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Exclusive: UK firms bankroll arms fair where Russia shows off weapons

British defence minister among guests as sanctioned Russian businesses flog weapons that are being used against Ukraine

Adam Bychawski Scott Mason
15 March 2022, 3.19pm
Russian tanks, drones and helicopters used in the war against Ukraine were on sale at the fair.
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REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

British businesses sponsored an arms fair where sanctioned Russian weapons makers showed off munitions used to attack Ukraine, openDemocracy can reveal.

UK defence procurement minister Jeremy Quin was among the guests at last week’s World Defense Show in Riyadh, which included at least four Russian firms under sanctions by the UK government and others whose executives have been sanctioned personally.

Russia’s biggest arms exporter Rosoboronexport, part of the sanctioned state conglomerate Rostec, promoted tanks and drones that independent arms researchers at the Omega Research Foundation have identified as weapons used by Russia in the war. The Russian Ministry of Defence has also shared videos on social media of helicopters exhibited by the company firing at Ukrainian forces.

The state-owned anti-aircraft manufacturer Almaz-Antey, which was also at the fair, has been sanctioned by the UK for “providing heavy weaponry to separatists in Eastern Ukraine, contributing to the destabilisation of Ukraine”. UralVagonZavod, another sanctioned state-owned company, which manufactures tanks, was also exhibiting.

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Among the fair’s “premium partner” sponsors was UK arms manufacturer BAE Systems, which was awarded a £3.4bn contract to supply munitions to the Ministry of Defence in December 2020.

Meanwhile, the British-Dutch accounting firm KPMG was listed as one of the fair’s “gold sponsors”. On the first day of the event, the company published a statement announcing that it had cut ties with Russia and Belarus “because [it] believes in doing the right thing”.

Other international sponsors included US firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The ability of Russian manufacturers and suppliers to promote and sell their products to clients globally, by attending arms fairs, has been crucial to the continued success of Russia’s defence sector.

Russia remains the world’s second largest exporter of arms after the US, according to research published yesterday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – despite several rounds of sanctions imposed by Washington and the European Union following the country’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea. 

Potential war crimes

Over the past few weeks, Russian military forces, supported by troops from Belarus, have committed human rights abuses and humanitarian law violations in Ukraine.

Although the Russian military claims only to be targeting military sites with “high precision” weaponry, reports from Ukraine suggest the indiscriminate use of lethal weapons, including in heavily populated residential areas. Ukraine’s emergency service reported that more than 2,000 civilians were killed during the first week of the invasion.

Russia’s actions have led to widespread international condemnation, and the imposition of strict sanctions against the Russian state and Russian companies as well as individuals connected with Putin’s regime. On 2 March – four days before the Riyadh fair – the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into alleged war crimes against civilians in Ukraine, following a referral from 39 countries, including the vast majority of European states.

On the same day, the UN General Assembly, by an overwhelming majority of 141 to five with 35 abstentions, adopted a resolution demanding that Russia immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine and abide by international law.

Many of the weapons used by Russian forces during the early stages of the invasion – such as tanks, planes and armoured vehicles – are manufactured by Russian defence companies, including UralVagonZavod and JSC Russian Helicopters, both part of the state-owned umbrella company Rostec. These advanced technologies have facilitated Russian violations of international humanitarian law, including possible war crimes. 

According to data collected by Omega, between 2015 and 2021, five major Russian defence manufacturers – Almaz-Antey, Rostec and its subsidiaries JSC Russian Helicopters, UralVagonZavod and United Aircraft Corporation – along with Rosoboronexport, participated at 44 global arms fairs. These included events in the UK, France, Germany, Brazil and South Korea.

Upcoming fair

Dozens of defence and security exhibitions are held around the world each year, providing companies with the opportunity to meet potential clients, showcase their products and broker deals with government and military delegations.

Last week’s expo in Riyadh, which was founded by the Saudi kingdom’s General Authority for Military Industries, was promoted as offering “unparalleled networking opportunities” for defence companies. More than 800 exhibitors from 45 countries took part, and there were around 80,000 trade visitors. In addition to a conference and seminars, the event included several live demonstrations of military technologies, intended to showcase the capabilities of the exhibitors’ equipment.

The Russian exhibitors were joined by dozens of firms from other major defence exporting states, including the US, UK, Germany and France.

Russian and Belarusian companies had been scheduled to participate in the 17th Defense Services Asia (DSA) exhibition and conference in Kuala Lumpur later this month, hosted and co-organised by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense and Home Affairs.

It was announced last week that they would no longer attend.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told openDemocracy that Quin attended the arms fair in order to promote UK interests and that there had been no contact between the UK and Russia delegations.

The spokesperson continued: “The UK Government has introduced the largest and most severe economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced, including sanctioning key defence sector organisations and banning the export of critical technologies. We continue to push the international community to act as robustly and international engagement, at events such as the World Defence Show, is an important tool for influencing other nations.”

A BAE Systems spokesperson said: “Like many leading security and defence companies, we participated in World Defense Show to engage with the armed forces we support from around the world. Our decision to sponsor the event was taken last year. We regret the presence of Russian representatives at the event and had no engagement with any of the Russian companies or delegates at the show.”

KPMG had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

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