Clara Ferreira Marques

Weapons Failures Could Disarm Russian Arms Diplomacy

Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine has been a public relations disaster for the world’s second-largest exporter of weaponry. Plentiful images of exploded Russian tanks — their turrets ejected and abandoned in fields — a reportedly high failure rate for some Russian precision-guided missiles and the embarrassing loss of the supposedly upgraded flagship cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea are poor advertisements for military prowess. Never mind that the war was supposed to be an easy win for a modernized force.

Add in questions around competitiveness and the supply difficulties that lie ahead — between sanctions and Russia’s urgent need to replace its lost equipment — and the export picture is grim. Given just how much security ties matter in Moscow’s friendships, the diplomatic implications could create an opening that the US and its allies should seize.

The military-industrial complex still has an outsized role in Russia’s self-perception, polity and economy, even if oil and gas dwarf it in export terms. It accounts for a large proportion of technology-intensive exports, and is a source of foreign exchange and jobs: Conglomerate Rostec, which has swallowed both military and civilian production, had close to 600,000 employees in 2019.

But no less importantly, exports are a key tool in Russian foreign policy. Moscow may lack Washington’s soft power or Beijing’s deep pockets, but it has Soviet-era ties to fall back on, is flexible on funding and politics and happy to engage in volatile spots. Generally cheap, relatively simple to use and yet effective, its weaponry is popular from China and India to Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. Its successes in Syria were a boon to defense exports, drawing buyers’ attention to the Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft and to Kalibr cruise missile systems.

Ukraine is a different story. Russia was clearly unprepared for a three-front invasion of the largest country in Europe (apart from Russia itself), and the ensuing poor planning, training and leadership muddies any effort to judge the performance of its hardware. Clouded further by wartime messaging on both sides, the fog of war also makes it hard to distinguish between inferior equipment and inadequate execution.

Still, there are worrying signs. Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, points out that Russia’s armored personnel vehicles turned out to be too lightly armored, while tanks have been vulnerable to missiles landing from above. With ammunition stored on the tank floor, the crew is sitting on a powder keg, a flaw Ukraine exploited. The tanks have prioritized firepower over the vehicle and the lives of those in it — as opposed to rival designs that tend to protect the ammunition with blast doors, to shield soldiers and stop an explosion.

While Russia’s artillery performed, US. intelligence reports suggest about half of cruise missiles have failed — bad news, if accurate. And then there’s the sinking of the Moskva: Even without a full picture of what actually happened, it highlights concerns about upgrades to Soviet-era equipment, and says plenty about Russia’s patchy modernization. Planning failures clearly made flaws worse — say, the absence of infantry on the ground to protect the tanks early in the war, or the Moskva’s proximity to shore. True, Russian performance has improved, and some key Russian exports like its anti-aircraft systems have not seen heavy use. But it’s a decidedly mixed report so far.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s forces have shown the merits of equipment produced by allied governments, including drones, US-made Javelin anti-tank weapons and especially NLAWs, Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons, which are cheaper, lighter and fearsomely effective, credited with helping to right the balance between Ukraine’s resistance and Russia’s armored might.

The trouble for Russia is not just the bad advertising. There’s also the reality of attrition. Oryx, an open-source analysis blog, calculates Russia has lost nearly 800 tanks, hundreds of armored or infantry fighting vehicles and dozens of planes and helicopters. Actual losses are likely to be higher given the site’s conservative accounting. That amounts to years of production destroyed in a matter of months, a loss that will unquestionably hamper Russia’s capacity to supply others.

And then there’s sanctions. In a recent paper on the impact of the war on Russia’s diplomacy in Southeast Asia, Ian Storey at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore points out that US measures were putting buyers off even before the latest wave of financial sanctions, with Indonesia cancelling an order for Russian SU-35 Flanker fighter jets, and shortlisting US and French-made alternatives instead. Now it’s worse: Russia couldn’t even make a defense exhibition in Kuala Lumpur in March because it could not pay the exhibition fees, Storey says. Export controls too will hurt, given Russia’s reliance, despite its self-sufficiency drive, on overseas imports for machine tools and electronic components.

What can this mean for allied nations seeking to isolate Russia?

Not every customer will be for turning. Russia serves countries like Myanmar and Iran that others may struggle to take on (even if the buyers wanted a switch), and it sells at discounted rates to friendly neighbors. There will always be takers for cheap, easy-to-operate equipment — the AK-47 model of arms sales — or those wanting to spend the minimum to keep Soviet systems ticking over. China will keep buying, albeit a narrower range even as it develops its own production. Moscow will retain an audience.

But the appeal of its offering for big buyers was waning even before Ukraine — a problem, given India, China and Egypt, its top three customers, accounted for nearly two-thirds of sales in 2017 to 2021. Countries are building up domestic industries. And Russian systems are not as competitive as they used to be, in large part because the industry reflects the country’s economy: The state plays an outsized role, physical capital is creaking, research and development struggles to turn new ideas into commercial products. Russia has lagged on drones, sought after by purchasing nations. Even its T-14 Armata, a sophisticated tank supposed to mark a significant advance with its radar, has been seen more often in parades than on the battlefields. Sanctions on dual-use components won’t help.

There’s evidence that a group of buyers important to allied nations’ efforts to widen the coalition and isolate Russia could be receptive to efforts that might weaken arms ties. India, Russia’s biggest client, has also made significant purchases from France, Israel and US in combat aircraft, missiles, drones and more. And despite Putin’s focus on Southeast Asia, where he is the top supplier, efforts to deepen military cooperation alongside arms sales remain shallow, leaving room for the expansion of alternative providers in Indonesia, Philippines (wary of running afoul of US sanctions) and even Vietnam. Competitors like Japan, South Korea, Turkey or Europeans could be viable alternatives for those seeking a middle ground between US and China.

It matters too, as Richard Connolly of Eastern Advisory Group explains, that Russia’s poor after-sales service — the software updates, visits from contractors and trainers that work so well for others — has not roped buyers in quite as tightly as it might. Shifts may not take as long as defense procurement cycles suggest.

The war isn’t over, but this is a chink in Putin’s armor.