Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 232

In another reflection of what appears to be the Kremlin’s new, more aggressive arms export policy, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov traveled to Angola this week to discuss weapons deals and Russian-Angolan military cooperation. Klebanov, who oversees defense industrial matters with the Russian government and has also been mentioned as a candidate for the country’s defense minister post, held talks during his two-day stop in Luanda with Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Foreign Affairs Minister Joao Miranda and other high-ranking officials, including Defense Minister Kundi Paihama.

The most concrete result of Klebanov’s visit was the signing of a pair of agreements–one an accord on military cooperation and the other an agreement increasing Russian economic support for Angola, particularly the African country’s diamond industry. But the symbolic importance of the visit may have been just as significant. Moscow has supported Angola’s former Marxist government against UNITA rebels since the Soviet period, but those ties have weakened somewhat over the past decade and military-technical cooperation has withered. Klebanov’s visit appeared designed to underscore the Kremlin’s determination to follow through with a new foreign policy orientation by which it will seek to rebuild ties with not only Angola, but also a host of former Soviet client states.

For all of that, the import of the Russian-Angolan defense accord is difficult to assess. Angolan sources characterized it as a significant agreement by which Russia will provide military aid and training to the Angolan government in its fight against the UNITA movement. According to the Angolan defense minister, the deal includes training Angolan army staff in Russia and providing advisers to instruct Angolan troops on the use of arms Luanda will acquire. What those arms will be, however, was not made clear. Klebanov was quoted in Luanda as saying that the new agreement would enable Moscow to reequip the Angolan air force, navy and army by technical means. In Moscow, however, diplomatic sources suggested that the accord was not yet finalized, describing it as a protocol and a framework agreement. They were also quoted as saying that no new arms contracts had been signed during Klebanov’s visit to Luanda.

As several Russian sources made clear, the main obstacle to any new Russian arms deals with Angola is still Luanda’s estimated US$6-10 billion debt to Moscow. As these same sources pointed out, much of this debt was run up by the purchase of Soviet weaponry by Angola at a time when Moscow placed political and strategic considerations over economic ones. Given Russia’s current financial difficulties, that is apparently not the case right now. Sources covering the Luanda talks suggested that Moscow is now prepared, however, to negotiate barter-type agreements which might permit it to resume arms deliveries to the impoverished Angolan government. Izvestia reported that, in lieu of payments for military hardware deliveries, Russia is looking instead into gaining exclusive rights for oil extraction and diamond mining in Angola, as well as gaining fishing rights in Angolan territorial waters. The Angolan government had reportedly offered proposals of this sort earlier, but it is only now that the Kremlin is looking into them seriously (Reuters, Xinhuanet, December 6; Izvestia, Russian agencies, December 7).

One development which has apparently not proven a barrier to Angolan-Russian arms talks is a string of recent plane crashes in Angola involving Russian-built aircraft. The most recent of those was the crash of an Antonov-24 last month which left forty dead. The many crashes led Angolan civil aviation authorities to ground temporarily all Antonov aircraft being used for civilian transportation. Against this background, Klebanov went out of his way just prior to his departure for Africa to deny allegations that Moscow is shipping rundown aircraft to Angola. He insisted that the Russian planes were in good condition and suggested that pilot error was responsible for the various crashes (BBC, November 16;, December 3).

Russian reports have made it clear in recent weeks that Moscow intends to resume arms trading with some former Soviet client states. As the case of Angola suggests, the fact that many of these governments are cash poor could compel Moscow to work out some imaginative financing and payment arrangements. The issue is of some importance because it suggests another area in which Russian policies are shifting under Putin from those adopted during the Yeltsin era. Prior to Putin, Russian arms dealers had tried, not always with much success, to shift payment methods from credit or–especially–barter arrangements to payment in hard currency. Putin may now be preparing to reverse that policy by allowing some arms deals to go forward once again on the basis of barter arrangements. That practice may aid Russia’s effort to get new arms contracts, but it seems likely also that it will compel the Russian government, in one way or another, to partially subsidize these arms deals. A new, emboldened and slightly more cash-rich Kremlin may be open to that, however, both in order to reestablish itself in arms markets where it was once strong, and to garner the geopolitical rewards it hopes will accompany the arms deals.