WASHINGTON — If Ukroboronprom is to continue as anything more than a local defense firm, the Ukrainian conglomerate will need to find industrial partners abroad, according to director general Aivaras Abromavicius.
And attracting those foreign investors will be nearly impossible without a set of needed reforms to the government-owned company, Abromavicius warned Tuesday— reforms he acknowledged seem to be stalling out at the government level.
“Western investors and Western companies are very sophisticated and they’re very smart. You know, Ukroboronprom for years has had a tainted reputation,” Abromavicius said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council. “So it is very clear that almost no Western company of any reputation and size is interested in directly acquiring any assets in the defense sector in Ukraine because of the reputational risks.”
That is one of the many reasons Abromavicius is pushing reforms of the company, whose questionable reputation was further damaged by a massive scandal in 2019 involving executives receiving kickbacks on parts smuggled in from Russia. The scandal rocked Ukrainian politics, with some arguing it was a major factor in the loss of the presidency by Petro Poroshenko.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, inaugurated in May 2019, launched an effort to clean up the mess, which included appointing Abromavicius, a former minister of economy and trade, to oversee a reorganization of the company.
Abromavicius, who is pushing a full financial audit of the company alongside a potential reorg of its business units, stressed that “we need to raise governance standards to completely different levels,” factoring in increased transparency, if the company is to have any hope of working with nations abroad. And, he said, Ukroboronprom needs partnerships to survive as anything other than a local, small concern.
“The way forward for us is to do joint ventures,” Abromavicius said. “Obviously the way forward is just to set up production facilities in Turkey, in India, you now, United Arab Emirates, whereby our [intellectual property] and their financial resources [combine] together to produce for the domestic and global needs.”
While acknowledging that U.S. firms are reluctant to work with Ukroboronprom given its history, such a tie-up would be cheap for any of the major American defense companies, said the Atlantic Council’s Michael Carpenter. And, he warned, the American government may soon have a major geopolitical incentive to try and push a Lockheed Martin or Raytheon to work with the Ukrainians.
“With the economic chaos that’s being wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, I predict you will see China moving into a lot of countries in Eastern Europe and looking to buy up distressed assets at bargain prices, and it’s going to be crucial that when Ukroboronprom looks for outside investors or looks for doing joint ventures, that U.S defense industry is poised to partner, and to invest,” Carpenter said.
“It’s going to be very important for, I think, the U.S. government also to push our defense industry a little bit to look at this as an opportunity,” continued Carpenter. “It’s going to be important from a sort of strategic sense not to allow this industrial base to get snapped up by Chinese or other countries that are going to be, frankly, operating in a predatory manner in the months ahead, and that we allow for that matchmaking, not just with U.S. firms but with European firms as well to go forward.”
While not directly tied to defense matters, Boeing is reportedly considering some sort of team up with Antonov on the cargo side, with the Ukranians pushing for a formal joint venture.
Beijing, meanwhile, has attempted major inroads in Ukraine, with Chinese aerospace firm Skyrizon attempting to purchase a controlling stake in engine manufacturer Motor Sich and the Tianjiao Aviation Industry Investment Company attempting to purchase a chunk of the Antonov facility which produced the An-225 Mriya. China has emerged as a major economic trading partner with Ukraine in the years since Kyiv cut off relations with Russia. (Antonov falls under the Ukroboronprom umbrella.)
Pentagon acquisition head Ellen Lord has warned several times since the COVID-19 pandemic began that the DoD needs to be keeping an eye on both the domestic and foreign defense industry, with the expectation China will attempt to use the economic downturn to its advantage.
“Western allies took a backseat, ignored the Ukrainian defense sector, and you know, [the] Chinese stepped in and snapped up the best of the private companies in this sector in Ukraine,” said Abromavicius. “So I would urge, obviously, our allies to take a better look at the defense sector which is being reformed right now in Ukraine. And, you know, show us, show more interest in doing things together.”
While Zelenskiy came into office promising major reforms to the country, activists have accused his government of stalling out on many of the promised efforts. Abromavicius “fully” acknowledged that the reorganization of Ukroboronprom has slowed recently, saying he hopes Western officials can “give it a kick” to get things moving again, but he expressed his hope that in the coming weeks there may be legislative action.
“So it is a bit too early to say that we have a full support, because I say that everybody and their dog has its own view of what Ukroboronprom reform should look like,” he said. “And I think overall, the Defense and Security Committee is a strong supporter, Ministry of the Economy is a strong supporter, I believe that president’s offices as well. And I hope that Ministry of Defense is on our side” soon, he said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.