The Magazine

Waiting for Putin

Moscow air show hell.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Zhukovskiy, Russia

National air shows are supposed to demonstrate what a country's industrial base and workforce can offer to foreign partners and potential customers. The need for exposure is particularly acute for the Russian aerospace industry, which has seen its foreign sales fall off in the last few years and has had almost no domestic orders or state support for its industry since the 1991 fall of the USSR.

The best shot Russia's aerospace sector gets at impressing the rest of the world occurs every odd-numbered year in August at the Moscow Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS in its Russian acronym). This year, however, it proved once again that the personal aggrandizement of former president (and now prime minister) Vladimir Putin and his ultra-paranoid security regime comes first--to the detriment of Russia's industrial and trade interests.

In 1993 when President Boris Yeltsin's Russia held the first MAKS in this formerly closed defense-industrial city southeast of Moscow, no one could believe it. Not only was the entirety of Russia's aerospace industry on display for anyone to see, touch, and photograph for the first time in history, but the event itself took place on an aerodrome that for decades had been forbidden territory for foreigners.

During the Cold War, LII, as the airbase in Zhukovskiy is known, was one of the most secret institutions in the Soviet Union, which is saying something for a regime that placed such a high value on secrecy. The first test flights of new Soviet fighters and bombers were all conducted at LII. The aerodrome was so secretive that for years the U.S. intelligence community (usually viewing the facility from several miles up via satellite imagery) did not even know its real name. They referred to it as "Ramenskoye," the name of one of the villages that adjoin the mammoth site.

The USSR is gone, but LII today is still surrounded by more barbed wire, minefields, and guard patrols than a World War II concentration camp. And this forbidding exterior was only the opening act this year in a heavily stage-managed play that left the air show attendees waiting for Putin--and simultaneously hoping he would leave MAKS as soon as possible so we could all get back to work.

In the Yeltsin years there was a concerted effort during air shows to relax the top-secret paranoia. As with most of the Soviet-era pathologies that Russia's first president tried to change, Putin and Co. managed to turn back the clock. The security services now run the air show, so much so that during Putin's opening day visit, MAKS turned into a blockaded city. No suppliers or caterers could get onto the site, so in the heat of the summer there was no water to be had and by afternoon there was no toilet paper left in the loos. Pretty much air show hell for anyone other than the prime minister and his hangers-on.

Opening day at any major aerospace expo around the world--Le Bourget (Paris), Singapore, Berlin, Dubai, etc.--almost always features a visit by a head of state who cuts the ribbon and declares the event open for business. But rather than using the presence of a national leader as a way to draw more attendance--as is done in the venues mentioned above--the former KGB man's visit last month was used as a reason to keep people out to the maximum extent possible. There were no press conferences--other than the one given by Putin himself--on day one. The message from Putin was not "open for business" but "closed for business as long as I am here."

Exhibit halls were closed and press shooed away so that the Russian potentate could have his own personal tour and not be bothered by any pesky questions or photographers. For the first time, MAKS had a fully functioning press center--except that no one but Putin and his security detail were allowed to make use of it. Moscow's influential Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent) blasted the excesses of the Vladimir Putin Show and described the atmosphere created by the VIP invasion as "an uneducated, information vacuum."

Since the first day of MAKS was a waste of time, the number of foreign journalists willing to put up with it dwindled to a small fraction of those present even a decade ago. Among other meaningless obstructions to the fourth estate was a requirement to have a permit signed by the LII base commander in order to bring a laptop computer onto the show site--something I have never seen in decades of attending similar events around the world.

But the worst blow of all was that a cornucopia of innovative new technologies that Russian enterprises had been promising for months to show at MAKS never saw the light of day. A list of 20 new aerospace systems to be revealed at the show was placed on Putin's desk for his approval. Unfortunately, he was not there to sign it because he was off surveying the damage done by the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant accident in southern Siberia.

The fact that Putin had to give personal permission to display these new systems lays bare the dysfunctional nature of Russia's security services. Most countries have an institutionalized export-license clearance process that never requires the signature of anyone near the head-of-state level. Also, for some reason no one could explain, Russia's president and chief executive, Dmitri Medvedev, lacked the authority to sign in Putin's absence--even though in theory he outranks him.

That left all of Russia's aerospace sector hoping to be able to show off their best and brightest--and all of us in the press wanting to write about it--waiting for Mr. Putin. But his signatures never came. Russian industry's one shot in 2009 to show the world what they can do turned out to be a blank cartridge. Come to think of it, maybe this was a perfect demonstration of what Putin's Russia has to offer its foreign business partners.

Reuben F. Johnson writes on aerospace and foreign affairs.