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Understanding Russia’s Foreign Policy Through International Arms Sales

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the post-Soviet Russian Federation has continued its inheritance of the mantle of second-biggest arms exporter country internationally (only behind the United States of America), with an estimated value of $USD6148 million in 2017 alone. As for any major arms-exporting countries, international arms sales serve a seminally important and pivotal role in the conduct and influence of foreign policy by the country in question. Post-Soviet Russia continues to view its military exports as a major tool for achieving its national security interests, particularly in the East Asian and the Middle East geopolitical theatres. Russian international arms trades play an integral part in maintaining its image as a world power, as well as a critical part of its relationship with other states in regions of interest. It represents a central element in Russian defense and security agreements with other countries, and an essential component of its ability to obtain and maintain access to influence and resources in regions of interest.

Guns, Guns, Guns…

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation stated in no uncertain terms that Russia sees “active military cooperation (an official Russian term used to describe arms exports) as an effective instrument for advancing our national interests, both political and economic.” In terms of foreign policy, post-Soviet Russia sees the world through the lenses of zero-sum anti-Westernism, whereby a resurgent Russia as an international great power should seek to prevent the West from dominating any region, and curb Western support for democratization efforts in other countries. One way for the Russian Federation to regain its international political position and strengthen its foreign policy positions would therefore be to increase the emphasis on Russian key business interests, of which arms, energy and high-tech goods that could be repurposed for military use are the three primary ones. Arms sales could be used to bolster anti-Western/anti-United States nations to support Russia diplomatically on the world stage, as well as provide potential military issues and threats to Western interests.

You Scratch My back….

An important role for Russian arms sales in Russian foreign policy is to serve as a key sweetener for energy and military basing deals made in the interest of Russia foreign policy objectives. Russia is a key weapons export nation supplying countries in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, all regions whereby Western and American influence were formerly stronger than Russia’s. For example, in 2016 Russia officially entered into negotiations for a $USD10 billion arms deal with Iran, ostensibly in exchange for the right to use Hamedan Air Base within Iranian territory as a base for Russian warplanes to conduct bombing campaigns against anti-government targets in Syria.

In Syria, Russia conducted an aggressive foreign policy initiative back in January 2005 to establish permanent Russian naval facilities in Tartus and Latakia, in exchange for Syria securing Moscow’s writing-off of most of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt to Russia and purchasing Russian weaponry for the Syrian Army under the Bashar al-Assad regime to combat anti-government revolutionaries and ISIS fighters. From a foreign policy perspective, the use of arms sales to Syria was a political masterstroke for Russia, for it came at a pivotal point in the Middle East whereby the dominant Western power in the region (the United States) was suffering from military and political overstretch and steadily pursuing a course of withdrawal from regional involvement. Russian support of the al-Assad regime in Syria with arms sales is critical for it to be able to gain and maintain access to Syria’s oil and gas reserves. Already as a reward for Russian arms sales to Syria, the Russian oil and gas company, Soyuzneftegaz, signed a $90 million deal with Syria’s oil ministry in December 2013 for oil exploration and production in a 2190 square kilometers (845 square miles) bloc of Mediterranean waters off the Syrian coast between Tartus and Banias.

Russia was also pursuing natural resource extraction rights in Bangladesh, partly through concerted, focused arms sales to help “modernize” their newfound partner’s military. In a meeting with the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sekh Hasina on 15 January 2013, President Putin pledged to lend Bangladesh $1 billion to buy weapons, $500 million to construct the country’s first nuclear plant, as well as discussed the possibilities of expanding trade to the level of $1 billion, which will include helping Bangladesh launch national telecommunications satellites. Bangladesh utilized those funds to purchase a number of Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, armored vehicles, and infantry weapons. In return, Gazprom was given the rights to drill ten natural gas wells in Bangladeshi territory, allowing Russia to gain a foothold in South Asia as an energy provider for foreign policy interests and leverage.

