News broke the other day that the UK is on the verge of signing a ‘military technical co-operation’ agreement with Russia. Naturally this led to some newspapers speculating that the UK would soon be ordering Russian equipment, egged on no doubt by mischievous sources in the Russian defence industry hinting that they’d love to see the British Army equipped with Kalashnikovs.
This is a good news story, despite some concerns that the UK was jumping into a closer relationship with the Russians after previous difficulties. It is natural for people in both countries to be wary, as despite a long theoretical peace, both nations have hardly been the best of friends for many decades.
The UK and Russia have more strategic interests than one might think. Both share concerns over developments in the Middle East, North Korea, the Med, and both watch with interest developments in the Caucuses and Afghanistan, mindful that developments there will have an impact in their home cities. Russia is in a curious strategic position, slowly rediscovering some assertiveness and agility following two decades of rest after the collapse of Communism, it is not the all embracing mighty power some once thought it to be. A combination of an ageing population, declining birth rates and a population weighted to the West, despite natural resources and minerals being located in the sparse East, means Russia is perhaps more vulnerable to long term challenges than we give it credit for. While their military is slowly evolving following years of neglect, much of the promised new equipment seems to live purely on power point presentations or as barely laid down warships, despite regular promises of modernised forces.
Whether Russia wants to or not, it has to engage with the West. We've already seen some increased links between the French and Russia (particularly over the construction of landing ships by the French for the Russian Navy). The UK is the other natural power with whom the Russians need to have some form of dialogue – ultimately both countries are nuclear powers with shared interests and some diverging views on how to solve them. A failure to talk doesn't help global stability at any level.
So, this gentle first step of engaging is to be welcomed, even if it is doubtful that much of real substance will come of it. You have to start talking somewhere, and when merged with the gentle joint exercises occurring with the Russian Navy, and doubtless some limited co-operation over the security at the Winter Olympics, then we start to see the most gentle signs of a thaw in relations.
In real terms though, who benefits from a possible co-operation agreement? It is unlikely in the extreme that either nation’s military would actively wish to purchase from the other. From a purely practical point of view, introducing systems into the supply chain would make logistical support very difficult, and integration into each other’s militaries very challenging. But, from an industrial perspective, there is a great deal of opportunity to be had. The world is full of ageing soviet era equipment, much of which still has a great deal of life in it, but which desperately needs refurbishing. This ranges from old tanks and APCs in Africa, even through to Middle Eastern nations which have a smattering of Russian equipment in their arsenals. By opening the doors to closer technical co-operation, it may be easier for UK and Russian industry to work together to market a variety of upgrades, refurbishments and other changes to existing Russian (or British) legacy equipment, particularly for nations where its too expensive to buy new, but their existing equipment is too obsolete to run on.
As such, any agreement could have a positive long term benefit to both nations industries, although do not underestimate the very real challenge of ensuring that the security and export control organisations of both countries feel comfortable with the sort of disclosure of previously closely held secrets to a nation that until recently was the enemy.
Its also important to note that the Russian defence industry is legendary for having a very fertile imagination. When you look at announcements around the world of Russian ‘arms sales’ and dig a little deeper, what often emerges is a pattern of seeing a solitary request for information, usually as part of a wider set of requests from around the world, interpreted as a definite order by the Russian defence media. If one compares the announcements of the total number of Kilo class submarines ordered by various nations over the last few years to the actual number delivered, then you’ll find a distinct difference. For the UK it’s a useful reminder that any discussions are likely to lead to possible press releases, and then doubtless ‘outrage’ stories in the Daily Mail or elsewhere at the shock news that the UK has ordered Russian equipment – something which may come as a surprise announcement to the MOD! Humphrey would urge caution in reading too much into any news stories on this subject for they will often take the worst case approach, without looking too deeply into the underpinning facts.
Finally, it’s easy to be suspicious of the Russians, but we mustn't forget that they are by nature a suspicious country too. When you consider how many times over their history that they've been attacked, invaded or suffered horrendous experiences, a natural cynicism is to be expected as part of their national character. Visiting the Great Patriotic War museum in Moscow some years ago, Humphrey was not unsurprised to see that the national story of WW2 for Russia featured one tiny museum cabinet with a few photos of the other allies, and pretty much nothing else. For a nation like Russia, which suffered the equivalent of a ‘First Day of the Somme’ level of fatalities every day from the start of the war until its end, and when more Russians died in the first four months of the Siege of Leningrad than the British Armed Forces had fatalities during the entire war, it is easy to be cynical, suspicious and untrusting of others.
The Russia of the future is one where there is enormous potential, huge reserves of wealth and resource, and an increasingly rich population. But it is one which is still suffering from the tremendous casualties inflicted during WW2, which has caused a slowing of the birth rate. When combined with the increasingly challenging border situations, unstable countries around it exporting terror and violence and an exploding population further east looking covetously at a resource bounty, it is perhaps time to consider that now is the point where the UK and NATO can look to Russia as more than just a diplomatic relationship and possibly reinvigorate relations for the future.