Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: the Kremlin's thirst for foreign arms

E!Sharp, 1st March 2010 09:42

The late US president and Cold War warrior Ronald Reagan must be turning in his grave. Less than two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO member states are queuing up to sell military hardware to the Kremlin.

As the geopolitical map of Europe has changed, Russia, itself one of the world’s most prolific arms exporters, is close to becoming an unlikely customer of Europe’s military industrial complex. Specifically, the Kremlin has started shopping for an amphibious troop carrier or four. It is in talks to buy up to four French-built Mistral-class vessels. If that falls through, the Netherlands and Spain are reported to be willing to sell the Russians something similar.

It is a dramatic turnaround for Moscow and one that has made countries such as the United States, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia distinctly uneasy. With time, it is an issue that is likely to become more acute. Russia is only at the very beginning of what it promises will be its most ambitious rearmament programme since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has abandoned its policy of buying only Russian-made military hardware and is shopping for sophisticated off-the-shelf foreign equipment to help drag its own struggling military industrial complex into the 21st century.

The question now is: will EU countries heed the objections of countries such as Estonia and not sell to Russia? Judging from a recent conversation I had with a European diplomat, the answer is no. “If we don’t sell to them, someone else will,” the diplomat said. “It’s just business.”

Things also appear to be going Russia’s way in a key post-Soviet strategic space: Ukraine. Just five years ago, massive street protests known as the Orange Revolution defeated the Kremlin’s pick for the Ukrainian presidency and set the country on a Euro-Atlantic course. Since then, things have not panned out the way the revolution’s erstwhile heroes – Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko – hoped.

By most accounts, the two politicians squandered what was a historic opportunity and became bogged down in internal power struggles. As they bickered, the economy spluttered, disputes with Russia interrupted gas supplies to Europe, and reforms stalled. They also had to confront an unpalatable yet unavoidable truth: the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t want to join NATO and the EU is not ready to grant Ukraine membership anytime soon. The result has been humbling for those who thought the Orange Revolution would put an end to Russian influence.

Viktor Yanukovich, the Kremlin-friendly bureaucrat who was stripped of a fraud-tainted election victory five years ago, has come back from the political dead to win the presidency. A former convict, he is likely to steer the country back towards the east and Moscow, while tentatively keeping his European options open.

Although he is not the crude Kremlin stooge he is often made out to be, his policies on issues ranging from gas transit, the presence of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Ukraine, and on the status of the Russian language will be far more to Moscow’s taste than those of his predecessor. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin must be allowing himself one of his trademark wry smiles.

In 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a short vicious war over the Georgian breakaway territory of South Ossetia. Two years later, satellites and TV screens have replaced the guns.

Russia, since 2005, has had its RT (Russia Today) English-language channel beaming news and reports around the world with an undisguised Kremlin slant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has few kind words for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, depicting him as a mentally imbalanced dictator.

As of January, Georgia has its own answer to RT. The less catchily named First Caucasus channel looks likely to have Vladimir Putin wishing he had ordered his troops to press on to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. The new channel is in Russian, says it is aimed at giving Russians an alternative view to Kremlin propaganda, and has as one of its chief presenters the widow of a famous Chechen rebel leader who was killed by two laser-guided Russian missiles.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that the channel has had a rocky debut. Eutelsat, the firm that was leasing the channel satellite space, pulled it off air after a brief trial period explaining that a Russian company had bought up all the slots on the satellite in question. The Georgians are now suing Eutelsat for breach of contract, alleging it crumpled under Kremlin pressure.

Information wars designed to influence hearts and minds are, it would seem, fought just as hard as the real thing.