Michael Young: What is the argument in your recent piece for the Foreign Affairs website, titled “Russia Can’t Fight a War and Still Arm the World”?
Jennifer Kavanagh and Frederic Wehrey: We argue that Russia may face challenges to its role as a leading arms seller in the Middle East, as a result of heavy battlefield losses in Ukraine and damage to its defense industrial base from strict Western sanctions. This potential diminishment in Russian sales will create new openings for other suppliers and pose unforeseen risks for the United States.
There continues to be uncertainty about how severe the effects of sanctions have been to Russia’s economy and defense production, but senior White House and intelligence officials have reported that limited access to advanced components and parts are already affecting Russia’s ability to manufacture arms domestically. Such disruptions are also likely to affect exports, with some buyers such as India reporting that they expect war-related delays in equipment purchased from Russia.
Russia has long used arms sales to build political influence in the Middle East, so from the U.S. perspective declining Russian sales may appear, at first, to be a positive development. However, the disruption of Russian arms sales to the region may also create risks for the United States. First, unmet demand for arms could be exploited by other emerging sellers, including U.S. competitors such as China, to expand their own regional role. At the same time, the United States may face renewed pressure from Arab buyers to augment U.S. sales without concern for human rights violations or the instability that such additional sales might trigger.
To balance these risks, we argue that Washington should not give into the temptation to view regional arms sales as yet another extension of U.S. competition with China or give into pressures from eager Middle Eastern buyers. Rather than reflexively increasing arms sales to fill any emerging gap, the United States should accept its role as one power among the many that are active in the region and continue to prioritize support for regional political and economic reform.
MY: Can you tell us a bit more about how China or other countries might step into the gap created by fewer Russian arms sales to the Middle East? And what other challenges might this changing situation represent for U.S. interests?
JK and FW: Russia is the second largest supplier of arms to the Middle East so that, as we suggested earlier, any reduction in its ability to provide weapons, even if only certain systems or for a limited time, has the potential to upset fragile regional balances and open opportunities for other U.S. competitors to expand their role.
Diminishing Russian sales could open gaps of unsatisfied demand that lead buyers to turn to sellers such as China or Turkey, both of which have been looking to increase their arms exports. The United States has expressed concerns about China’s growing role in the Middle East and its cooperation with countries such as Saudi Arabia on drones and ballistic missiles, so that any further growth of China’s regional position is likely to be unwelcome. There are constraints on China’s ability to expand its market share in the near term, but Arab countries are already trying to capitalize on the U.S. preoccupation with “great power competition” to win easier and faster access to U.S. weapons. Such an increase in sales has the potential to perpetuate existing patterns of repression and poor governance, while distracting Washington and its partners from effectively addressing more pressing socioeconomic and political challenges.
A second possible risk is that facing export challenges and in need of revenue, Russia could become even more reckless in its willingness to sell weapons to any available buyer, possibly contributing to escalation in places such as Syria and Libya.
MY: I noticed that one topic you left unmentioned is the fact that in the Ukraine conflict, certain categories of Russian weaponry appear to have faced major setbacks, particularly tanks and armored personnel carriers, while Western weapons systems have appeared to be quite effective. Would this be an accurate description? And if so, isn’t this problem of quality as detrimental to Russian interests in the Middle East as is Moscow’s inability to supply Arab countries with weapons because of the Ukraine war?
JK and FW: Early in the war, there did seem to be evidence that Russian weapons were facing performance problems. In particular, some reports called attention to flaws in their tank turrets and the low accuracy of their precision guided missiles. Russian military advances in eastern Ukraine in more recent months have attenuated some of these quality concerns, though there have been reports that the Russian S-400 air defense system has struggled to defend against the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System supplied by the United States.
However, we don’t expect that these quality concerns will have major impacts on weapons sales to the Middle East. There has been plenty of evidence in previous conflicts, such as Russia’s 2014 invasion of parts of Ukraine or the 2008 war in Georgia, that Russian equipment tends to be of lower quality than comparable U.S. and European systems. For those countries that continue to buy Russian arms despite this evidence, a major draw is usually the opportunity to obtain high-end equipment at low cost and without any preconditions related to human rights. In addition, countries such as Algeria that already have large stocks of Russian systems may face challenges in switching to suppliers like China, regardless of performance issues, due to concerns about interoperability.
MY: How do you propose that the Biden administration should react to the decline in Russian arms sales to the region, and how do you think it will react? What will the consequences of its actions be?
JK and FW: We argue that the Biden administration should not rush to fill any real or perceived gap that might result from a drop in Russian sales. The administration has already increased arms sales to the region in recent months—to help counter Iran and to encourage partners to increase oil production, among other reasons. We argue that it should not try to wean countries off Russian weapons or seek to preempt China as reasons to further increase sales.
We suggest, instead, that new sales should only occur to fill specific and legitimate defense needs, and that such transfers should be integrated into a more holistic U.S. approach that includes great prioritization of human rights and economic and political reform.
It seems that the Biden administration continues to see arms sales as a way to not only bolster the capacities of Middle Eastern states against Iran and to block Russian and Chinese expansion, but also to influence its regional partners’ support for other U.S. policy priorities. However, there is little evidence that arms sales are an effective way of ensuring loyalty or broad political support from recipient countries, even if, clearly communicated, consistent conditionality can achieve progress on human rights or on defense-sector reform. Sales are likely to continue to a region already flooded with arms, but such sales are unlikely to achieve many of the goals that the administration has set out for them, and trends toward multipolarity in the region are likely to continue.
Jennifer Kavanagh is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, while Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at Carnegie. On August 12, they published an article for the Foreign Affairs website examining the challenges that Russia is facing in supplying arms to the Middle East as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Diwan interviewed the two this week to discuss their article, and in particular to ask them how they believe the United States should react given this situation.