Defense, Trade and Foreign Policy: An Interview with CAST Director Ruslan Pukhov

October 28, 2019

Turkey became a very influential actor in the Middle East and Eurasia. But this Turkey was not the master of its own sky. That is why starting from neighbors who can intrude, up to unmanned aerial vehicles, Turkey needs to protect its sovereignty in the skies.
Ruslan Pukhov

When Turkey purchased the S-400 missile defense system from Russia it created a diplomatic furor among some NATO allies, primarily the US, that saw the decision as a threat to NATO solidarity. On the other hand, the purchase decision was regarded domestically as a sign of Turkey’s increasing confidence to pursue its own domestic defense agenda, particularly in the face of an unreliable and even hostile international partners. But what can we understand of the relationship between defense trade and foreign relations, and in what way do economic and political requirements dictate a state’s defense and foreign policy agendas. Dr. Merve Seren spoke with Ruslan Pukhov, Co-founder and Director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a leading defense industry and arms trade think tank to answer some of these questions.  

Mr. Pukhov, do you think todays’ export policies are largely shaped by economic and commercial gains?

During the Cold War, arms exports and sales were not a matter of foreign trade but of foreign policy. The U.S. was the only country that considered the arms trade as a tool of arms policy while other states considered this in commercial terms, especially France, Israel and Russia. It was for Russians mainly foreign trade. But the situation changed with the arrival of Donald Trump, who is the first U.S. president who considers the arms trade as a business not as foreign policy. That’s why the American share in the arms trade market is rapidly growing. The U.S. is taking the shares which formerly belonged to Israel, Russia and France. This is happening at a time when the global market for arms trade is becoming denser as countries such as Turkey and South Korea, which were importers 20 years ago, but are now successful arms exporters.

Turkey bought the Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system. Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian system provoked reaction in the West, as this system is not a tactical one, but rather a very sophisticated, strategic and deterrent one. Do you agree that Turkey’s NATO allies are right to be fearful about this?

When we are speaking about procurement within NATO, we should always remember the phrase by the Former Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis, who was basically defending Turkey. Every NATO member decides for itself what to buy. Slovakia and Greece already have the previous generation of this defense system, the S-300. It would be a double injustice to Turkey since there are other NATO members having this system. I believe it is just a pretext that Turkey’s purchase can harm NATO security, it is very anti-Turkish and has nothing to do with NATO solidarity.

But Slovakia and Greece that use Russian missile defense systems say that they are not strategic or operational. Furthermore, the NATO members who use former Soviet and current Russian technology are trying to replace them with newer European or American technologies.

All defense technologies we can speak of can be divided, roughly into a black and white picture, into two big categories: high-tech and lower-tech. For the time being, Turkey is doing very well with the lower-tech products, such as Yonca-Onuk boats. But their propulsion comes from Germany. The design is Turkish, the integration is Turkish, but certain key items are not. So, if Germany decides to punish Turkey for some reasons, they might stop selling the propulsion. Like you used to have problems with the Fırtına howitzers, their propulsion is also German.

The same is true with air defense and the missiles. Missiles themselves do not require extremely sophisticated technology, but when we speak of an air defense system, yes, it is sophisticated and the states producing such defense systems are limited. These systems vary from MANPADS like Stinger, and IGLA up to strategic ones like Patriot and the S-400. We don’t know how effective the European’s SAMP/T system is, but if you want to have a strategic system which protects your sovereignty in the skies, you only have two options: Patriot and S-300 or S-400.

A friend of mine, a former pilot from Australia told me that the only thing you can do without Americans in their fighter jets is to send mayday signals! Because America uses sophisticated equipment, full of magic black boxes which can basically stop and deactivate your equipment. 

If the U.S. deprives Turkey of the F-35s, Turkey will not be losing that much. Turkey is not desperately in need of buying fighter jets now. Turkey can wait and see.

From this point of view, the F-35 is very good if you know that you will be fighting as an ally of the United States. But if you want to challenge the U.S. or if you pursue an independent foreign policy, they will basically have you in a grip. There is no doubt the F-35 is the best aircraft on the market but only under the condition that you’re a country like Poland or the Czech Republic. But if you are a country like Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, even India, and you pursue an independent foreign defense policy and if you do not follow the Washington party line, American systems are not always the best choice.

So, if the U.S. deprives Turkey of the F-35s, Turkey will not be losing that much. There are other options. But before that we have to look at who really can challenge Turkey. When I speak about supersonic aircrafts, Armenians don’t have them but only subsonic aircrafts. Assad regime is in ruins in many respects. Iraq has a limited number of F-16s. Greece has a limited number of F-16s and they are the previous generation. When we look at your neighbors, Turkey is not desperately in need of buying fighter jets now. Turkey can wait and see. If you would get it, let’s say within five to seven years, it is not a catastrophe for your military buildup.

There is an expression “You don’t only buy arms, but also buy the friendship of the exporter country”. Do you believe that arms trade can create a long-term engagement, and perhaps a strategic cooperation between customers and their suppliers?

