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When the epic tale is told of how Russia’s defense industry broke out of the chokehold of gunrunning commission agents and of well-heeled U.S. and European rivals, Malaysia will have a prominent part in the story.

That’s because the Malaysian air force was the first Western-equipped air force to break the mold and select Russian-built aircraft for its inventory. That decision, first taken in 1993, required the most complicated handling of the sultans who serve as heads of state in Malaysia.

It would have been impossible without the determination of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. For that show of independence, among other things, he has been excoriated in the American press.

Mahathir’s uniqueness – some call it isolation – became obvious when follow-on marketing by the builders of the MiG-29 failed in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea, as well as in Eastern Europe and in South Africa.

Eight years later, Thailand remains unshakeably in the U.S. camp, but Indonesia and South Korea are close to their first decision to buy Russian-made aircraft, although for quite different local reasons. The biggest of these possibilities is the deal now being negotiated in Seoul for the right to construct the Kamov Ka-60 attack helicopter in South Korea. The complex arms-for-debt negotiations with the South Koreans have been under way since the start of the year.

In Malaysia, it is once again up to Mahathir to decide whether to buy Russian-made aircraft instead of the U.S. competitor, the F-18 Hornet; or whether to repeat his previous decision and award half the order to Moscow and half to Washington.

The decision might have been reached, had Mahathir paid his scheduled visit to Moscow last month. But that was postponed in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the United States.

Since then, Malaysian officials have had to deal with leaks from U.S. officials speaking in Washington, who have said they might hit targets in Malaysia as part of the worldwide campaign against members of the Osama bin Laden network, al-Qaida. Roughly 60 percent of the Malaysian population is Muslim, and it may be Russia’s good fortune that U.S. arms have become an acutely sensitive topic in Malaysia.

Two newly designed Russian fighter aircraft, one from Mikoyan and one from Sukhoi, were displayed at a Malaysian air show this week. This, according to Kremlin sources, will be the last stage before Mahathir makes his choice.

The choice is also a complicated one from the Kremlin’s point of view. That’s because Mikoyan is offering its latest modification, the MiG-29M2, in competition with Sukhoi’s Su-30MKE. The rivalry between the two Russian products and two Russian plants was one of the things President Vladimir Putin’s reorganization of the arms-export agency Rosoboronexport was meant to end.

Government officials in Moscow have told me that the Malaysian flights of the Su-30MKK are the first for the aircraft outside Russia. China’s air force has contracted to buy the Su-30MKK, which is equipped with Russian avionics. The model on offer to Malaysia is equipped with Israeli and French avionics, which feature the English-language cockpit displays used by Malaysia’s air force. This version of the aircraft has been licensed for manufacture and use in India.

Indian manufacture of the modified MiG-29 for operation on India’s new aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, is also part of the package of terms being discussed with Malaysian officials, who have been concerned by problems of delivery of replacement and spare parts for the original MiG-29s. Malaysian production of aircraft parts is also under discussion.

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