Knowledge Is Power

Russia also seeks to conduct foreign policy through arms sales by using the knowledge of advanced weaponry it supplies as a relatively reliable gauge of the military capabilities of potential future competitors. In other words: better the enemy one knows than the enemy one doesn’t. This is most clearly seen in the case of shifting foreign policy alignments between Russia, India and China. Both India and China have historically been two of Russia and the former Soviet Union’s largest arms customers, however in recent years Russia has seen itself having to walk a tightrope with its relations between the two, seeking to keep India onside as a counterweight power in Asia against China, as well as maintaining friendly relations with an ascendant China bordering the riches of Siberia’s energy and resource reserves and a growing appetite for both to fuel its economic and domestic demands.

There are significant disagreements between Russia and China over the control of oil and gas supplies from the former to the latter, as well as perceived Chinese displacement of traditional Russian influence in the political environment and energy market of Central Asia. Many Russian officials strongly suspect China of attempting to economically take over the underdeveloped Russian Far East, which has substantial resource wealth but is significantly isolated from European Russia and hence difficult to effectively defend and hold. Additionally, the Russian defence and military establishments see China as a significant potential security threat, due to the enormous increase in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s modern warfare capabilities in the last decade with both indigenous capabilities as well as building on illegally copied and produced weapons technology of Russian origin.

Despite all these misgivings, Russia has still chosen to take an ambivalent line towards selling advanced weaponry as a way to curry favour with the Chinese and take advantage of Western arms embargoes against China to fill in Chinese demand for weapons. The reasons are twofold. Russia’s icy relations with the West over crises in Ukraine and Syria has forced it to become even more reliant on good relations with China for its national security interests. As a hedge against international isolation, Russia is seeking to strengthen its relationship with China against a common perceived collective Western-sphere adversary. However, this in itself throws up a new issue regarding Russian foreign policy balance in Asia between China and its historical ally India.

India and China: A Difficult Balancing Act

In the past, Russia sold India more advanced weaponry systems than it did to China. This was done in order to ensure that India would continue to have a favorable technological balance against China, and therefore achieve Russian interests in maintaining a strong strategic counterbalance power on China’s southern border. Russia’s initiative of seeking to keep China onside with increasingly advanced weapons sales such as SU-35 fighters has served to aggravate Indian sentiments towards its traditional ally, for the SU-35 is the most advanced version of the Russian SU-27, and considerably more advanced than the SU-30MKIs that Russia sold to India (which were only recently grounded in 2014 due to Russian failures in addressing aftermarket maintenance services). In short, Russian foreign policy interests are best served by doing anything necessary to keep China onside as an international ally to make the West, in particularly the United States treat Russia as a serious international power, so as to maintain a stable global strategic balance.

Given Russian insecurities about a resurgent China’s military and strategic influence in the Russian Far East, Russian arms sales to China now also serve a deeper purpose. As a probable future adversary competing for influence and control over Siberia and the Russian Far East, China’s military capacity must be monitored and the PLA’s capabilities known. From Russia’s perspective, it is imperative to maintain some leverage over the Chinese military, an objective that can only be achieved by Russia keeping itself influential within Chinese leadership and military circles through the sale of Russian arms. Should the Chinese military modernise and build up its capabilities with heavy reliance on advanced Russian weaponry, Russia would then be able to maintain an extensive knowledge of the vulnerabilities of most Chinese weaponry systems, since they are the same systems that the Russians use in their military. This would serve the Russian military well in a hypothetical future war scenario against China over Siberia and the Russian Far East, in a similar manner that the British military benefited from knowing the exact capabilities and countermeasures to take against British-made weapons and defence systems sold to Argentina before the Falklands War in 1982.

Sowing The Seeds of Division

Most recently, Russia has attempted to drive a wedge through traditional adversaries such as NATO by selling Turkey the latest S-400 “Triumf” antiaircraft and ABM system to fill an existing gap in Turkey’s theatre air defense net (caused by the withdrawal of American Patriot missile batteries from the Turkish-Syrian border and later on Incirlik Airbase in 2015). The Turkish purchase of the S-400 is the latest and most comprehensive example of Russian foreign policy using international arms sales as an effective tool to advance Russian interests in three main areas.

