Guest Contribution by Matthias Penkin. US and Russia arms sales geopolitics

Just like during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow seek to expand their geopolitical influence nowadays with all significant means at their disposal. Arms trade is one of the most potent sources of such neorealistic influence. However, partnerships of the USA and Russia with the arms importing states do not have the same nature as they had while the Iron Curtain was still present. Nevertheless, common traits can still be found within the existing bilateral relations.

Above all, weapons trafficking of the above-mentioned great powers is majorly focused on those countries that have a little or no military trade with the other great power. Though if earlier this was one of the arms trade general rules, these times have long passed. Today there are much more countries actively deriving benefits from arms dealing with both sides.

The USA sees to it quite zealously that its key arms importing partners are not obtaining any weapons from non-US allies like Russia. One of its top partners in Middle East is Turkey which became member of NATO bloc in 1952[1], although its devotion to NATO principles has been a constant stumbling block for Washington since the relations of Moscow and Ankara have been improving[2] after the Soviet Union dissolution in 1991.[3] A temporary grave deterioration of Russia-Turkey relations took place in 2015-2016 following the Russian Sukhoi Su-24M attack aircraft shootdown by the Turkish air forces near the Syria–Turkey border. However, after Ankara has made efforts to restore relations in 2016[4], Turkey has purchased $2.5 bln worth of Russian S-400 air defence systems making it first NATO-country obtaining this weaponry[5].

Turkish President Recep Erdogan disregarded following warnings from the US which has led to the decision of Donald Trump to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program, most expensive weapons platform of the USA, in 2019[6]. Coupled with other sanctions on Ankara caused by Turkish domestic and foreign assertive policies, Erdogan’s military ties with Russia have since negatively affected US-Turkey bilateral relations.

Russian-Turkish cooperation in defense industry has recently made another step in its expansion. In January 2021 Ankara has declared it is ready to acquire another set of S-400, should Moscow share with Turkey the technological documentation to it. It was preceded by the key members of the US Congress secret decision in August 2020 to freeze all arms sales to Turkey for nearly two years[7]. “We aren’t going to ask America” – Erdogan responded to the Washington condemns on Turkey testing S-400 systems in October 2020[8].

Joe Biden together with his environment is intended to continue pressure on Turkey for its S-400 purchases[9], however it has very little chances to succeed. Ismail Demir, Turkish President of Defense Industries stated: “We haven’t seen any direct effect [from US sanctions]. Let’s see what CAATSA (“Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”) will bring, but at the moment there are no clear consequences, we will wait”[10]. Turkish Foreign Minister said that American sanctions imposed against Turkey is “an act of aggression against our country’s sovereign rights”, adding that Ankara would not give in to this pressure. In respond, Russian Foreign Minister said military partnership between Moscow and Ankara will not be deterred by the illegitimate US punitive actions[11].

However, Turkey is not the single country even among the NATO members which is purchasing Russian arms units. To varying extent France, Greece, Bulgaria and Slovakia maintain their own individual scope of military cooperation with Moscow, among whom Greece is the top customer of Russian weapons.[12] Athens considers Russian arms procurement essential for the defense capability of its closest ally Cyprus: “We share a common security system with Cyprus, and their defense systems are one hundred per cent Russian, so by suspending relations with Russia in this area we will also stop defending Cyprus, which is critical for Greece”. The latter possesses a number of Russian air-defense systems including the Tor-M1, Osa-AKM and the S-400 predecessor – S-300. [13]

However, Greek engagement in arms trade with Russia is now extremely limited only to spare parts purchasing as Athens is obliged to follow the 2014 EU sanctions against Moscow[14]. With Joe Biden in charge, US is expected to put higher anti-Russian pressure on Greece in order to reinvigorate US presence in the Eastern Mediterranean region[15]. Expansion of the local NATO infrastructure[16] will make it possible to make Greece a key platform to exert influence on Turkey which is without a doubt out of Washington’s control following the Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Middle East.

In his last year of presidency Donald Trump has achieved to establish an alliance between Israel and a number of Arab states, mainly opposed to Iran[17]. Among them Saudi Arabia became one of the key partners which has been authorized to obtain $290 mln worth US precision-guided bombs[18]. This was merely an introduction part of the former US president’s ambitions hopes to raise the volume of the arms sales to Riyadh up to $110 bln but this has never seen the light of the day[19]. However, Saudi Arabia will most likely never receive the agreed ammunitions due to the fact that Joe Biden has temporarily frozen all controversial arms exports to Saudi Arabia and UAE. And with his pledges to ensure that US arms are not used in Saudi-led campaign in Yemen[20], there is too little space to approve this sale.

Russian establishment, on the other hand, does not have expressed any moral commitments and, therefore, is the first in line to offer alternative weaponry for both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia is willing to resume its 2017 bargain of purchasing the S-400 system and Sukhoi Su-35 fighters[21]. Moreover, since 2019 Russia is supplying Riyadh with AK-103 assault rifles[22]. As a joint production in 2021 sides have contracted the first stage of the Saudi Arabia’s domestic Kalashnikov rifles manufacture[23].

But however significant Russian arms exports in Middle East may be, they will never eclipse volumes of weapon sales between Moscow to New Delhi. India is the largest customer of Russian military hardware that has signed $5.4 bln deal for 5 S-400 systems only in 2018[24]. In the following year India has increased its annual military imports from Russia reaching a record sum of $14.5 bln. India is willing to expand its air superiority roster with 12 Sukhoi Su-30MKI and 21 Mikoyan MiG-29 with modernization of 59 previously purchased jets of this type by the end of 2021[25]. Not to mention other large batches of arms, military machines and ammunitions that are continuingly transferred to the Hindustani leader every year[26].

Predominantly on account of bought Russian arms, India has been meanwhile experiencing a tremendous pressure coming from the USA. In December 2020 US has sanctioned Turkey for its deployment of S-400 systems, it can also very much be a possible future for India[27]. As with Donald Trump, Joe Biden will have a same struggle regarding New Delhi for its weapons trafficking with Moscow. The CAATSA obliges the US president to inflict punishment on any country making “significant” purchases of military equipment from Russia[28]. Though that would undermine its participation in the so-called Quad alliance with the USA, Japan, and Australia counterbalancing the Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific region. Facing a controversial state of affairs, Biden will have to arrive at a decision that is splitting him down the middle between the judicial and moral principles of his party and the geopolitical interests of his country. A Russia-equipped global player is of a great value to Washington as to address the greater enemy of both India and the US – the People’s Republic of China[29].































Matthias Penkin, Master in History, is my PhD student at the University of Innsbruck

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