May 1, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Up in Arms: Russia’s Dependency on Ukrainian Military Industries

• Factories in eastern Ukraine provide vital military equipment and specialized parts to Russia—from helicopter engines to ICBM systems—making the region strategically important for Moscow

• Without these Ukraine manufactured systems, Russia will have advanced weapons but no way to move or guide them

• To protect this strategic interest, Russia will ensure eastern Ukraine is under some form of Russian control and influence, regardless of the outcome of next month’s presidential election

• Russia is reducing its dependency on Ukrainian military equipment and parts but this process will take several more years.


There are four key explanations for why Russia will not let eastern Ukraine easily slip from its controlling influence:

The engines of almost every Russian military helicopter flying along the border of eastern Ukraine were built by a company located in eastern Ukraine.

The guidance systems for several models of Russian air-to-air missiles hanging from the wings of the fighter jets testing eastern Ukrainian air space were made in eastern Ukraine.

Russian military supplies in Crimea were likely flown in on Antonov transport planes built in Kiev, Ukraine.

The control and targeting systems for the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles that Russia leverages as its ultimate strategic protector are made in south-central Ukraine.

Russian President Putin has spoken at length about the cultural and historic ties that bind Russia and Ukraine, proclaiming Kiev the mother of all Russians and reminiscing about the time when parts of Ukraine were known as Novorossiya or “new Russia.” He has said less about another tie that binds Russia to Ukraine: Russia’s uncomfortable dependence on Ukraine for highly specific and vital military parts and systems. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it hosted many important military industries, a legacy that has continued until today. These components represent a small fraction of Russia’s overall military imports (around four percent), but percentages are misleading.

Without these parts and systems, the Russian military would grind to a halt, with no way to move or guide its weapon systems. These essential components include the engines for the ubiquitous MI series of helicopters (MI-8, MI-17, MI-24, and MI-28); the turbines for several classes of Russian naval frigates; the guidance systems for the R-27 and R-73 air-to-air missiles; the hydraulic systems for Sukhoi fighters and bombers; the complete manufacture of AN-70 transport planes; and even the targeting and control systems, as well as overall maintenance of Russia’s intercontinental ballistic SS-18 nuclear missiles.

Russia is in the third year of a $770 billion military modernization campaign, one of the goals of which is to lessen Russia’s dependency on Ukrainian systems. But building up this capability and expertise is difficult and will take years of restructuring. In the meantime, Russia is vulnerable to supply disruptions. On March 29, in response to the Crimea crisis, Kiev announced a total stoppage of all military sales to Russia. Over the long-term, this will cripple Ukraine’s defense industries, as its services and products are tailored precisely for the Russian military and are not suitable for NATO or EU militaries. However, in the short and medium term, this stoppage will have a large negative impact on Russia’s current conventional force capabilities as well as its ongoing modernization efforts. Furthermore, Russian arm sales to countries such as India will be affected, as India’s SU-30 fighters use Ukrainian-built air-to-air missiles.

Given the strategic importance of Ukraine, and the eastern regions in particular, to Russia’s military, Moscow’s incitement of unrest and the seizing of towns and cities in Donestk and Kharkiv oblasts (provinces) are consistent with its national interests. With its so-called “Tracksuit Invasion” of covert paramilitary and intelligence operatives at work, Russia will not invade in the traditional sense but will destabilize the region enough to disrupt the May 25 Ukrainian presidential elections. Indeed, as another pretext for disqualifying any election results, the pro-Russia candidate Oleh Tsaryov withdrew from the race on April 30, and called for the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine to boycott the election, setting the stage for further division.

Russia’s dependency on Ukrainian defense industries further highlights the sclerotic nature of the Russian defense sector, which in many ways is still operating with not just a Cold War mentality and equipment but also functioning with scientists and engineers whose average age is much higher than those in the US, EU, and China. The Russian old guard has resisted the push for military modernization, slowing the pace at which Russia can wean itself from Ukraine’s military industries. The more Moscow has to depend on Ukrainian systems, the harder it will fight to keep the former satellite in its orbit.



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