During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States used arms transfers and military assistance as one element in foreign and security policies that was primarily intended to further a political and ideological competition. But with the end of the cold war, the international arms trade no longer has the same politico-military underpinning.
In the late 1980s, the changes in foreign policy initiated by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze transformed the pattern of Soviet arms exports. After 1992, decisions by Russia about foreign, domestic and economic policy altered the size and pattern of arms exports even further. According to the Office of the President, in 1996 military-technical cooperation generated $2.5 billion in revenue of which $2.1 billion was in convertible currency and the rest in currencies that could not be freely converted. Russia also delivered arms and military equipment against debts owed to several foreign countries (www.sipri.org/publications/1998/russia-and-arms-trade).
The exports of black and gray arms represent between 5-15% of total weapons exports from Russia. For example, when the official exports of weapons and military equipment from Russia amounted to $3.8 billion in the early 2000s, the black and gray export was closer to $380 million. Russian merchants of death also have a large scale operation in the Middle East. Russia was accused of supplying arms to terrorist organizations such as Hamas, IG, and Hezbollah with the ruling Assad regime in Syria acting as an intermediary.
Syria has been in a state of civil war for many years with rebels trying to overthrow the pro-Kremlin regime. Since the beginning of the war, Russian arms supplies to Syria have grown exponentially. Moscow officially claims that deliveries are made on previous contracts, but it cannot explain why the number of these contracts suddenly increased many times over. In this case, there is real doubt that the weapons contracts are paid for, since it is no secret that the Assad regime is bankrupt and unable to buy the mountains of weapons supplied over these years from Russia, including small arms, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, C-SAM (ZRK S-300), tanks T-72 and T-80, and MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. And that doesn’t even include the cost of ammunition.
Israeli intelligence agencies have repeatedly implicated the Kremlin in the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, including rockets, ammunition, and small firearms. In fact, the IDF has actively prevented completion of several Kremlin plans for the armament of Hezbollah brokered by Assad. Israeli aircraft have repeatedly destroyed the anti-aircraft missiles S-300, anti-ship missiles Yakhont, and ground-to-ground missiles on Syrian territory that were intended for Hezbollah. Israeli forces seized Russian-made weapons, the ATGM Cornet, from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Russian smuggling in the Middle East is not limited to the supply of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. There are reasons to believe the Kremlin is also supplying weapons to the terrorist group ISIS. Russians could not transfer weapons to militants openly, because it officially recognized ISIS as a terrorist organization. Then there was a scam—a series of staged assaults by militants on the bases of Syrian government troops. Assad’s army retreated without a fight, leaving the entire base along with loads of weapons. Hence, this was a way to deliver arms under the guise of trophies. It is noteworthy that when the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime went sour, attacks on government troops became violent and the weapons were destroyed (informnapalm.org/).
By 2015, the US was first in value of all arms deliveries made around the world, at a value of $16.9 billion or 36.62% of the total. The US and Russia made up just over half of all arms transfer agreements to developing world countries. Each year, between 2008 and 2015, two or three major suppliers made most of the arms transfers to that market. It was the eighth year in a row that the US was first in this category, and Russia was second in each of those eight years.
Russia is able to offer a variety of munitions, from low-tech gear to advanced weapons systems. It has sold combat aircraft and main battle tanks to China and India and made arms deals with the likes of Malaysia, Burma, and Algeria. Moscow has focused its recent arms-sales efforts on Latin America, where Venezuela has been a principal buyer. Russia has also worked to make it's weapons deal terms more flexible and to improve its follow-on services to clients (www.businessinsider.com/us-russia-global-arms-sales-2016-12).
Recently the issue that has come between the US and Russia is the sale of the S-400 air defense system. The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) is an air defence missile system developed by Almaz Central Design Bureau of Russia. The S-400 Triumph air defence system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre. It is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. The system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets. The S-400 is two-times more effective than previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes. It can also be integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the Air Force, Army, and the Navy. Russia intends to supply export versions of the S-400 Triumph system to the armed forces of China. Turkey also expressed interest in purchasing S-400 air defence systems (www.army-technology.com/projects/s-400-triumph-air-defence-missile-system/).
Russia’s ability to sell its S-400 air defense system to several different countries in different theaters illustrates the geopolitics of this particular system. Despite US sanctions on the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey, Moscow is offering or has sold the S-400 to a number of countries, including NATO member Turkey. The US is also watching closely for other S-400 sales to countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran, and Vietnam, thus reducing the American sphere of influence and boosting Russia’s ability to arm, equip, and train other countries’ air defense capabilities regardless of the theater. The key issue here is what the US will do given the defense requirements of other countries who want to continue to do defense business with Moscow. Both Turkey and, in particular, India now stand out (www.arabnews.com/node/1390056). The U.S. aggressive stance has also set it at further odds with China.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military on Thursday for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia in breach of a sweeping US sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 US election. The US State Department said it would immediately impose sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the military branch responsible for weapons and equipment, and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter. The sanctions are related to China’s purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department. In Beijing, the Chinese government expressed anger and demanded the sanctions be withdrawn (www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/u-s-sanctions-china-for-buying-russian-fighter-jets-missiles-idUSKCN1M02TP).
This intelligence site has previously reported that Russia is building its economic base and influence in the world by availing itself to countries under US or UN sanctions as a viable trading partner. Based on this strategy it is using its arms business to further undermine the effectiveness of US sanctions and bolster its own position as a sphere of influence in the world.
It is also a source of revenue for the Russian economy they will continue to foster through both legitimate sales and black-market deals. In the long run, Russia’s arms sales will constitute a serious threat for the United States. In addition to eroding the effectiveness of US sanctions, technology such as the S-400 changes the battlefield dynamics by enhancing the defenses of hostile countries. The fact that Russia has been willing to turn a blind eye or actively encourage an illicit market to further their customer base explains how important the arms market has become for them.
The US needs to recognize that Russia’s arms business is only going to expand and proliferate, especially to countries and groups that are sanctioned by the US. Russia has grown to become the second largest arms merchant in the world just behind the United States. In time it is capable of becoming the largest, thus Russia will remain a significant threat to US authority. In response, the US needs to start developing more diverse measures and threats to deal with foreign adversaries; measures that do not rely solely on sanctions. It will also have to deal with adversaries that will be able to obtain more sophisticated weapons because of this.