Moscow has long been the world’s second largest arms exporter after the US, with average annual income in 2012−15 reaching $14.5 billion. But over the past decade, it has particularly increased its arms exports to the Middle East, part of a broader Russian strategy of re-establishing Moscow as a key player in the region.
Until recently, Russia was cautious in using weapons exports as political leverage. This has changed, and the growth of the Russian share of the Middle East arms market will make the Kremlin more decisive still. The instability in the Middle East suggests that that region will remain one of the chief markets for arms for years to come and will help Russian arms suppliers to challenge US dominance there.
Return to an old market
The Middle Eastern arms market is not new for Russia. The Soviet Union exported weapons to Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. But the fall of the USSR led to a drop in Russian arms exports. The Russian weapons industry was damaged by the privatization policies of the Boris Yeltsin government. Moreover, important factories found themselves in the territories of the newly independent republics and the loss of ports such as Odessa and Ilyichevsk was particularly debilitating.
By 2012, the position of Russian arms exporters in the Middle East was highly vulnerable. The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 had led to the loss of traditional clients − the main Russian arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, estimated its financial losses as high as $6.5 billion in Libya alone. And while they managed to preserve their presence in Syria and Algeria, their overall track record was not impressive. Russian weapon producers made several attempts to enter the arms markets in the Gulf but failed to create long-standing positions as Western rivals successfully defended their existing relationships.
But the Syrian war has reinvigorated Russian arms exporters, as their weapons have proved their reliability on the battlefield. This has drawn the interest of all Middle Eastern countries, including the Gulf monarchies who have traditionally oriented themselves towards Western arms producers. Bahrain, for example, ordered a batch of AK-103, an export variant of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle, in 2011, and in 2014 became the first country in the region to buy a consignment of Russian ‘Kornet’ anti-tank systems. Although the volume of these deals was not big, for the Russian authorities they had a symbolic meaning: that the Gulf market was now open to them.
Between 2011 and 2015 the volume of weapons contracts signed between Moscow and Middle Eastern countries increased substantially, and included a Russian return to Egyptian and Iraqi weapons markets that have recently been dominated by the US. Russia signed a $3.5 billion package of agreements with Cairo in 2014, under which Moscow is supposed to sell Egypt MIG-29M/M2 fighter jets, Mi-35M strike helicopters, S-300VM missile complexes and a coastal defense system. Media sources also state that in 2015 the Irkut Corporation agreed to sell Egypt 12 Su-30K fighter jets.
Russia’s relative unscrupulousness is a definite advantage from a market share point of view. The US government put arms sales with Bahrain on hold in 2011 to avoid them being used by the country’s authorities to suppress their own people and attempted to use its arms exports to affect the political situation in Egypt in 2013−14. The slow dispatch of American weapons to Iraq in 2014 when Baghdad needed them to stop the advance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) further persuaded the wider region that Washington must not be their sole supplier.
Expanding market, expanding influence
Russia’s interest is far from purely economic. Russian federal law states that strengthening military and political positions abroad is the primary goal of Russian military-industrial cooperation, and Russia will undoubtedly use its arms exports industry to attempt to affect the balance of power in the Middle East.
Its position in Syria has cemented its role as a ‘game changer’ in the region, and it has used its arms industry strategically before. For instance, in 2012, Moscow’s decision to stop the sale of S-300s to Syria helped Moscow improve its relations with Tel Aviv while in 2016, the deployment of the S-300s in Iran paved the way for the development of the Russian-Iranian dialogue. Some even say then president (now prime minister) Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to halt arms exports to Libya in 2011 was one of the factors that led to the fall of Gaddafi.
The exact share of the Middle East in Russian arms sales remains unknown and estimates range as widely as from 8.2 per cent to 37.5 per cent ($1.2–5.5 billion dollars) of total arms exports – Russian customs officials only confirm the growing numbers of Russian weapons consumers in the region. Moscow’s positions in the Middle East are still vulnerable – weapons exports are an unstable source of income as volumes vary annually and the needs of importers change. The existing capacities of Russian producers and the economic crisis also put constraints on the Moscow’s abilities to further increase its share.
But arms exports mean that importers will need the help of their suppliers to service and upgrade the weapons. This, at least, creates long-term dependent relations between buyer and seller. Under these circumstances, Russian officials are confident of a more permanent Russian presence – to both their economic and geopolitical gain.
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