Special Report

From Russia With Arms

Economic and geopolitical factors drive Moscow to supply America's enemies.

By 5.2.06

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WASHINGTON -- The Cold War may be over, but relations between the United States and Russia are slowly begging to freeze over once again. Nowhere has this become more evident than in our dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran. While the United States and its European allies remain committed to ensuring that Tehran will not acquire the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, Russia maintains its opposition -- along with China -- against any use of sanctions or the threat of force. This has damaged efforts to convince the Iranian regime that serious consequences can result from noncompliance. However, the current situation in Iran is only one element in a comprehensive Russian strategy that seeks to boost its defense industry and undermine its geopolitical rivals.

The Russian economy remains largely dependent on weapons sales. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia's vital defense industry faced an enormous crisis. Not only would domestic spending be decreased, but exports to friendly regimes would no longer be necessary in many cases. As a result, even after enormous downsizing in the Russian defense industry -- an estimated 2.5 to 6.1 million lost their jobs between 1991 and 1995 -- by 1996, the sector was working at a capacity of only about 10 percent of its potential. Thus, to maintain the country's military industrial complex the Kremlin has taken on the role of the world's weapons supplier. From Algeria and Venezuela to Syria and Iran, Moscow displays few reservations to arming any regime that can help fuel its defense industry.

The well-publicized sale of 29 Tor-M1 missile systems to Iran provides a glimpse into the vast arena of advanced weapons being transferred to the world's most dangerous rogue regimes. These mobile air defense systems are capable of destroying both aircraft and cruise missiles and were only one part of a reported $1 billion package that also included MIG fighter jets and patrol boats. The delivery is scheduled to be fully completed by 2008, and these purchases would undoubtedly be used in any future conflict with the United States.

Equally disturbing have been the further reports of additional Iranian weapons purchases from Russia. According to the Indian national daily the Hindu, "Russian sources said talks were under way to sell Iran long range air-defence systems codenamed S-300PMU1, radar stations, and T-90S tanks." This, however, may turn out to be one area where the Russians decide to use their leverage for a constructive manner. Agence France Presse reports that Moscow has used the potential sale of the S-300 long-range air defense missile system as a means to convince Tehran to suspend the enrichment of uranium. This has largely been ineffective as Iran appears determined to continue its uranium enrichment process.

However, this by no means indicates that Russia will be greatly helpful in pressuring the Iranian regime. After criticisms from the United States on Russia's sale of the Tor-M1 missiles to Tehran, Nikolai Spassky, the deputy head of the Security Council of the Kremlin, emphasized: "There are no circumstances that would obstruct the fulfillment of our obligations in military-technical cooperation with Iran." Moscow holds that its arms sales are not only legitimate, but are being unfairly criticized by countries such as the United States because those states want to undermine their competition in the global weapons market. Russian defense minister Sergey Ivanov revealed his frustrations at a March 28 news conference in Moscow as he noted the following:

As far as our relations with any state are concerned, not just with Syria or Iran, we act on the basis of international law. I often hear criticism that Russia sells arms to countries and regimes which it ought not to. If you follow this logic, we ought not to sell anything to anyone. The USA sells twice as many arms as Russia, and, believe me, it sells these arms not just to democratic countries which are purer than the driven snow, far from that. Some of them have nothing at all to do with democracy.

The United States does indeed provide weapons to undemocratic regimes, but none of these threatens its neighbors or openly supports terrorism. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and other authoritarian governments have entered into defense contracts with the United States. Defense agreements with Saudi Arabia totaled $1.6 billion in 2004 alone. Yet, while economic considerations are certainly a factor in American arms sales, strategic calculations remain unrivaled. In Russia this does not hold true.

WHILE ARMS SALES ARE AN essential element in the Russian economy, does this indicate that strategic calculations are absent from Moscow's decisions? The evidence does not indicate that this is so. In February 2005 Israel backed out of an arms deal with Georgia due to Russian concerns that the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists on their way to Chechnya. Similar apprehension has eluded Moscow with respect to state purchasers that are not considered to be unfriendly. To the strong rejection of the United States and Israel, Russia agreed to sell Syria the SA-18 short-range anti-aircraft system.

