MOSCOW — In the wake of Russia's falling out with the West over the crisis in Ukraine last year, Moscow's arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, has been targeting new arms export markets as part of a larger Kremlin policy to economically pivot away from the West and toward the East.
Much of this effort is focused on the Middle East, where diplomatic overtures toward traditional US partners like Egypt, old Soviet allies like Syria, and even Iran — with which Russia has had an on-and-off relationship for decades — appear to be partially motivated by arms sales.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow last week, the head of Rosoboronexport, Anatoly Isaikin, said the agency is negotiating a series of contracts with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria — noting that the Arab world accounts for 37 percent of Russian arms exports.
However, Isaikin didn't specify the span of time to which he was referring. According to data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) earlier this year, from 2010 to 2014 the Middle East and North Africa made up just 10 percent of its exports.
Algeria alone took up 8 percent of Russian exports over that four-year period, while India and China — Russia's two largest military trade partners — were responsible for 39 and 11 percent of Russian deliveries, respectively.
With the US losing footing in the Middle East, and Russia under President Vladimir Putin on a diplomatic and limited military push into the region's complicated affairs, Moscow is attempting to find more arms customers for its defense industry, which has again become a cherished sector of the Russian economy.
“Moscow saw its advantage in the MENA [Middle East North Africa] market early on when the Arab Spring erupted and Rosoboronexport set its sights on Egypt, Bahrain and other MENA countries. So Moscow's foot is already in the door,” said Theodore Karasik of geopolitical consultancy Gulf State Analytics.
Take Egypt, for example. After the Arab Spring, US relations with that nation foundered when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power and the Obama administration suspended military aid to the Egyptian government. But Russia swooped in and began courting Egypt.
“Russia was there to support Sisi,” said Yury Barmin, a Russian expert on Middle East politics. “This doesn't mean that Moscow saw this coming, but it was ready to fill the void,” Barmin said, characterizing this opportunism as a key feature of Russian policy in the region.
One of the sticking points between Washington and Cairo was Sisi's crackdown on opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood, and in this regard, “Russian arms sales to Egypt are notable for riot control and special operations [equipment],” Karasik said, noting these types or procurements are requirements across the Middle East and North Africa.
“Wherever Russia sees an opportunity to expand its influence it goes there. Arms sales are probably the only tool Moscow has at its disposal to try and win over governments in the Middle East and North Africa,” Barmin said.
Russia's interest in courting Egypt extends beyond securing arms sales, however. Egypt also serves as a possible location for a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, as the Syrian Tartus facility is not the most secure location, despite Russian efforts to support Bashar al-Assad's government.
“Once Moscow and Cairo started getting closer, speculation emerged that Russia may revive its Soviet-era naval complex in Alexandria,” Barmin added.
Russia's opportunistic Middle East policy has also been on full display in its approach to Syria and Iran.
Isaikin confirmed last week that arms deliveries to Syria are ongoing, but said he could not specify exactly what is being delivered or how much Russia is charging.
Part of this might stem from the possibility that Damascus isn't paying for its Russian hardware.
“Russia has no other choice but to support the Syrian government militarily, yet it doesn't sell weapons to Damascus simply because the government can't pay for them. So Moscow ends up giving weapons to Assad for free, basically investing in the survival of the regime,” Barmin said.
In Iran, Russia has attempted to make an ally out of Tehran by promising to support it politically and sell it long-desired S-300 air defense systems — all in an effort to get its foot in the door of the Iranian arms market, which is expected to boom as international sanctions are lifted.
“Russia wants to be Tehran’s major provider of weapons because it wants to be its ally rather than its opponent,” Barmin said. “So by engaging in a number of arms deals with Iran, Russia hopes to secure its future position as a partner.”
Karasik predicts that Russian efforts throughout the region will pay off, “because of cost and reliability” of Russian military hardware. “In addition, Russian systems are literally on display in Syria, which is functioning as a showcase,” he said.