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A strong show of Russian arms
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - With Russian naval groups conducting exercises as far as the Indian Ocean, in tandem with Russian strategic bombers, Moscow continues to pride itself on the global reach of its arsenals.
This week, Russian warships begin long-planned naval exercises with India. In their largest deployment since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian warships are to conduct naval exercises with India in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

Nine Russian warships, including the Black Sea Fleet's flagship missile cruiser Moskva and the Pacific Fleet's anti-submarine ships Marshal Shaposhnikov and Admiral Panteleyev, are already in the region.

Naval vessels from Russia's Black Sea fleet will train with the Indian navy's Western fleet in the Arabian Sea on May 22-23, while the Pacific Ocean fleet vessels are to conduct maneuvers with India's Eastern fleet in the Bay of Bengal on June 1-2. Russian admiral Vladimir Pepelyaev has told the RIA news agency that the training would involve air defense, joint hunts for submarines, as well as search and rescue operations using naval helicopters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said earlier this month that the joint exercises are a first of their kind for Russia since the Soviet collapse in 1991. In April, Russia's Defense Ministry denied media speculation that the deployment to the Indian Ocean had anything to do with events in Iraq. "We purposely delayed the start and waited for the end of the war" in order to avoid misunderstanding, RIA quoted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying earlier this week.

However, the naval war games may not be completely detached from post-Iraq international discussions after all as Ivanov travels to Washington on May 21-22. Presumably, Moscow would not mind to remind the only remaining superpower that Russian still has some capabilities to project military force well beyond its frontiers.

Moreover, Ivanov praised May 14 Russian air force exercises that involved six strategic bombers firing cruise missiles over the Indian Ocean. He said that it was the first time in more than a decade that this type of exercise was carried out "at a very long distance" from Russia's borders. Last week, Russian air force exercises involved six strategic bombers firing cruise missiles over the Indian Ocean.

Incidentally, Ivanov made his comments on the exercises during a working visit in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur on May 19. During this trip, Malaysia has agreed to buy 18 Russian-made fighter jets SU-30MKM worth about US$900 million. The aircraft are scheduled to be delivered in stages beginning in the middle of 2006.
"This contract is very significant for Russia. We are gaining a foothold in this market," Ivanov stated. "Russia and Malaysia are building long-term military and technical cooperation because the contract implies technical servicing of the jets as well as their eventual upgrade," Ivanov was quoted by RIA as saying. "We are ready to have joint military and combat training," he said.

Russian media outlets have speculated that Malaysia also mulled procurement of nearly 100 Russian-made T-90S tanks, as well as BTR-3 and BMP armored vehicles, Metis-M anti-tank missiles and Igla hand-held air defense missiles.

It is understood that Kuala Lumpur may pay for the Russian jets and other arms in part with commodities such as palm oil. Hence, the deal echoes a $600 million contract Malaysia clinched in 1994 for 18 MiG-29 fighters. The jets were paid for in part with palm oil.

Some Russian analysts have questioned the wisdom of yet another barter deal. Proceeds from the Malaysian contract are unlikely to reach the state coffers or the Russian army, argued Alexander Sharavin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Political and Military Analysis.

If Malaysia pays for Russian aircraft with supplies of palm oil, then nobody could know where the profit from it goes, Sharavin said. He claimed that in the course of barter deals the commodity usually goes to third countries, and up to half of the profit would go to middlemen.

The SU-30MKM deal goes ahead regardless of potential disagreements on other issues. For instance, Kusama, the wife of Chechen separatist leader and Russia's sworn enemy, Aslan Maskhadov, as well as their son, daughter and grandchildren, have reportedly taken refuge in Kuala Lumpur. Russian media outlets also claim that Maskhadov's son is doing business in Malaysia and uses the proceeds to fund terrorism in Chechnya.

Nonetheless, the jets for Malaysia will be built by Irkut Corp at its plant in Irkutsk. The plant is now working on a $1.8 billion contract signed in 1996 to deliver Su-30 fighters to India. India is due to start manufacturing Su-30MKIs under license at plants in India as soon as 2004.

Russian-made SU-30MKM fighter jets, with a maximum altitude of 17 kilometers and a range of some 2,700 kilometers are armed with supersonic X-31A missiles designed to strike sea-based targets.

The Malaysian contract is Russia's second aircraft deal in Southeast Asia in as many months. When Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri traveled to Russia last month, Jakarta agreed to purchase two long-range Su-27s and two Su-30s for delivery this year. Indonesia's military chief General Endriartono Sutarto indicated plans to procure at least another 44 planes over the next four years at the estimated $1.4 billion price tag.

Aircraft sales remain a cornerstone of Russia's arms exports, estimated at $4.8 billion in 2002. In January, China's Defense Ministry and Russia's arms export monopoly Rosoboronexport clinched $1 billion deal regarding the shipment to the Chinese navy of 24 Su-30MKK multirole naval fighters.

Meanwhile, Russia is also trying to get new buyers for its aircraft. South Korean air force commander Kim Dae-wook is due to visit Russia from May 21 to 25. South Korean military officials are due to meet Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of the Russian air force, announced Alexander Drobyshevsky, spokesman for the Russian air force. The Korean delegation is scheduled to visit the Russian air force near Moscow, as well as aerospace plants.

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