Nigel's Eyes

20020830 Russia's weapons trade brings south-south commerce into focus.

The invasion of Ukraine has raised some serious questions about the Russian arms trade and the imposition of sanctions is only a part of the issue.

Tomorrow, I will have one of my greatest pleasures. I've had it twice this week and if I'd got the schedule right, I'd have photos for you to enjoy with me. It's Malaysia'a National Day, celebrating the formation of a new country where, previously, there had been a disparate collection of states some self-ruled and some British Colonies. The celebrations happen in Merdeka Square. The square has been gradually stripped of its official importance over the past decade or so but it remains the place for ceremony. And tomorrow, at about ten o-clock, there will be a fly-past by fast jets which zoom just a few hundred metres above my head during two of their manoeuvres. Then helicopters and massive transporters and some search and rescue planes will fly along the Square and over the hills and far away.

The jet fighters and some of the helicopters and, if I've identified them correctly the large transporters are all Russian made. For the past 25 or 30 years, Russia has provided governments around South East Asia with a range of weaponry and hardware. It's not just Russia - Eastern Europe generally, the former Soviet Bloc, provides things too, a hangover of the days of Russian influence.

So this week when, during rehearsals, a PT-91M Twardy tank broke down and caused massive traffic jams, this time it was a bit of Polish kit. The next day it was something that is not, as yet identified (see but that looks like quite specialised kit which may be imported. Over the past two decades, Malaysian forces have had a number of crashes of Russian-made helicopters and fighters.

The invasion of Ukraine has been the first time that Russian military hardware has been used in any significant number since Russia left Afghanistan and it's been notable for being unreliable. That unreliability is, intelligence reports say, starting to become point of serious discussion.

The most obvious question is how governments that have equipped their military with Russian arms etc. can keep them maintained in the face of sanctions. Some say that governments that are officially applying sanctions to Russia might find themselves having to source parts through India (which refuses to impose sanctions) or (more contentiously and far more complicated) North Korea.

Of course, they can't pay in US dollars because that would bring them within the scope of the USA's Office of Foreign Assets Control or OFAC. Being in OFAC's sights is not a good place to be.

But it's not only the question of spares and, possibly, ammunition that is making countries as questions. What use, the argument goes, is weaponry that doesn't work reliably. Research reports say that the value of the Russian arms trade in South East Asia has fallen sharply in the past eight years. That's when Russia invaded Crimea and the first round of sanctions began.

But it's not only lack of reliability: it's also vulnerability. Ukraine has shot down aircraft, sunk ships and disable ground weapons while Russia's attacks have been devastating to civilian lives while for the most part failing to achieve much against Ukraine's armed forces. This, reports say, is making traditional purchasers such as Vietnam start to wonder if they should look elsewhere which, in terms of value for money, means China or a handful of other producers.

Armoured personnel carriers were the point of humour when they were found to run out of fuel because supply dumps had not been set up ahead of them - not easy when all movements are easily noticed by satellites. And convoys couldn't carry enough supplies, including fuel. Indonesia has been a big customer for those. Laos has bought almost the full set of ground-warfare vehicles. Transport and attack helicopters are sold to most of the countries in South East Asia.

Russia now needs more kit for domestic use and it's possible that this will also constrain the availability of all kinds of equipment.

In March this year, proving the point as to why India refuses to join in sanctions against Russia, Aljazeera published an infographic showing that India is far and away the biggest customer for Russian kit. That's why it can be a conduit for sanctions busting because it can say that it's selling off its own stocks that predate the imposing of sanctions. All it takes is a little fraudulent paperwork. Russia's customers include a number of countries that are generally regarded as unstable and high risk.

Part of the problem for Russia is that its own military - in particular its air force - has been waiting for the next generations for some time. With deliveries reported to be less than 10% of the promised number and older aircraft being in a poor state of repair, the question of selling advanced hardware is almost otiose: it simply doesn't exist.

And that leaves a number of countries with a triple problem. They have ageing equipment that even Russia can't maintain in its own fleet; they can't get parts for those things that aren't past their prime and the supply of updated equipment is, frankly, doubtful.

And it's why south-south trade should be under heavy scrutiny, especially when done through agents.