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Russia Reverses Course on Imports

Feb. 4, 2013 - 07:50AM   |  
By TOM KINGTON   |   Comments
Russia's 1-billion euro ($1.3 billion) deal to buy two French Mistral-class high-tech amphibious helicopter carrier assault and command ships came under fire Jan. 24.
Russia's 1-billion euro ($1.3 billion) deal to buy two French Mistral-class high-tech amphibious helicopter carrier assault and command ships came under fire Jan. 24. (AFP)
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ROME — Russia, after enthusiastically embracing defense imports such as Italian vehicles and French ships, appears to be slamming that door in favor of domestic manufacturers.

Moscow’s decision to limit imports, recently espoused by generals and politicians, is due to foreign policy shifts and growing pressure from domestic manufacturers, observers have said.

According to one Italian industrial source knowledgeable of the deals, in Moscow there is “strong opposition in principle to the opening up to Western technologies from part of the Russian military and national industry.”

The movement is a reversal for Russia. The country’s interest in buying foreign equipment picked up steam in June 2011, when then-President Dmitry Medvedev said such a move was permissible if domestic products were overpriced. But the consensus in Moscow appeared to change when Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was sacked in November over a corruption probe at the ministry.

Russia’s Land Force commander, Col. Gen. Vladimir Chirkin, said Jan. 23 that the Russian Defense Ministry would stop buying Italian light multirole vehicles (LMVs) despite the fact that last year, the LMV was the first non-Russian vehicle to be used in the annual Red Square military parade commemorating the World War II victory over Nazism.

“We have the Medved, Tigr and Volk families,” Chirkin told news agency Ria Novosti, referring to Russian armored vehicles, and adding that upgraded models are being developed.

In 2011, Russia signed a deal with Italy for local production of the LMV, which has been sold to numerous European armed forces and was renamed the Rys/Lynx in Russia. Italy’s Iveco, which builds the vehicle, said the local line could produce up to 500 vehicles a year.

A second Italian industrial source said Russia was originally expected to acquire 3,000 vehicles, but fewer than 400 have been contracted, of which more than 100 are still to be delivered. An Iveco spokeswoman declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Russia’s 1-billion-euro ($1.3-billion) deal to buy two French Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in June 2011 came under fire Jan. 24 from the deputy head of Russia’s Military-Industrial Commission, Ivan Kharchenko, who called the purchase “absurd,” adding it had damaged Russian shipyards. He made the comments in a speech to industry officials, according to Ria Novosti.

Two days later, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin claimed the ships would not function in cold Russian climates.

“Maybe they thought we’re going to undertake special operations in Africa, but I doubt that’s going to happen,” he said at a meeting of the Russian Academy of Military Science.

In France, a French defense expert said Paris had upset Moscow over the Syria crisis by blaming Russia and China for blocking Western attempts in the United Nations Security Council to adopt tougher measures against the Assad government.

That, he said, rankled Russian officials, who in December briefed the local press that the government would not exercise options to acquire a second batch of two Mistral command and projection ships.

The story then shifted to the government, preferring to wait and see how the first batch of two Mistrals, built in France by DCNS, would perform before deciding in 2016 whether to acquire the remaining two ships. On Feb. 1, Russian officials attended the laying of the first block of the first Mistral at the Saint-Nazaire shipyard.

“The program for the first two ships is going ahead normally,” a DCNS executive said. DCNS declined to respond to the Russian comments.

“This is a political decision,” the French expert said.

The deal for the first two ships includes technology transfer to allow local assembly, so the second batch would be built in Russian shipyards.

A second Italian deal now facing opposition involves the Centauro wheeled tank and the Freccia armored vehicle built by a consortium of Iveco and Finmeccanica unit Oto Melara.

Two of each of the vehicles were delivered to Russia for trials last August, but Chirkin was quoted Jan. 23 as saying, “These tanks have certain advantages, but they also have many drawbacks,” adding, “I believe we will have to make a polite refusal.”

A source at the Italian consortium said he believed the Russian press had played up “some breakdowns and technical problems which occurred during the tests which should be placed in the context — in some cases — of minor technical problems, or the uncompleted training of the crews, which were asked to operate vehicles configured for the Italian military and not modified or adapted for the needs of Russian personnel, for example, the language of the operating protocols.”

Training had been improved, he said, while technical problems had been taken care of by a support team.

“One problem involved snow settling on the gun then flying off when the gun fired as the vehicle moved and [obscured] the targeting optics,” he said. “A technical solution” had been found that was being tested, he added.

Opposition to the testing of the Italian vehicles “appears to have been reinforced by recent changes at the Ministry of Defense and among the military leadership,” he said.

On Jan. 26, new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, “If we have to shop abroad, we will, but only in those circumstances where we lose all faith in our own industry.

“As far as foreign equipment, I don’t want to offend anyone, but we need to support our industry. But it must come up to scratch and meet requirements,” he said in an interview with Rossiya TV.

One Italian source said the door had not closed completely on exports to Russia.

“There is a lot of noise right now, but that can happen in all countries,” he said. “It’s premature to judge the situation. We need to let things calm down.”

A spokeswoman at Selex ES, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica, said talks are still underway with Russia about the firm’s Future Soldier combat gear, which is being purchased by Italy.

Germany’s Rheinmetall won a 100-million-euro deal in November 2011 to build an Army training center in Mulino in the Volga region of Russia by 2014, which will train 30,000 troops a year.

“We see a large potential in Russia and know that the name Rheinmetall enjoys a good reputation,” a spokesman said. But he added, “In the end, it is also a political question.”

———

Andrew Chuter in London, Pierre Tran in Paris and Albrecht Müller in Bonn contributed to this report.

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