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Can Russia deliver on arms sales?

In the past month, Russia announced major arms deals. But do countries get what they pay for?

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Moscow is moving aggressively to recapture its Soviet-era dominance in the global arms bazaar, and the scale of recent Russian salesmanship in Asia has raised deep anxieties in Washington. But some experts say Russia is peddling weapons it doesn't have, as part of a desperate marketing ploy initiated by President Vladimir Putin to save the bankrupt ex-Soviet defense industry from collapse.

On paper, Russian exports look feisty. In 1999, Moscow signed $3.5 billion in foreign arms sales, to rank fourth in global arms exports. This year sales are estimated at $4 billion. But the Kremlin's dazzling new arms showroom may be an illusion, built on obsolete hardware pulled from Soviet military warehouses and a lot of energetic sales talk about modern weapons systems that are still on the drawing board.

"Most of our sales pitches these days are little more than a confidence trick, because Russia lacks the capacity to produce many of the armaments it is promising," says Vitaly Shlyikov, a former Russian deputy defense minister, who is now an independent military expert with the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. "Our military, as well as our arms exporters, have been living for the past 10 years on the stockpiles amassed by the USSR for World War III."

The art of selling decrepit arms

Last week Moscow said it is negotiating the sale of up to five ultramodern Beriev A-50E early-warning aircraft, similar to the US's AWACS system, to Beijing. The US recently blocked Israel from exporting a similar plane, because it could give China an edge in any future confrontation with US ally Taiwan.

Moscow has also torn up a 1995 agreement with the Clinton administration not to sell conventional arms to Iran, and will soon resume deliveries it says will include submarines, tanks, and sophisticated ordinance.


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