If their critics are to be believed, they are a secretive and cold-blooded bunch, whose very job requires a degree of professional detachment from their fellow human beings. But even arms dealers, it seems, care for a spot of company every now and then, if the PR blurb for Monday night’s “Welcome Reception” for the Farnborough International Airshow is anything to go by. Described by sponsors Accenture as “the biggest social event” of the week-long airshow, it will be held at the Natural History Museum in London, and will feature a drinks bash where delegates from global arms firms can make meet each other – and also try to make small talk with senior Liberal Democrats like Vince Cable, who will be there in his capacity as Business Secretary.
For anyone who thought that Farnborough was just old WWII bombers and Red Arrows displays, by the way, it’s not. While the aerobatics fun may draw in the crowds, the show also hosts a thriving trade fair for the global “aerospace and defence community”, as it is known. Which brings us to one particular arms firm whose activities have caused more offence than defence recently – the Russian state weapons exporter Rosoboronexport. The Kremlin-owned company, which has a monopoly on Russian arms exports, has faced intense criticism from both the British and American governments for continuing to honour contracts to export weapons to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. In June, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, complained directly to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, asking him to stop arms to the Syrian regime “immediately”, and as we revealed in The Sunday Telegraph last month, the British government also asked the London-based insurers of a ship carrying attack helicopters to Syria to pull its protection and indemnity cover.
Yet despite this, HMG has been unwilling to make its displeasure with the Kremlin more explicit by blocking Rosoboronexport’s invitation to Farnborough and the party at the Natural History Museum.
The matter was raised in Parliament by the Green MP Caroline Lucas, who asked Mr Hague if the government would do so: the official reply was that as a commercial event, the British Government plays no part in determining which companies are invited to exhibit. The keep-politics-out-of-business argument, is of course, a valid point, although the Home Office does have discretionary powers to deny visas if it really wants to, and does appear to have done so in the past during the “ethical” Foreign Office reign of the late Labour minister Robin Cook, who reportedly withdrew an invitation to Indonesian military personnel to attend the DSEI arms fair during the violence in East Timor. One also can’t help wondering just how happy some of Mr Cable’s more cuddly fellow Liberals will be to know that he may be munching canapes in the same room as Rosoboronexport’s apparatchiks on Monday evening, given the party’s own stated desire to curb Britain’s “dodgy arms deals with dictators”.
Mr Hague, too, may have the opportunity for some small talk with Rosoboronexport’s men, as he also is expected to visit Farnborough at some point in the coming week. Rosoboronexport has defended itself so far by saying that as there is no UN imposed arms embargo on Syria at present – partly thanks to Russia vetoing such a move – there is no legal reason why it shouldn’t continue selling weapons to Syria. Then again, Rosoboronexport’s general director, Anatoly Isaikin, has never been one to mix politics with business.
Unlike other leading arms exporters, Russia does not mix military-technical cooperation and politics,” he said in a trade interview in 2008, in which he appears to view international weapons embargoes as merely another high-pressure sales tactic. “All sorts of bans and sanctions are used nowadays as another form of pressure. Rosoboronexport views it as unfair competition, as the use of administrative resource and political arm-twisting.
So there you have it. When it comes to Russian arms firms doing business, neither Mr Isaikin nor British government ministers seem that keen on politics getting in the way. At least that’s something they can agree on should they meet over canapes at Farnborough this week.