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Broken military ties

Galina Petrowskaja / dbMay 7, 2014

Russian-Ukrainian relations have reached an all-time low. Although the two countries' close cooperation in the arms sector has suffered, both sides still depend on it.

helicopter in flight
Image: picture-alliance/ITAR-TASS

In the wake of heightened Russian-Ukrainian tensions, Kyiv is increasingly questioning its military industrial cooperation with Moscow.

Ukraine's state-owned defense conglomerate Ukroboronprom halted all shipments of military goods to Russia immediately after Moscow annexed Crimea.

During the Soviet era, a third of Moscow's defense industry was located in southeastern Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainian arms producers' capacities shrank almost fivefold, but the country has managed to preserve its scientific and personnel potential to this very day.

Altogether, 130 companies affiliated with defense giant Ukroboronprom and several private arms producers currently owe their existence exclusively to exports, according to Ukraine's Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS). More than 45 percent of Ukraine's military exports go to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Ukrainian exports to Russia in 2013 amounted to $1.2 billion (860 million euros) – a third of its total arms sales.

Missile maintenance

"Russian-Ukrainian ties in the military-industrial sector have remained close over the past two decades," says Serhij Sgurez, director of the Kyiv-based information agency Defence Express. Russia's arms industry relies on Motor Sich airplane engines built in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia, Sgurez told DW, adding that turbines from the Zorya-Mashproekt complex in Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine are an important component of Russia's maritime vessels.

Of particular significance, Sgurez notes, is the maintenance of Russian nuclear missiles by Ukrainian experts.

Serhij Sgurez
Serhij Sgurez: Russia needs Ukrainian expertsImage: Defence Express

The experts come from Yuzhnoe, the state-owned Ukrainian rocket designer, and Yuzhmash, a manufacturer of missiles, satellites and spacecraft that also built the first Soviet missiles. "Ukraine possesses exclusive documents on about a third of all missiles currently stationed in Russia," Sgurez says, adding it is not likely that Russia can swiftly train its own maintenance staff.

It would be incredibly painful for Russia if the Ukrainians stopped servicing RS-20 intercontinental ballistic missiles - dubbed "satan" by the West, says Russian military expert Alexander Goltz. Ukraine's military industry has technologies the Russians currently depend on, he told DW.

Mutually dependent

About 400 Russian defense companies - more than a third of the country's total - cooperate with Ukraine. Ending those alliances would threaten Russia's state armaments program, according to Goltz.

Russia aims to modernize its entire armed forces by 2020. To gain independence from Ukraine, the country will need to establish more of its own companies, Goltz argues, and that will require time and money. Ukrainian arms producers, in turn, also depend on parts from Russian suppliers.

Both sides benefit from the military industrial cooperation, the military expert contends, adding that ending the cooperation with Russia would also have a negative affect on Ukraine's arms industry, endangering thousands of jobs in the southeastern part of the country. "Weapons exports are one of the few steady sources of income for Kyiv," he says.

Alexander Goltz.
Alexander Goltz: Russian and Ukrainian suppliers are mutually dependentImage: DW

Modernizing defense

As long as the bilateral government accord on defense industry cooperation isn't terminated, Sgurez rules out a complete halt to military industrial cooperation between Kyiv and Moscow. Although he expects Ukraine's Motor Sich will go ahead and supply Russia with 400 helicopter engines as planned this year, he warns the cooperation with Russia will grow increasingly difficult over time.

Prospects look good, though, for the Ukrainian defense industry to cooperate with EU manufacturers, which are keen to enter the Ukrainian market.

Ukraine urgently needs to modernize its military equipment, Sgurez and "European technology could help."