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Who would benefit from Russia going to war with Ukraine?

One of the less-discussed aspects of the current crisis in Eastern Europe is its huge sales potential

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 January 2022, 12.00am
Russia‘s President Putin holds a meeting with the permanent members of the Security Council, via video conference from his Kremlin office, 21 January 2022
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Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin Pool/Alamy Live News

As the Ukraine crisis evolves, the military machinery on both sides gears up for combat, with Russia moving troops and equipment towards Ukraine and NATO sending reinforcements to Eastern Europe. Each side persists with its propaganda, and it is not easy to get a full picture of what is really going on.

While Russia has been leading the way in troop and equipment movements, Western sources are prone to more than a little exaggeration. We are persistently told that Russia has 100,000 troops massed on the border, but detail is lacking. It’s not clear what Russia’s routine basing is in that strategically important area – are there usually 10,000,20,000 or as many as 30,000 troops based there anyway? Some of the public sources indicate that many of the troops are at least 200km from Ukraine, but 100,000 massed on the border ready to strike sounds better.

To complicate matters, one of the most senior British politicians, the foreign secretary Liz Truss, announced on the radio on 26 January that there are “hundreds of thousands” of Russian troops ready to go. Was that a slip of the tongue or has the threat doubled overnight?

Meanwhile, the US already has Special Forces training soldiers in Ukraine and has 8,500 troops on alert, Denmark is sending fighter jets to Lithuania and a frigate to the Baltic, France has offered troops to Romania and Spain is sending a warship to the Black Sea. Britain’s contribution so far is to send anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, along with soldiers to train Ukraine Army personnel in their use, and to deploy more troops to Estonia, where it already leads a battle group.

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Some 2,000 of those British weapons – known as MBT-NLAWs, or Main Battle Tank Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapons – have currently been shipped at a so-far undisclosed cost. Developed as a joint Swedish-British project, the MBT-NLAWs are manufactured by Saab, and are shoulder-launched for use against tanks at a short range of up to 200 metres, making them something of a last-ditch system.

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NLAWs have already been sold to ten countries. One of the less obvious aspects of the current crisis is that while this sale alone, with its rapid export to Ukraine, will do a fair bit to promote the potential of NLAWs, an actual war would be even more useful in boosting sales – especially if NLAWs turned out to be effective against the latest Russian tanks.

While this fact simply does not appear in media analyses, it is an important driver of arms races and actual conflicts. It’s part of a wider requirement for military forces to have enemies, if they are to remain profitable. No doubt the Russian arms people will also be all ready to demonstrate the power of their own weapons, with all the publicity being given to both sides in the international media being really helpful for the people building their arms sales careers, as well as for the companies themselves and for their all-important shareholders.

Russia, in particular, has spent much of the past two decades investing heavily in modernising its largely obsolete equipment and badly needs to recoup the costs incurred with increased arms sales. A war would certainly help, but even the spectacle of NATO’s concern about the newfound power of the Russian military is quite beneficial.

The ideal situation for an arms manufacturer is to arm both sides, which happens surprisingly often. Just before the 2011 Franco-British air war against Libya, French and Italian companies were repairing and upgrading Libyan aircraft and armoured vehicles and then the French and British air forces set about destroying them. When Britain fought the Falklands-Malvinas War back in 1982, its Navy fielded the Type 42 destroyer as its main air defence escort, having previously sold two such destroyers to Argentina.

And during that war, the Argentinians used an Exocet anti-ship cruise missile to sink one of the British Type 42s, HMS Sheffield. The Exocet was manufactured by Britain’s close NATO ally, France, and was one of the early anti-ship cruise missiles. Its ‘success’ was a great aid to its sales in the following years.

Armies are massive bureaucracies, with a basic requirement to survive and thrive – and they need huge funding

Indeed, a common sales practice after wars is to increase the marketing for any weapon used in the conflict. For this, the Falklands-Malvinas war provides another example. The Royal Navy’s main long-range air defence missile was the Sea Dart. It was credited with destroying eight aircraft in the Falklands and, shortly after the war, its makers, British Aerospace, modified the standard Sea Dart advert in the military journals by simply over-stamping it “COMBAT PROVEN”.

For some reason, the advert missed out one aspect of the missile’s performance. Near the end of the war, a Sea Dart missile fired from a Royal Navy destroyer mistakenly shot down an Army Air Corps Gazelle helicopter, killing the two crew and two army communications specialists. The news was communicated to crews right across the task force within 24 hours, but it was many months before the Ministry of Defence would acknowledge the loss publicly.

Back to the Ukraine crisis. Even now, a war is far from inevitable and there are some excellent analyses available pointing us in other directions, Joseph Gerson’s the common security approach, which was just published by the International Peace Bureau, is a particularly good example.

The problem is that the world’s really big armies, when they are in direct opposition, are liable to have a life of their own. Between them, NATO and Russia are responsible for well over half of the world’s annual $2trn military budget. Apart from anything else, such armies are massive bureaucracies, with a basic requirement to survive and thrive – and, in doing so, they need huge funding, which they, in turn, feed vast sums to the arms companies. The whole structure makes for a formidable momentum that is currently made even worse by the need in several of the states, not least the UK and Russia itself, to divert attention from domestic politics.

The war-promoting hydras are not going to go away any time soon, and they play a far greater role in the Ukraine crisis than is being widely acknowledged. Any understanding of the crisis simply must factor in that as well as everything else, it is a matter of business: the business of war.

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