Analysis: Russian Arms Sales to Middle East, Method or Madness?

Although Moscow appreciates the volatility of the region, Russia still hawks its arms in the Middle East bazaar.

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Dr. Amiel Ungar, | updated: 16:04


One could ostensibly see a conflict between recent evaluations by the Russian elite on the situation in the Middle East and continuing arms sales to the region.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has warned that the revolutionary wave in the Arab world could lead to "decades" of turmoil.. "Fanatics" could come to power, he warned. "That would mean fires for decades and the further spread of extremism." Vladimir Putin was equally pessimistic: "We are concerned that radical groups will come to power or be strengthened, despite soothing reports that this is unlikely."

However, despite these warnings. Russia continues to sell sophisticated arms to the same volatile region.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told reporters that the Yakhont missile sale to Syria will proceed. The Yakhont is  a cruise anti-ship missile with a range of 300 km that skims the water's surface. making detection and interception difficult. Israel has objected not only because it is apprehensive of Syrian intention.s but because of  fears that these weapons could make their way to Hizbullah in Lebanon or to Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza.

Mikhail Dmitriyev, head of Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, boasted of a $48 billion backlog of orders with budgeted sales for the year surpassing $9.5 billion, in an interview with the Kommersant newspaper.

Equally disturbing is Moscow's brinksmanship in terms of sales to Iran, where Russia pushes the envelope of international sanctions. Russia agreed to scrap the sale of the S-300 surface-to-air system to Iran, but it is still going ahead with the sale of a less ambitious defense system. Dmitryev ominously added: "We have prepared a list of potential areas of cooperation with the Iranian side, and it is quite long."

One explanation is that governments frequently pursue conflicting policies, particularly when there are powerful institutional interests and bureaucratic inertia in pursuing disparate policies. Russia's arms sales policy to the region antedates Putin and continued unabated from the Soviet Union through the era of Boris Yeltsin. There are various reasons for its continuation, from Russia's point of view.

Russia may sense that Muslim radicalism means trouble,  but may have decided that its way of dealing with the problem is to buy off the radicals. Western European countries played the same game with Arab terrorist organizations, providing immunity from prosecution for terrorists in exchange for immunity from terrorist outrages. Russia faces Moslem insurgency in the Caucasus. It does not want places like Chechnya to become the ultimate battlegrounds for jihadists and thanks to its support for the Iranian nuclear program, arms sales and playing the spoke in the wheel of UN sanctions, Russia has a received a clean bill of health from the Iranian mullahs.

This policy is reminiscent of Stalin's policy after the Molotov von Ribbentrop Pact of 1939,  when he sought to divert Hitler from the Soviet Union. It backfired then and it may well backfire again.

Russia also needs the arms industry to maintain jobs. The backbone of the Russian economy is the sale of raw materials. Under Putin and Medvedev,  Russia has yet to escape the model of a Third World economy. The collapse of Soviet-style industrialism has created an unemployment problem in company towns and the arms industry is one of the few areas where Moscow can successfully maintain industrial jobs.

Russia has recently announced a $650 billion arms modernization program. The regime is apprehensive not only about the Muslim insurgency in Russia itself but also about its ability to defend its eastern flank against China. If Russia is not to fall into the position of relying on Western technology and arms purchases, it has to expend billions in research and development. Like any arms manufacturer, the more Russia sells abroad the more it lowers the unit cost on R&D.

The current unrest threatens some of Moscow's arms contracts. Russia had many deals in process with Qaddafi that are now in limbo. Another source of problems is a falloff of sales to China. China used to be a major purchaser of Russian weaponry, but as China moves up the industrial and technological food chain, she has less need for Russian weapons. Now if China makes orders of Russian arms it orders them in small batches, reverse engineers them and makes its own. Therefore, Russia must defend her remaining arms markets.

Finally by the policy of arms sales, Russia makes it known that it is a player in the great game. If other countries want Russia to desist from a particular arms sale, Moscow will be able to extract a quid pro quo. For example with Israel, a reported payoff for Moscow's decision to scrap a sale to Syria was the Israeli sale of UAVs to the Russian army and Moscow's ability to influence Israeli arms sales to Georgia.