Russian S-400 Air Defence Missile System

Firstly, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 has led directly to her suspension from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme led by the US due to American concerns about the F-35’s advanced network and stealth capabilities becoming compromised by Russia through the integration of the S-400 into the overall Turkish air defence network. This has driven a wedge between Turkey and the US within NATO, with the US threatening further sanctions on Turkey and ties deteriorating between both nations.

Secondly, the denial of the F-35 by the US against Turkey over the S-400 purchase is a major setback for the overall strength of NATO’s southern flank. Turkey has the second largest armed forces within the NATO alliance, and occupies a strategic position to bottle up Russian military strength and introduce a force projection point against the southern flank of any potential Russian incursion into Eastern Europe, be it through hybrid or conventional warfare. Any weakening of defense ties between Turkey and the US-dominated NATO alliance is very much welcome by Moscow, as is the denial of the latest stealth fighter platform in the F-35 from permanent ownership and basing by Turkey facing Russia’s Black Sea and Caucasus theatre. 

Finally, the sale of the S-400 air defence and ABM system to Turkey also allows Russia to gain intimate knowledge of Turkish theatre air defence. Since Russia produces the S-400, it can choose the degree at which to maintain and modernise the missile battery systems that Turkey has purchased, and in so doing have a direct influence and knowledge of Turkish air defence strength from the ground as well as potential loopholes to exploit in any potential future conflict.


In conclusion, the conduct of Russian foreign policy through the usage of international arms sales has been one of mercantilism desire to earn hard cash for the Russian economy, mixed in with a coldly-calculative mindset to maximise the geopolitical and military benefits for Russia in a post-Cold War multipolar world. International arms sales are one of the main methods by which Russia gets to continue displaying and proving its relevance in the modern day international security and defence environment, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Bibliography and Further Reading

The 10 countries that export the most major weapons. Available online: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/02/10-countries-export-major-weapons-170220170539801.html

Russia Weapons Sales. Available online: https://tradingeconomics.com/russia/weapons-sales

S. Blank, E. Levitzky, ‘Geostrategic aims of the Russian arms trade in East Asia and the Middle East’, Defence Studies, 15 (2015), Issue 1. Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14702436.2015.1010287?src=recsys&

V. Putin, Meeting of the Commission for Military Technology Cooperation with Foreign States.  Available from: http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/4121

A. Borschevskaya, The Tactical Side of Russia’s Arms Sales to the Middle East (December 20, 2017). Available online: https://jamestown.org/program/tactical-side-russias-arms-sales-middle-east/

S. Blank, ‘Russia’s goals, strategy and tactics in Latin America’, Delivered as part of the LACC/ARC/U.S. southern command policy roundtable series. Miami, FL (April 28, 2014). Available online: http://lacc.fiu.edu/research/publications/security-roundtable-2014-blank-paper.pdf

R. F. Grimmett, Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 2003–2010, Congressional Research Service (September 22, 2011). Available online: https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R42017.pdf

D. Serwer, Recalculating U.S. Policy in the Middle East: Less Military, More Civilian (2016). Available online: http://www.mei.edu/publications/recalculating-us-policy-middle-east-less-military-more-civilian

S. Blank, ‘Cold war in Asia? China, Russia, and Asian security’, The ASAN Forum, 1, 1 (July 19, 2013). Available online: http://www.theasanforum.org/cold-war-in-asia-china-russia-and-asian-security/

L. Jakobson, P. Holtom, D. Knox, J.C. Peng, China’s energy and security relations with Russia: hopes, frustrations and uncertainties, SIPRI Policy Paper no 29 (Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 29 October 2011), pp. 27, 35. Available online: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/PP/SIPRIPP29.pdf [Accessed 12/11/18]. Abdullah Masri, “Turkey’s S-400 buy is a strategic masterstroke and the US can’t stand it”, TRTWORLD, (July 20, 2019). Available on https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/turkey-s-s-400-buy-is-a-strategic-masterstroke-and-the-us-can-t-stand-it-28374

Andy Wong

Andy Wong is a Joint (Hons) Politics and History graduate from the University of Hull. He specialises in Asia-Pacific history and international geopolitical issues, as well as maritime and naval strategy, with an interest in nuclear warfare. He has recently been awared a Masters in International Security from the University of Bath.

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