Twenty years ago we developed a theory at our center which turned out to be true. It was just an intellectual exercise before it was proven. When analyzing the arms trade, understanding the motivation of the buyer is important. Because people buy weapons with different motivations. One motivation is exactly as you describe, you are buying “friendship”, and you are buying “security guarantees”. When, for example, Saudi Arabia is massively buying from the United States, a little less from Britain, less from France and little bit from Russia, it is exactly that, they are buying security guarantees. They wish to please the seller.

When countries such as China or Brazil buy weapons, they buy them because they wish to get a technological leap. Brazil bought supersonic aircrafts, because Sweden offered Brazil a great “offset opportunity” within the framework of the “Technology Transfer Program”, which started in 2015. Today, the Brazilian Embraer became a world class aviation firm thanks to the education and production they joined in these offsets, and the firm has now teamed up with Boeing. So, the initial motivation was technological, Brazilians bought these aircrafts for a technology and skill transfer.

Sometimes people buy to fight, but not very often. To tell the truth, nowadays, this is not the predominant motivation. As the Cold War is over, the purchase of sophisticated military equipment came to an end. Sometimes people buy to replenish the pockets because corruption often goes together with the arms trade. Because the same tank can cost, let’s say, two million dollars or five million dollars, it depends on the kickback and on the commission. That is why sometimes the arms trade is an excellent opportunity to steal public funds. Because weapons are not oil, not food, not metals. There is no price stock for a main battle tank, there is no price stock for a fighter jet. It can differ a lot and depends on the client.

So, when we look at Turkey, I think in the beginning it started as a pure military decision. Because Turkey became a very influential actor in the Middle East and in Eurasia, in 20 years but especially in the last 15 years. But this Turkey was not the master of its own sky. It had almost zero air defense. A little bit on the Bosphorus but all of it tactical. That is why starting from neighbors who can intrude, up to unmanned aerial vehicles, Turkey needs to protect its sovereignty in the skies. It started more as a technical decision but then many political things ended up happening.

I thought President Erdogan wanted the United States and Brussels to focus their attention on the Turkish contribution to NATO and European security. The burden of the refugee crisis is so high and Turkey is not a free-rider as many other NATO members. Turkey is really sharing the burden but getting much less. So, by purchasing the S-400, Erdogan wanted to raise this problem. Basically Turkey is saying we are a loyal supporter of the United States and the NATO alliance but what do we get? We only contribute without getting anything in return. That is why they wanted to raise the value of Turkey in NATO, so that people will not take Turkish loyalty for granted. I think this was the idea.

So, you build up your relationship according to the motivations of the buyer.

Yes. It depends on what the buyer wants.

Could you give your thoughts on the capabilities and the vulnerabilities of the Russian defense industry? 

When we look at Russia, there are areas where Russia is traditionally good and probably the best such as the air defense systems. In contrast, Russian fighter aircrafts were not that potent, we were always one step behind the West. 

Pakistan is a great example of this. In 1982, Pakistan got the first F-16 in their inventory, but the Soviet Union and Afghanistan were still operating with aircrafts of the 4th generation. At that time the MIG-29 and SU-27 were still going through test flights. The Soviet air forces didn’t have it in their inventory at the time. That is why Pakistan had air superiority over the Soviet Union in tactical fights over the Pakistani border. 

Russia’s aviation was always behind the schedule of delivery. Look, why is the SU-77 so big in size? Or let’s compare our Black Shark helicopters on the one hand and the Airbus’s TIGER helicopter on the other. Our Black Shark helicopter is 1.5 times heavier. Why? Because the quality of Russian Kevlar is not as good as the quality of German or French ones. It is similar to the Russian full metal jacket, ours weighs 10 kilos while the European one weighs five kilos, because the materials are not that good. 

This question was related to why the Russian aircrafts were so big. Because our chipsets were not that good and our radars were heavy and big. So, we are lagging behind in combat aviation. Because of that the Soviet political and military effort massively invested in air defense. That is why Russia’s air defense is really a gem, a real diamond. For this reason, Turkey is buying the best. 

Or look at Russian ship building if you like. It is in a very poor state. Turkey is now building helicopter landing docks, right? Yes, this is a Spanish project but Turkey developed it indigenously. We [Russia] were basically obliged to go and buy the Mistral from France. At the end of this story we haven’t got the Mistral but our industry is unable to produce, at least in the foreseeable future and for reasonable money, things like Mistral type helicopter landing docks. That is why, in certain areas we are really not that good. 

If you could speak about possible criticisms, what are the vulnerabilities of the Russian defense industry? Especially from the perspective of Russian defense bureaucracy. 

I’m not an expert on bureaucracy but I can tell you that one area is chipsets, like all these microelectronics. Why do you think that Russian satellites are not that reliable? Because we are not producing the chips of space quality, which can deal with the radiation. That is why American satellites and European satellites are in orbit for years but ours only for months. Because in the Soviet Union, we were behind with all of this microelectronics. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, we became even more behind. So there are areas where we were behind the West, and still behind. You [Turkey] already have combat Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and apart from ANKA you have from President Erdogan’s son-in-law’s firm.

