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Sunday, 26 June 2022
The Future of Russia’s Arms Industry
James Denselow

There have been an estimated 15,000 Russian soldiers killed in the last two months of fighting in Ukraine. The hyper-connected nature of the conflict has meant that videos of anti-tank missiles finding their target and the smouldering wrecks of Russian armour have been viewed far and wide. Whilst the conflict is arguably still in its early stages there can be little doubt that the initial phases were a disaster for the Russian military. A geostrategic question that follows is whether the Russians will be able to keep their position as the second largest exporter of arms in the world following this debacle?  

Prior to the Ukraine invasion Russia had a defence budget of over $250bn – three times that of Britain or France. Russia embarked on improving its military strength after the fall of the Soviet Union and invested heavily in military defense. The top manufacturing companies in Russia are Almaz-Antey, United Aircraft, and Tactical Missiles Corporation. The industry employs 20% of the manufacturing sector’s workforce. 

Russia’s key intervention in Syria was not just important for Moscow’s support to the Assad Regime but was also an exhibition space or showroom for Russian arms. The Kommersant daily quoted Kremlin insiders and military analysts, that the “marketing effect” of the Syrian conflict will boost Russia’s arms sales by up to $7bn.   

The position of the world’s second biggest arms exporter gives Russia vast strategic influence. Looking at various votes condemning the Ukraine invasion it is notable how many of the abstention countries were ones that rely on operating Russian weapons. The dynamics of the India-Pakistan relationship are highly dependent on these weapons and likewise the complex response from Turkey, a NATO member which has been acquiring Russian weapon systems over previous years. 

Both the failure of Russian weaponry in Ukraine combined with the most far-reaching sanctions of the modern age will make many of the states who have previously purchased from Russia think twice. Already there is speculation that Western sanctions on Russia and Belarus could push countries like Nigeria to import more accessible and affordable Chinese armaments. The inability of Russian armour to take cities intact and the inability of Russian airpower and anti-air missiles to take control of the Ukrainian airspace are high profile issues that those selling Russian arms will struggle to speak to.  

Observers speculate that the issue is not with the Russian equipment alone but also speaks to wider corruption within the Russian military and the huge levels of secrecy and levels of control that are tied to President Putin personally, which meant that many soldiers genuinely thought they were on a training mission until the moment of the invasion. Low morale, poor logistics, poor leadership and poor equipment have dogged the Russian operation to date.  

In early April, the failures to date led Putin to name Army Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, as commander of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Unifying the operation rather than attempting complicated advances across different geographic axis and focusing solely (for now) on the eastern parts of Ukraine may result in a different narrative in future but it is impossible to know. 

Military historians point to the fact that when the Soviet Red Army pushed west to capture Berlin, they did so with some three million soldiers. The miniscule number of troops they have in comparison in Ukraine changes the nature and intent of the fighting especially in built up urban areas where the Russians have been unable to operate effective fronts of attack.  The failures of the Ukraine invasion, the impact of sanctions and the options of cheaper weapons from China as also exacerbated by a brain drain from Russia itself as many of the country's best and brightest leave.  According to one estimate by a Russian economist, as many as 200,000 Russians have left their country since the start of the war. That number may increase rapidly if Putin decides to announce that the ‘special operation’ is in fact a war and that conscription will be used to fuel it.  

Arms exports are the central plank of Russia’s manufacturing economy and the fact that they are imperilled by the folly of the Ukraine invasion is a reminder of how bad its consequences could be for Russia in the medium term.

BY: James Denselow