On July 21, the MiG Russian Aircraft Corporation dispatched two new MiG-29 fighters to Sudan, partly fulfilling an original contract for 12 fighters signed in 2001. MiG Corporation’s spokesmen say that, by the end of 2004, it will have produced another 36 aircraft for governments in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America to honor contracts worth $1.5 billion (RTR Russia TV, July 21). The sale ignores the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, undercuts Moscow’s efforts to strengthen the United Nations, and seems to benefit only MiG Corp.
In Sudan Russia confronts a challenge between its principles and the interests of its military-industrial complex. Not surprisingly, the latter has triumphed. The Sudanese civil war has generated an enormous and unending humanitarian crisis, most recently in the Darfur area, that has finally forced the UN and the broader international community to take notice of the widespread violations of fundamental human rights perpetrated by Sudan and its troops there. The fact of the Sudanese government’s complicity in these atrocities is not in dispute. And in view of the fact that Sudan possesses no intrinsic strategic value at the moment and is certainly not vital to the interests of any Security Council members, it should have been relatively easy for Russia to support the UN as it tries to compel the government to desist from its violent and brutal campaign and to allow outside help to relieve the suffering of the refugee population.
Doing so would, after all, conform to one of the key and oft-proclaimed principles of Russian foreign policy, namely to strengthen the United Nations and make it into an authoritative arbiter of major issues of war and peace in world politics. However, placing pressure on Sudan to desist from its brutal ways runs against the interests of key players in Russia’s military-industrial complex, particularly the embattled MiG Corporation.
Russia’s defense industries have never recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their reform efforts were frequent failures, their products are generally not competitive, and they have lost market share since 1991. Consequently, they either export or die, a threat that is particularly urgent for the MiG company, which faces tough competition at home and abroad from Sukhoi Aviation, not to mention from foreign competitors. Therefore these industries, especially vulnerable ones like MiG Corp. are coming under enormous pressure to find new markets, in the Middle East and elsewhere (Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, June 18).
The Sudan deal stands to net MiG $200 million, some of which will go to develop the company, which depends on such foreign orders to survive and compete in the future. It is not surprising either, that the Sudanese government wants to continue to cooperate with MiG to procure aircraft that will be used to hunt down civilians who have no aircraft or air defense resources to deploy against that government (Channel One TV, July 21). Thus, this deal confirms that Moscow is still trying to conduct a foreign policy based purely on financial interests. In this context, the commercial interests of embattled defense firms outweigh the Kremlin’s interest in strengthening the UN — and thus Russia’s own position in world politics — as well as the humanitarian and political imperatives of ending the conflict in Sudan. Nor is this the only incidence of Russia selling arms to various combatants in Africa for a handsome profit. Russian arms figured in the 2003 conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, so it would not be unusual for other such cases to materialize. The notorious arms trafficker Viktor Boot, who enjoys the protection of the Russian government, made a fortune in the 1990s running guns and weapons to Africa, and there is every reason to believe this smuggling is still going on, either through private and often illicit auspices or, as in this case, through bilateral governmental deals that are publicly announced. Since Africa — and the Middle East — remains highly unstable, the opportunities for profit remain considerable.
Under the circumstances, the lure of profits will count for more in Russian calculations than do the seemingly abstract notions of humanitarian protection or the power of the UN. Ultimately the rhetoric about strengthening the UN probably owes much more to considerations of power, (i.e. boosting Russia’s position in world affairs and restraining America’s capacity to project power and influence abroad), than it does to disinterested concern for the UN or for international security.