Yes, you are talking about Bayraktar. 

You have two types of UAVs, not only observation ones but also attack ones too. We have only observation ones, and these are Israeli Searcher MK-2. And our UAVs are still under the test flights. In the area of UAVs, we are not only behind Turkey, we are also behind Iran. Because China, Iran, and Turkey are in the club of countries which produce their own attack UAVs with missiles. But great Russia with nuclear weapons do not have UAVs with missiles, it’s ridiculous. 

When I was asking about vulnerabilities in the Russian industry, I was also asking about the defense eco-system. Do all the defense companies in Russia belong to national companies or are there support mechanism for private companies in order to increase Russian arms export? For instance what is the level of government control in joint development? 

I can tell you that, we used to have strong and privately owned national champions. We have, yes, a state agency such as Rosoboronexport, which is almost the state’s Ministry of Armament. If it is in final production, Russia uses Rosoboronexport to export, but if it is not, you can do it without Rosoboronexport. For example, if a Russian and Turkish firm jointly develop something, like for example the BrahMos – Russian Indian Cruise missiles, there is no Rosoboronexport. It is a joint venture between Indian and Russian companies. Because it is not pure trade and is a joint development. If it is a joint development and it is not within a seller-buyer paradigm, it is in another basket, another regulation. 

The government is controlling everything, but there are different ways of controlling. There are direct and indirect ways of exercising control over the production process. For example, Russia may or may not give the export license. There are cases where the government is a direct shareholder, like in your case ANKA, but sometimes the government is not a shareholder. 

This is a complicated and a long story. Now in Russia, they are trying to favor state run firms, which are very often not that efficient and rights and licenses to export are not given to private firms which are efficient. For example, they prefer to support inefficient state-run yards, but not to support like the Russian Yonca-Onuk successful champions. We also have this problem. 

What is your analysis about the current security policies and defense strategies of Putin’s Russia in regards to its regional involvements and deployments? Do you think President Putin has started to adopt a much more offensive and expansionist posture, considering the Russian intervention in Georgia, Ukraine, Crimea, Syria and even Afghanistan (through negotiations with Taliban)? 

I view it differently. It is not because Russia became more assertive or aggressive, but because when we look at world leaders there is no serious leadership initiative. In this environment, Emmanuel Macron, for example, looks like a serious leader because there is no leadership either in Germany or in Britain, even in the United States. People may like Erdogan or not. People may like Putin or not, but there is no doubt both are national leaders. They exercise leadership. Although I’m not a big fan of President Erdogan, I should also say that every time people attacked him he faced it and responded. He went and meet the challenge just like Putin. So, in the absence of other leaderships, some leaders like Putin may act more assertive or aggressive, respond challenges and don’t hide behind problems. I don’t think Russia is more active or more assertive. I think Russia is defensive, but it looks like this because of the absence of leadership elsewhere. 

Lastly, as a security and arms expert, I want to ask what your assessment about the future characteristics of warfare is. From the point of “Gerasimov Doctrine”, are we moving towards “hybrid warfare”, what states should invest or develop in order to encounter hybrid threats? 

To answer to this question in a coherent way, I will provide you with three snapshots. First of all, I don’t like the term “hybrid warfare” because every warfare is hybrid by definition. Since ancient times, every war is hybrid and there is always a mix of linear, nonlinear, open, and covert operations. 

Secondly, it is obvious that the next wars would be different from the previous ones. You already experienced this when you lost your soldiers, your proxy fighters and main battle tanks in al-Bab. Because humanity lives in big and crowded cities and metropolises such as Istanbul, Damascus and Moscow. So future wars will be like the battle of Aleppo, it will be tough and different. And the people, warfare, and equipment must be adapted to an urban war theaters which are essentially different.

And thirdly, apart from classical war threats, there is the issue of growing population. Imagine that in 20 years, there will be half a billion population in Europe, two billion in Africa in 20-30 years. Many people from Africa would like to move into Europe, and some of them will move to Europe through Middle East. So, how to combat huge flows of immigration will be of grave significance. So, the main issue will not be an assertive Russia or Turkey, but possible demographic challenges. 

My last question is about military spending, because it is said that military spending is decreasing, even now Russia is the second largest arms exporter country but is actually shrinking a little bit. What do you observe in Russia’s military spending? Are there any reactions from society? I am asking this because Europe has to spend at least 2% of their GDP in defense spending. Is there a limitation on Russia to spend this kind of a percentage or is there any reaction from the society on military expenditure? 

In fact, the Russian political and military establishment understand very well that if infrastructure like roads, pipe-lines, and electricity lines are not renewed, then the security of Russia will not be better if people are not satisfied with the quality of their lives. There is a balance between let’s say how much fighter aircraft we are buying and how much and how many new bridges we can build. Russia is different than the Soviet Union and the country now gives its military and defense industry the minimum they need, but expecting the maximum return they can deliver.

Merve Seren is Assistant Professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University. Her works are concentrated on defense, security and intelligence.