How Russia's military campaign in Syria is helping Moscow market its weapons

Over the last year, Russia’s Defense Ministry has released dozens of videos showing how its bombers and fighter jets hit targets in Syria or supported President Bashar Assad’s ground troops with gunfire and missiles. 

Major international networks have played the videos — along with the images of visually stunning, albeit militarily insignificant, launches of cruise missiles from Russian warships and submarines in the Caspian and Mediterranean seas. 

A shaky YouTube clip showing how a Russian-made T-90 tank and its Syrian driver survived a shot from a U.S.-made “tank killer,” a tube-launched BGM-71 TOW missile, in Aleppo has 2.8 million views. Other videos feature Russian-made weaponry being used in Syria.

The videos have served as effective promotional tools for Russian aircraft; air defense missile systems and missiles; “smart” bombs guided by lasers or satellites; diesel submarines; jamming communication systems; tanks; sniper rifles and modified AK-47s, analysts and other observers say. 

Russia’s arms exports this year are expected to total at least $14 billion, and next year’s figure is expected to be higher, officials say.

From 2011 to 2015, Russia was responsible for a quarter of global arms exports, second to the United States’ 33%, and ahead of third place China’s 5.9%, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a security monitor. 

In 2015, Russia’s arms exporters earned $14.5 billion — a 13% increase compared with 2014, President Vladimir Putin announced in July. In 2013, the figure was $10.3 billion, according to Rosoboronexport, a state-owned export monopoly.

Russian-made weapons "proved their efficiency, reliability in the most diverse conditions,” Putin told a panel of defense officials in July, adding that the amount of international orders for Russian weapons exceeded $56 billion.

"We have to be ready if our active efforts boost competition," he said.

The more than 5-year-old civil war in Syria has been a showcase for Russian-made arms. Russia has supported Assad and his forces, while the U.S. has helped moderate rebel groups and called for Assad to step down.

“This is an obvious demonstration of what Russia is offering on the international arms market,” Maxim Shapovalenko, a Moscow-based defense analyst and author of “The Syrian Frontier,” about Russia’s Syrian campaign, said in an interview. “There is a whole lot of weapons listed as export items.”

Russia’s military-industrial complex employs hundreds of thousands of people. Its largest buyers include India, China, Vietnam, Iran, Venezuela, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates.

The surge in arms exports is especially significant for Russia’s shrinking economy, crippled by low oil prices and Western sanctions. 

"Financially, it is becoming a No. 2 [source of the Kremlin’s revenue] after oil and gas," defense expert Ruslan Pukhov said in an interview.

Russia earned nearly $42 billion from energy taxes from January to October, Bloomberg reported in mid-November.

The Russian military-industrial complex is centered on Rostec, a mammoth state conglomerate that includes dozens of subsidiaries and is headed by Sergei Chemezov, a former engineer who worked in East Germany in the 1980s and befriended Putin, a KGB officer at the time.

The Syrian campaign has helped Moscow attract interest from other customers in the Middle East,  where demand for weapons increased after the “Arab Spring” uprisings. Delegations from Egypt, Iraq and Libya visited Russia this year, striking new deals.

“Russian federal law states that strengthening military and political positions abroad is the primary goal of Russian military-industrial cooperation,” Nikolay Kozhanov, a Middle East expert based in St. Petersburg, wrote in an analysis for Chatham House, a London think tank, in July. “Russia will undoubtedly use its arms exports industry to attempt to affect the balance of power in the Middle East.”

Mirovalev is a special correspondent.

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