On April 27, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin noted that an expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia would result in a "major military-political shift affecting Russia's interests, which would call for significant finances to allow for the appropriate re-orientation of military potential and the reorganization of the system of military-industrial links." The foreign ministry spokesman than added: "This could affect agreements in the area of arms control."

In response to the perceived threat of NATO forces based near the border of Belarus, Russia has provided Minsk with the advanced S-300PS surface-to-air missiles capable of destroying targets 90 miles away. General Vladimir Mikhailov, the commander of the Russian Air Force, revealed the political nature of the transaction when he explained the sales in light of NATO activities as he noted: "To each action, there must be a counter action." The General added, "It's important enough that those missiles will be put on combat alert duty, and besides, we have other opportunities, too."

Of further concern, however, was a recent report by the British defense journal Jane's Intelligence Digest that Belarus intends to forward the S-300PS missiles to Iran. Iranian Commerce Minister Masud Mir-Kazemi and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov were both in Minsk on April 21, but deny meeting with each other. The Iranian commerce minister has sought to quell further speculation and offered the following: "From the viewpoint of military technology, we are self-sufficient and there is no need for us to consider buying weapons from abroad." This explanation is rather unconvincing as the purchase of the Russian Tor-M1 missile system is just one example of imported military hardware.

As noted, the extent of Russian arms exports has had consequences well beyond its periphery and the Middle East. In Africa, Russia has supplied Sudan with MiG-29 fighter-jets and Mi-24 attack helicopters, helping the genocidal regime in Khartoum and their Janjaweed militias kill hundreds of thousands in Darfur. Algeria has recently purchased $7.5 billion worth of arms from Russia, drawing concerns that this might upset the balance of power with Morocco over the disputed Western Sahara. Defense Minister Ivanov explained: "No one is preventing Morocco from buying our arms and we are ready to consider such proposals, all the more so, since we already have military and technical cooperation with Morocco."

And while the largest recipients of Russian military equipment are India and China, the latter is of far greater concern as Moscow has essentially been the enabler of Beijing's rise as principal long-term threat to American military primacy in Asia. Moscow's provisions of military hardware and technology to the Chinese -- about 45 percent of Russia's total arms exports -- have done much to alter the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and the region. While economic factors are certainly the primary motivation for this promiscuity, the Kremlin sees strategic benefits as well. The Beijing-Moscow alliance not only is about preserving peace and economic benefits for the two countries, but also contains a powerful element aimed at balancing the United States and establishing a "multi-polar world."

VENEZUELA HAS ALSO WITNESSED the benefits of Russia's export regime. Hugo Chavez and his "Bolivarian Revolution" have received 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 30 combat helicopters. The United States had been able to convince Brazil and Spain away from making similar sales, but Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Kislyak held that the deal was "a sovereign decision by the Russian Federation and Venezuela." As for the implications the influx of weapons could have on the region, Kislyak proclaimed that the delivery "is not having a destabilizing effect." Washington, meanwhile, is rightfully worried that these weapons could end up in the hands of rebels in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America where Chavez hopes to export his revolution.

Russia is using the export of arms to its benefit both domestically and internationally. Unfortunately, this revitalized influence from Moscow has produced few benefits for the rest of the world. Many of the world's rogue regimes must be pleased with this development, but international security is being severely undermined. Russia now finds itself at a crossroads where it will continue to drift east towards China and towards Cold War strategic competition with the United States, or it will continue to democratize and become a responsible world actor engaged in genuine cooperation with the West.

The 2008 presidential elections to determine the successor of Vladimir Putin will be essential in this progression. Will Putin select a successor with similar Soviet era tendencies, or will a democrat seeking to strengthen ties with the West emerge? This will have monumental consequences in Russia's future strategic relations and determine the future direction of Russia's arms exports. As the cases of Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, and numerous others have illustrated, a secure and stable world can ill afford the continued consequences of a Russian effort to improve its economy and undermine its strategic competitors through the export of arms to tyrants in every corner of the globe.

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About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.