation. Russian Technologies now controls around 600 companies and thousands of factories, producing everything from cars and planes to military hardware. But the jewel in its crown is Rosoboronexport, the only company in Russia that can legally sell arms abroad. Last year, the company sold more than $11 billion in arms worldwide, making Russia the world’s second largest weapons dealer after the U.S. As of 2011, Russia had about $4 billion in outstanding weapons contracts with Syria, including sales of Buk-M2E surface-to-air missiles, Pansir-S1 rocket complexes and MiG-29 fighter jets.

“This is one of our traditional markets,” says Anatoly Isaykin, the general director of Rosoboronexport, who spoke to TIME at the arms expo. Isaykin, who was also a career KGB officer before becoming Russia’s top arms dealer, says the Syria issue is being blown out of proportion, perhaps as part of a Western conspiracy to blacken his company’s name. “Around these hot spots, efforts are made to present our organization, Rosoboronexport, as some kind of evil genius who is trying to pour kerosene on the fire,” Isaykin says. “I think this is part of the political game.” All of the West’s efforts to stop Russia from selling weapons to Syria, he says, amounts to nothing more than unfair competition. “Of course I mean competition in the broadest sense,” Isaykin says. “It always existed and it will continue to exist. So if Russia loses a market, its competitors have a chance to gain.”

(MORE: Can the U.S. and Russia Agree on How to End Syria’s War?)

Alexander Golts, a military expert in Moscow, says this Manichaean view of the world is what drives Russia to arm Assad. “The root motivation here is ideology, not finances,” Golts says. “It is the ideology of Cold War realpolitik, where you had two sides sitting at the chessboard and moving pieces around. That is how Putin still sees the world.” As for the Syrians, they have lots of reasons to keep buying Russian arms even if they don’t really need them. “They’re desperately trying to keep Russia on board as a partner by channeling more cash to the Russians and building on that relationship,” says Griffiths.

Russia seems eager to play along, as much for the cash as the geopolitical dividends. Throughout the Arab Spring revolts, which many in Moscow saw as a U.S.-led conspiracy to carve up the Middle East, Putin grew increasingly angry over Western meddling in the region. In 2010, when Putin opened the first-ever arms bazaar at the Zhukovsky airfield, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh flew in to attend, and Putin personally showed him around. As they passed the display of a T-90 tank with reporters in tow, Putin turned to Saleh and said, “That’s what you’ve got to buy.” He did not do this with the aim of making a profit, Golts suggests, but to cement Russia’s influence in Yemen. A weapons deal is not a simple cash-and-carry arrangement. It requires the buyer and seller to maintain stable relations, so that the weapons can be installed, serviced and repaired. The seller will often provide ammunition and training for years. “This is a serious bond,” Golts says.

The bond between Russia and Yemen was put at risk by the Arab Spring revolts, which erupted in Yemen a year after Putin’s stroll with Saleh through the arms bazaar in 2010. That revolution quickly turned violent, and Saleh ceded power soon after he was wounded in a rebel rocket attack in June 2011, costing Putin one of his allies — albeit a country that played on U.S. ties and anxieties in the Arabian Peninsula as well. Months later, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, another client of Russian arms dealers, was killed by rebels who had support from NATO bombing raids. Putin was outraged, especially after images of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse appeared in the media. “Who gave them the right to do this?” he snapped at a press conference in Denmark, referring to NATO’s role in the Libyan revolution. “Why did they have to get involved in this armed conflict? What, is there a shortage of crooked regimes in the world? Are we going to interfere in every domestic conflict? … You have to let people resolve their own problems.”

After the war in Libya, Russia drew a line. It began blocking all U.N. efforts to force Assad down the same road as Gaddafi and Saleh, and as foreign countries began arming rebels in Syria, Russia continued supplying Assad. “None of these events will influence our relationships with our traditional markets in any way,” says Rosoboronexport’s Isaykin. Judging by the crowd at the arms bazaar — packed with military men from Asia, Africa and the Middle East — Russia still has plenty of loyal customers around the world. As Russia’s tanks performed their ballet in a mock battlefield on Thursday, the foreign delegates looked on, happy patrons of the art of war. That evening, after two long days of shopping, the Syrian delegates walked toward the parking lot with bags full of pamphlets and promotional videos for Russian military hardware. No doubt they were imagining how useful it could be back home.

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