Russian Armsmakers Take off on Their Own with the Russian Government Unable to Bankroll Weapons Orders or Finance Defense Conversion, State-Run Arms Suppliers Are Seeking Hard Currency Earnings Abroad. AFTERMATH OF THE COLD WAR

Article excerpt

AS they enter the ugly concrete-walled complex on Leningradsky Prospekt, the workers of the Mikoyan-Guryevich design bureau walk under a huge red sign still bearing its Soviet-era exhortation:

"Strengthen by your labor the might of the beloved Motherland!"

Only these days, the "motherland" is Russia, not the Soviet Union. And the designers and engineers of the famous MIG fighter jets are more worried about where their next paycheck will come from than defending the nation against potential enemies.

At a nearby Moscow airfield, 60 top-of-the-line MIG-29 fighters, built especially for export, are lined up waiting for a buyer. Orders from the Russian Air Force have fallen sharply, part of a more than 60 percent cutback in purchases of military hardware in 1992. At the MIG design bureau, the best and the brightest are leaving to make their living elsewhere. Money-earning solution

Anatoly Belosvet, the MIG design bureau's vice president and chief designer, has a solution to this crisis: Sell the aircraft to almost any country that wants them. "We are searching for foreign buyers and they are searching for us," he says. (US industry's solution, Page 12.)

As Russian armsmakers and defense factories struggle with plummeting subsidies and a collapsing economy, they are roaming the world in a desperate search for buyers. In many cases, the collapse of central controls has unleashed the armsmakers to pursue clients on their own, often without the backing, or even against the wishes, of the government.

But the scramble for arms sales begins with encouragement from the highest levels of government, from President Boris Yeltsin on down. It reflects the reality that an impoverished Russian government cannot afford to sustain the huge Soviet military-industrial complex nor finance its conversion to civilian production.

Russian officials warn that they cannot deal with the political and social consequences of collapse in an industry that employs tens of millions of people.

"The situation we are in forces us to penetrate the international market," says Mikhail Malei, Yeltsin's adviser on defense conversion. "The lives of people depend on it. This winter will be cold and the spring will be hungry.... If we have to choose between the life of a child and the sale of a cannon to {Libyan leader Muammar} Qaddafi, we will choose the life of the child."

Such arms sales have generated considerable controversy, most prominently American protests over the sale and delivery of three diesel submarines to Iran. Earlier this year, the United States protested the sale of rocket engines to India and more recently the reported sale of antimissile defense systems to China.

Russian officials have rejected charges that these sales are destabilizing or are in violation of any international agreement. They suggest that in many of these cases the US is motivated by commercial competitive interests in the arms market as much as by security concerns.

Mr. Malei also argues that arms sales overseas are the only way to finance the eventual shift of the monster armsmakers into more peaceful pursuits. "The military-industrial complex has to earn money on the international market from the sales of weapons, no less than $5 billion to $7 billion a year," he told the Monitor in an interview in his Kremlin office. "There is no other source of financing for conversion left."

The signs of an official imprimatur are everywhere. Red Star, the once-stodgy newspaper of the Soviet, now Russian, Defense Ministry, carries practically daily, bilingual display advertisements from armsmakers offering everything from shotguns to self-propelled artillery. Arms firms regularly hawk their wares at international shows, from the Paris Air Show to defense fairs in Athens. Exhibitions are now taking place in Russia as well: the latest, from Nov. 6 to Nov. …


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