Amid war, Ukraine tries to boost arms sales
Arms producers are focused on the front lines, and an unusual figure is trying to revive the industry.
Kyiv, Ukraine – The Soviet-era Kub surface-to-air missile system once proved lethal to dozens of Israeli Skyhawk and Phantom fighter jets during the 1973 October War – and shot down an F-16 during the 1999 NATO bombings of Serbia.
Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi bought plenty of Kubs – a system that consists of radar-carrying vehicles, missile launchers and spare missiles.
The system’s retrofitted version can take down stealth bombers and drones, its developers say.
But this version was not developed in Russia.
It was unveiled in January in Ukraine – a nation mostly associated with the faltering military that let Russia annex Crimea without firing a single shot and cannot win back the breakaway Donbas region from Kremlin-backed separatists.
And, of course, former US President Donald Trump’s first impeachment was triggered by his suspension of crucial military aid and arms exports to Kyiv – especially the portable Javelin missiles that were effective in destroying separatist tanks.
“We are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the US,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Trump during the July 25, 2019, phone call that triggered the impeachment.
But the post-Soviet nation of 43 million inherited a huge chunk of the Soviet military-industrial complex – and enough professionals to keep it running and come up with new weaponry.
More than 100 arms-producing plants and factories are united into Ukroboronprom, a state-run conglomerate that employs tens of thousands.
They have manufactured tanks and robotic vehicles, anti-tank and air defence systems, munitions and explosives, and even spaceship engines. They also eagerly upgrade Soviet or Russia-produced arms, mainly in former Soviet satellites.
It all makes Ukraine, whose main exports are grain, vegetable oil and steel, the world’s 12th-largest arms exporter.
It was number 9 in 2012.
Some of the arms were produced jointly with Russia, but Kyiv severed ties after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and instigated the Donbas separatist uprising.
The arms producers now focus on what is paramount to the front lines.
And a very unusual civilian is trying to revive the exports and the industry – by dismantling Ukroboronprom.
A poet and reformer
At a first glance, Yuriy Husyev looks like the least likely man to head it.
The 42-year-old, whose last name derives from “goose”, used to sport T-shirts and socks with depictions of geese. He had himself examined by a dietician during a television show – and came back to boast of weight loss.
A former governor of the troubled southern Kherson province that borders Crimea, Husyev, an economics graduate who studied in the UK, has also published books of poetry.
He was handpicked by Ukraine’s least likely president, former comedian Zelenskyy, to put an end to the corruption that plagued Ukroboronprom for years.
Classified defence contracts and purchases were inflated and awarded to insiders, while whistleblowers were accused of spying for Russia and threatened with jail for divulging “state secrets.”
New, sophisticated weapons did not reach Ukraine’s military for years despite promises and contracts. The corruption contributed to the military defeats of 2014 – and prompted criticism from the White House.
“It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption,” Rex Tillerson, the then-US secretary of state, said in 2016.
The biggest scandal erupted in 2019 when Ukrainians learned that top defence and Ukroboronprom officials, including an associate of then-President Petro Poroshenko, profited from a scheme to smuggle used Russian military equipment and resell it to Ukraine’s military at exorbitant prices.
Opponents accused Poroshenko of “treason”, nationalists and war veterans booed him off stage during his re-election campaign. The oligarch billionaire lost the 2019 election to Zelenskyy – who put Husyev at the helm of Ukroboronprom in December.
The new head declared that Ukroboronprom will “cease to exist” in 2021.
“Ukroboronprom will be transformed into modern holdings with an effective corporate management system, with a possibility of implementing joint project with international partners, with access to international transfer of technologies, with access to global financial markets,” Husyev told Al Jazeera.
In April, Ukrainian lawmakers are expected to vote in Ukroboronprom’s transformation into a joint-stock venture with transparent subsidiaries that could operate with less government control.
The venture will eventually be split into two holdings – one will keep focusing on arms while the other focuses on airspace.
Husyev works frantically, often ignoring weekends, starting his workday at 8am and ending it before midnight.
“The most difficult thing is to find time for the kids,” he said in a snow-white conference room dominated by the image of Oplot, one of the world’s fastest battle tanks.
‘Creating a new monster’
However, some arms developers are opposed to the reform.
“It’s a leap into an abyss, they’re creating a new monster,” an industry insider told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, adding that the lack of state control will further breed corruption and bankrupt subsidiaries.
Some observers think that the Ukroboronprom’s transformation will only make things worse.
“Instead of turning the defence industry into a ‘deep state’ within the economy, they want to restructure and partly privatise it, which will lead to its final degradation, will force Ukraine to buy military equipment and lose its export potential,” analyst Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
But so far, Ukroboronprom offers impressive weaponry.
One is Skif (“Scythian”), an anti-tank, tripod-mounted guided missile system. An operator can control it remotely, from the safety of a laptop-like screen.
“I don’t know any other anti-tank system whose operator shoots it lying far away from the missile, the launcher, by watching a TV [screen] and playing a military video game,” Oleh Korostelyov, who heads the Luch Design Bureau that developed the system, told Al Jazeera.
Skif has already proven its effectiveness against separatist tanks.
“As soon as they learn that our guys deploy Skifs, they move their tanks way back,” a Luch staffer told Al Jazeera.
The separatists’ war, Europe’s hottest armed conflict, has killed more than 13,000 people and uprooted hundreds of thousands.
For those in the Ukrainian weaponry industry, the war has a silver lining.
“The conflict gave us a boost,” Korostelyov said.