Putin’s friend leads Russian efforts to sell weapons to US allies

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Russia is not used to giving its planes catchy names. NATO usually does this for them, with code words like Flanker, Bear, and Foxtrot.

That changed with Moscow’s very last stealth fighter jet. For the first time, Russia has christened its plane before the United States and its allies: Checkmate.

As for the names, it is not subtle. As it suggests, Russian arms manufacturers are making bold claims about the capabilities of the aircraft.

“In terms of technical characteristics, you can only really compare our aircraft with the [American] F-35, ”Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB colleague of Russian President Vladimir Putin and now CEO of Russia’s largest defense industry holding, Rostec, told NBC News at the 2021 Dubai Airshow on November 14.

Chemezov said the name Checkmate was chosen because Russia realized that branding was an important part of gaining customers in the high-stakes international arms trade. And that name is another sign that Russia – the world’s second-largest arms exporter, behind the United States – is targeting traditional customers and allies of its former rival.

The Kremlin has made modernizing the Russian arsenal a key priority amid tensions with the West.Andrey Rudakov / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A single F-35 costs around $ 80 million, and while Checkmate’s price has yet to be announced, Russian media estimates suggest it will cost around $ 30 million per aircraft in its base configuration. But that’s only part of a larger financial picture that will likely include delays and cost overruns, with test flights not set to begin until 2023.

Next comes the issue of production, maintenance, and servicing – all of which make America’s state-of-the-art stealth jets so expensive compared to older aircraft.

The Russian military has already committed to Checkmate’s older big brother, the Su-57. But he has yet to procure this jet in significant quantities. And he didn’t show much interest in the new model either. This means that Rostec probably needs a big foreign buyer to make Checkmate fly.

“They need an external sponsor,” said Rob Lee, analyst and doctoral student in Russia’s military and defense industry at King’s College London. “One of the problems with many of the new weapon systems that Russia is developing is that they have to find a foreign sponsor who can pay for the R&D, and then the Russian military will procure it domestically.”

The Russian military doesn’t strictly need a fighter jet like the Checkmate, Lee said. This is where the power politics of the Russian national elite comes into play.

“Chemezov is extremely powerful,” Lee said. “It is obvious that he is very close to Putin, so if there is a fight between Chemezov and [Russian Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu, Chemezov would probably win.

Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov, second from left, is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.Alexei Nikolsky / TASS via Getty Images

Nonetheless, from the time it was first unveiled in July, Checkmate has been intentionally offered for export to countries like Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia and others that have been excluded. of the American F-35 program or who don’t want to spend that. a lot on a jet.

“Everyone is looking to buy something that is not too expensive but has no shortage of things that are dearer to Americans,” Chemezov said.

As a basic business strategy, this model has served Russia well in recent years.

A report released last month by the Congressional Research Service noted that one of the main reasons a potential customer might turn to Moscow is that “Russian guns can be cheaper and easier to use and maintain compared to to Western systems “.

“Business!” Chemezov said, in English, when asked about Russia’s recent efforts to target traditional U.S. allies and clients with this model.

But it is also more than that.

The arms industry is inherently political, and Russia, like the United States, closely coordinates its arms exports with its foreign policy. About 80 percent of the country’s arms industry is under the aegis of the state-owned company Rostec. Chemezov, its CEO, is an old friend of Putin. They have known each other since serving in the KGB in the 1980s.

The new Russian fighter jet was unveiled with great fanfare earlier this year.Pavel Bednyakov / Sputnik via AP

“Arms sales are a central part of Russian foreign policy and are tightly controlled by the government to advance economic and strategic goals,” the CRS report notes. “Russian arms sales (…) promote Russia’s defense and political relations with other countries.”

In recent years, Russia has sold weapons to Egypt – traditionally an American customer – and targets customers in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who buy billions of American equipment. Russia still has work to do on this front, but it has already shown that it can influence even NATO allies, like Turkey, to buy Russian.

At the Dubai Airshow, Rostec went out of its way to introduce Checkmate to potential buyers. He erected a grand marquee pavilion and threw an elaborate light and laser show. Looking at the presentation, it would be easy to imagine watching the unveiling of a flashy new sports car – rather than a stealth warplane.

An explanation for the pageantry: The United Arab Emirates, hosts of the air show, are in the market for stealth fighter jets, and the F-35 is at the top of its shopping list.

But it’s not clear that Moscow can tip the country over to Checkmate. At the Dubai Airshow, the Biden administration’s top arms sales manager, Mira Resnick, told reporters that the Gulf states were not looking to buy Russian.

“The F-35 is already in this region,” Resnick told The Associated Press, noting Israel’s use of the US aircraft. “We would like the UAE to be able to operate the F-35 so that they can be our security partners and deter threats, including from Iran.”

Mira Resnick told reporters at the recent Dubai Airshow that Washington is not worried about the potential for Russian competition in the region.Jon Gambrell / AP

But Russia has an opening.

Under the Trump administration, the United States and the United Arab Emirates signed a $ 23 billion arms deal that included 50 F-35s, but that sale slowed under President Joe Biden due to concerns about the role of the Gulf Kingdom in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

Russia has already shown that it can take advantage of a breakdown in US relations in the region.

In 2017, despite intense pressure from Washington, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a $ 2.5 billion contract to purchase Russia’s latest air defense missile system, the S-400. This prompted the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey.

When asked if it pleased him to sell to an American ally, Chemezov laughed.

“We also know how to sell and engage a customer,” Chemezov said. “Therefore, we think we won in this case.”


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