Russia & Global South

How Has Putin’s ‘Special Military Operation’ Affected Russian Arms Exports to MENA?

July 10, 2024
  • Bradford Thomas Duplessis

    Schar School of Policy and Government George Mason University
Moscow’s return to the Middle East rests on three main pillars: arms exports; access to military bases; and use of its private military companies, such as the Wagner Group.
Russia’s diplomatic outreach to Middle Eastern countries differs significantly from that of the United States. Whereas various U.S. administrations have picked their preferred partners, with support for the state of Israel and animus towards Iran consistent across administrations of both parties, Putin harkened back to the Soviet-era in establishing relations with all regional states regardless of the underlying regional rivalries or tensions (Katz 2022, 38; Wasser et al. 2022, 160).

Regional opposition to the U.S. military intervention that removed Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad aided this outreach by allowing Moscow to present itself as a more responsible than Washington (Katz 2022, 50). Indeed, Russia sought to assert it himself as a key regional player after the minimal influence Moscow wielded in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse (Dannreuther 2019; 727, 730). This approach aligned with Putin’s 2007 Munich Security Conference speech in which he declared the return of multipolarity to the global system and railed against the double standards present in the international system (Putin 2007).

Putin views the Middle East as a zero-sum game in which one of his priorities is to balance the United States. Although Moscow does not possess the capability or/and capacity to directly confront Washington, playing no favorites has allowed Putin to gain influence (Alterman 2017, 1-2). Arab leaders are prone to pursue ties with both Moscow and Washington—playing both sides allows them to obtain better deals with more concessions from the two powers (Asmar 2019). The convergence of these interests has long enabled Moscow to wield arms exports as a key feature of its foreign policy (Hedlund 2023).

There is debate as to the true purpose of arms sales, ranging from supporting industry to enabling partners to take on increased responsibility for their own security. For Russia, arms exports provide Moscow a means of extending its influence without the added risk of a direct confrontation with the United States Russia experienced a 9 percent decline in the global arms market share from 2014-2018 to 2019-2023 and was replaced by France as the world’s second largest global arms supplier.

The reduction in exports cannot all be traced back to the Russo-Ukrainian War. The increased domestic defense industrial capacity of New Delhi and Beijing, which began well before Putin’s military intervention, offers some explanatory power (Bowen 2021, 9; Gosselin-Malo 2023, 4). Indeed, Russia assisted India in establishing its military industrial base by participating in the joint manufacture of Su-30 aircraft and T-90 main battle tanks (MBTs) in India (Bowen 2021, 20). Demands to equip Russian forces fighting in Ukraine with critical capabilities have also impacted Moscow’s global exports. Exports to MENA tell a similar tale.
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