When Russian leaders first showed an interest in buying amphibious transport ships from the Netherlands, Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop said he was "surprised." Why would one of the world's great defense powerhouses, the producer of renowned, respected, and feared military equipment, want to buy hardware from another country?
The Netherlands' Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding is not the only Western company that Moscow has flirted with in recent months. It has also had contact with Spanish shipyard Navantia and French manufacturer DCNS, with the latter's Mistral warship the subject of talks between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart François Fillon in late November.
The proposals appear to have generated some debate in Russian political and military circles, with many in the elite publicly arguing that their country does not need to buy from abroad. No less an authority than Adm. Valentin Selivanov, former chief of the Main Naval Staff, has called the proposals "complete nonsense." Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin has said the domestic United Shipbuilding Corporation could build a ship with the same capabilities as the Mistral. The president of the Academy of Military Sciences, Army Gen. Makhmut Gareev, has insisted that Russia "should be a self-sufficient country.... [W]e will find ourselves in a certain dependence on NATO and, in particular, France. We will have to buy spare parts, to create a system of logistics, based on Western standards ... [T]his, gently said, is not very good for national security."
Even if no contract is signed, the fact that Russia is seriously considering buying a military vessel from its former NATO adversaries says much about the poor condition of its manufacturing base. But more importantly, it is an indication of how far Europe is willing to help Russia modernize its military -- even at the expense of erstwhile NATO allies on Russia's borders.
Russia's defense industry entered the post-Cold War world outdated, inefficient, and outclassed by its major competitors. Take the Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile, for example, which is being developed to replace a swath of Soviet-era weaponry. The missile has failed seven of 12 test launches so far, with manufacturing flaws blamed by some in the Navy on years of underinvestment in the defense industry.
Bolstering this key sector of the economy has been a top priority for Putin and his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, who have sunk billions of rubles into modernization programs. The purchase of a warship from another country would be a clear signal that this policy is moving too slowly or even failing, as the president has already openly acknowledged.
"Unfortunately, the policy of 'patching the holes' is still in place, and, to be frank, the sector has not achieved the goal of upgrading its technology to the latest standards," Medvedev told an audience of defense industrialists in October. "This directly affects the quality of products delivered to our armed forces and to markets abroad.... This is a question of survival."