Tensions between Ukraine and Russia at the Saudi arms fair

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Riyadh (AFP) – Far from the war raging thousands of miles away, Russian-Ukrainian tensions were on full display at a Saudi arms fair, where personnel from each country eyed each other warily over their latest weapons.

Russian military hardware at the World Defense Show in Riyadh this week far outweighed the display at the Ukrainian pavilion, where staff bristled in anger over the attack on their country.

Maxim Potemkov, sales manager of one of the exhibiting Ukrainian companies, said there was a wall of silence between the two sides. He could barely bring himself to walk past the Russians, he said.

“We don’t communicate of course. There’s nothing to discuss,” Potemkov, whose family was forced to flee Ukraine, told AFP.

“I only passed once (in front of the Russian pavilion) to see how many of them were there… There are feelings of anger in us because we are now enemies.”

The number of employees at the Ukrainian pavilion has been sharply reduced by the war, which broke out two weeks ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops and warplanes across the border.

A planned delegation of 50 was reduced to just two officials and two volunteers, all based in Riyadh.

But even though the Ukrainian exhibit only included two armored vehicles, it was visited by a series of Western officials, including a delegation from the US Embassy.

US Chargé d’Affaires Martina Strong stopped by to express “solidarity with the brave people of Ukraine defending their country in the face of brutal Russian aggression”, the US mission tweeted.

‘It’s my duty’

In the Russian pavilion, which included machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and air defense systems, the sales staff were discreet.

The Russian pavilion at the Saudi defense fair included machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons and air defense systems Fayez NureldineAFP

“We are prohibited from making statements in the media because of the political situation,” an employee told AFP.

A Russian visitor accepted an interview but changed his mind when he was stopped by a representative of the pavilion who asked to see his identity badge and business card.

Oleg Perutzkari, 43, a staff member at the Ukrainian pavilion who evacuated his family to Saudi Arabia, said he feared he would lose his temper if he went to talk to the Russians.

“I don’t want to go near the Russian pavilion, I just don’t want to (do it),” he said, adding that the Ukrainians were already fully aware of the Russian weaponry.

“We see the reality in our country, in our country and what equipment they have,” Perutzkari said.

Ukrainian armored cars were not only intended for display. After the defense fair closed on Wednesday, they were to be sent back to the war-torn country.

Perutzkari said he also plans to collect military equipment from the other exhibitors to send as part of the war effort.

“I’m looking for any equipment, any helmet or jacket, that I can find and send to my country… It’s my duty,” he said.