Will Serdyukov’s Policy of Buying Foreign Weapons End with His Tenure?


2012-11-30 by Richard Weitz

During his years as Russia’s first civilian defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov and the Russian government made the unprecedented decision to purchase expensive Western defense equipment.

The decision was designed partly to fill gaps in Russian military capabilities, and partly to use the threat of foreign competition to induce its military-industrial complex to modernize its means of production and contain its costs. Now the recent shakeup in the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) suggests that Russian policy makers are reconsidering their decision to import advanced foreign military equipment and experts.

Last year’s purchase of several French Mistral-class amphibious warships, which have been the most expensive NATO-Russia defense sale, set the precedent since Russian shipbuilders currently lack the technology to build complex warships like the Mistral, at least in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, who repeatedly stated his desire to modernize Russia’s economy through greater integration with the outside world, firmly supported the buy abroad policy in the defense sector. In December 2011, Medvedev told Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and Serdyukov that they should purchase foreign military products if domestic producers try to sell poor quality goods at inflated prices.

The Russians are buying a version of the French Mistral for an assault ship to be used in Arctic and related operations. Credit Image: DCNS 

Several large West European governments encouraged these sales as a means to support their ailing defense industries and justified the sales as a way to improve Russian-NATO relations frayed by the Georgia War.

Certain NATO governments raised objections, but did not actively seek to block the sales, which are made on a national, not NATO-wide or EU-wide, basis.

One reason the government has sought to purchase Western defense products is to use the threat of foreign competition to induce Russia’s military-industrial complex to modernize its means of production.

Although Russian designers can still develop first-class weapons, Russian defense companies, which have yet to recover from the Soviet military-industrial complex’s traumatic disintegration, remain unable to manufacture large numbers of the most advanced systems.

Pending the modernization of their equipment and business practices, many defense firms will prove unable to design and produce sophisticated weapons without more cost overruns and production delays.

Even before Serdukov’s dismissal, the MOD had come under increased pressure to buy more indigenous defense systems and help sustain Russia’s defense industry through domestic contracts as well as foreign sales.

In a televised talk show in December 2011, a foreman from the state-owned Uralvagonzavod factory, which General Makarov had castigated the previous month for producing obsolete and inferior tanks, urged Putin to “throw out that Serdyukov and Makarov for saying such things and appoint a good minister.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and former Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov seem especially eager to exploit the situation to redirect the flow of defense funding inward. Rogozin has repeatedly affirmed that the government will buy foreign arms only as an exception.

In mid-February 2012, Rogozin abruptly reprimanded General Makarov, Russia’s most senior general, after stating the previous day that the MOD would cease buying Russian-made armored vehicles—such as T-90 main battle tanks (MDT), BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles, as well as BTR-80(82) and BTR-90 armored personnel carriers (APCs)—for five years due to their poor quality.  Instead, Rogozin insisted that the MOD would fully implement the SAP, which includes purchases of these items.

The close links between state officials and certain defense companies ensure that the VPK has a strong lobby inside the Russian government as well as the corporate sector.

Russian policy makers never aimed to become dependent on Western arms supplies.

Ruslan Pukhov, the Director of CAST and a member of the MOD’s Public Council has noted that, since no country sells or leases its most modern technologies, “Strategically, Russia stands alone and hence needs to develop its own technologies.”

Russian policymakers recognize that purchasing sophisticated foreign weapons is a difficult and expensive alternative that must be undertaken on a limited basis. They also saw the purchases as a temporary measure until Russia’s VPK had become self-sufficient and cutting-edge once again.

Serdyukov’s dismissal may accelerate the end of these foreign purchases.

Many Russian analysts interpret his firing as a signal that, “The emphasis on purchasing foreign weapons will be slightly shifted. The volume of buying will be significantly limited.”  Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said Putin had told the MOD, “forget your demands for the industry to produce modern weapons and be happy with those the defense industries are capable of producing.”

Western analysts believed that the purge resulted from a power struggle over who would control the distribution of the 23 trillion rubles that Putin pledged in February to spend on new weapons purchases through the end of this decade. In this interpretation, the VPK and its political allies wanted to ensure that the funds flowed to their constituents rather than foreign firms.

Following Serdyukov’s dismissal, Putin told newly appointed chief of staff General Valery Gerasimov that he hoped the General and the new Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, “will be able to build a good and stable relationship with our leading enterprises in the defense ministry.” While acknowledging the demanding and changing nature of military requirements, Putin added that, “Of course we must strive to have cutting edge items, but we need a certain stability too.”

The continuing popular agitation among the Russian electorate may have amplified the political importance of the VPK and its political representatives since it employs blue-collar workers, who remain the regime’s core base of support now that it has alienated much of the intelligentsia and middle class, across the country.

Editor’s Note: Another aspect of change may well be dynamics like Syria.  Putin may wish to eliminate any leverage on Russian policy when he wishes to act in his own definition of the Russian interests.  Arms sales from the West can provide a lever upon Russian policy of the sort Putin may well wish to not have in place.