Editor’s Summary:Â Russia’s emergence after the collapse of the USSR brought an evolution in Moscow’s policy regarding Middle East arms supplies. The country’s financial needs became a more important factor in decisions to sell military equipment. At the same time, the arms industry emerged as a semi-independent lobby in promoting such sales. This article evaluates Russia’s arms development and supply relationships with different countries in the region, including the strategic and political implications of such linkages.
From the mid-1950s until its dissolution four decades later, the Soviet Union played a key role in helping Arab States improve their military capabilities. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union supplied advanced military equipment, trained officers in its military schools and provided in-country military advisors to regional allies such as Egypt (before 1972), Syria, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Iraq. This assistance was provided in the context of U.S.-Soviet competition for influence in the Middle East and therefore under very favorable conditions, often practically free of charge or under long-term loan arrangements that were never expected to be repaid.
For many Arab states, Soviet military assistance was important both in its geo-political and military aspects. However, although Soviet military assistance provided some tactical advantage for its allies during the Arab-Israeli conflict, it failed to give them superiority.
There were a number of reasons for such low effectiveness. The main reason is that the Soviet Union provided only inadequate and selective training to its clients and therefore they had only a poor ability to absorb and use more advanced Soviet weapons. Although the Soviet Union supplied Syria and Egypt with MiG-21 and Su-7 fighters, T-55 tanks and other advanced equipment, they still suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1967 war.
Later, the Soviet Union provided Syria over $20 billion of weapons, but the Syrian armed forces failed to absorb them due to their ongoing operations in Lebanon, preoccupation with internal security objectives, and political problems. This was demonstrated during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when Syrian troops showed very limited capability despite large shipments of weapons from the Soviet Union. Most improvements in Syrian capabilities are attributed to their improved skill in using old weapons rather then new high-tech supplies from the Soviet Union. In fact no Soviet military assistance could compensate for the fact that Israel possessed better-trained and better-equipped forces with much higher readiness levels and overall efficiency.
The second reason for the low impact of Soviet military assistance was Moscow’s restraint in offering particular advanced weapons (including Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMD) to its clients, fearing escalation of the conflict would drag the Soviet Union and the United States into direct confrontation. While new equipment was supplied, the newest and most advanced weaponry, such as SS-1 “Scud” SSMs, though promised, was held back. Soviet military cooperation with Arab states was provided as long as the main Cold War bargain — cheap weapons supplies for political influence — benefited both sides. However, even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union could not completely restrain its clients’ actions, limiting its political influence. Moreover, once the bargain was no longer acceptable, both sides used the termination of military assistance as a geopolitical signal. In 1972, Egypt cut off all military ties with the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union did not provide any military assistance to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq or Gulf wars.
After the end of Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s military cooperation with regional states underwent a significant transition away from the two previous main principles of Soviet military cooperation.
On one hand, Russia was no longer in the position to offer large-scale financial donations, in the form of weapons’ supplies, in exchange for illusory political influence over traditional Soviet allies. Moreover, until recently it was unclear whether reasserting its political role in the Middle East was indeed among the priorities of Russia’s foreign and security policy (political statements were rarely backed by real actions).
On the other hand, Russia was no longer prepared to exercise self-restraint in its arms sales to the region as long as financial arrangements were beneficial for the Russian defense industry, which over the past decade had grown to depend on arms exports for its survival. All arms sales were seen as purely commercial projects, often driven by individual Russian arms-producing or arms-exporting companies. This was clearly demonstrated in Russia’s military cooperation program with Iran, which was continued despite active U.S. pressure including sanctions. A similar lack of restraint is demonstrated in Russia’s proposals to Syria and Libya, as well as declared plans to restore active military cooperation with Iraq once sanctions are lifted.
As a result of these two changes, Russia’s military cooperation with Middle East states, while reduced in scale, may potentially have a much greater impact on regional security if including such weapons as missiles. Moreover, Russia’s desperate attempts to penetrate the world’s largest arms market in the Middle East now faces competition from other suppliers — such as Ukraine, Belorus, Eastern European states, China and North Korea–all offering used and older models of equipment and modernization of ex-Soviet equipment for lower prices. This places the sale of advanced weapons systems at the top of Russia’s arms marketing strategy for the Middle East.
Finally, the most significant feature of Russia’s new post-Cold War foreign military assistance is that it is more and more often provided by private Russian actors acting without state sanction, or in some cases in violation of Russia’s declared policy. The most striking case of such assistance is the training of Iranian scientists, including those dealing with ballistic missile technology, in Russian universities and scientific institutions. There is also the possibility of Russian scientists moving to Iran and Iraq in exchange for highly paid positions.
Another category of Russia’s private actors are the military advisers who worked in the Middle East during the Soviet period, many of whom continue to do so in a private capacity after they have left the Russian armed forces by signing individual contracts with the former host country. From the 1950s onward, the Soviet Union sent over 80,000 military advisers to the Middle East and trained over 55,000 officers from Middle East countries in its military schools and academies. According to Russian sources, at present only around 360 Russian military specialists officially work in the Middle East and 270 officers from the region are being educated in Russian military schools.(1)
STRATEGIES FOR MILITARY COOPERATION
The main strategies for Russia’s military cooperation with Middle East states now include: (2)
–Arms sales on platforms and components as well as used equipment.
–Technical cooperation on upgrades, repairs and modernization of ex-Soviet equipment and production of ammunition.
–Providing Russian military in-country advisers and educating officers from Middle East armies in Russian military schools and academies, as well as training specialists to operate Russian-made equipment.
–Joint projects for modernization of Russia’s equipment for sale to third countries.
–High-level political and military exchanges and promotion of Russian weapons systems through participation in arms exhibitions in the Middle East.
–With the exception of modernization of Russian equipment for export to third countries, all the above strategies are similar to those pursued by the Soviet Union.
However, the scale of Russia’s cooperation with Middle East armies in all the traditional spheres has declined drastically over the past decade. In addition to financial constraints and growing competition from ex-Soviet and private arms suppliers, there are a number of more fundamental reasons why Russia’s offers of military cooperation are no longer readily accepted in the region unless they include services and assistance which cannot be acquired from other sources.
The main factor is the decline of Russia’s influence in the world as a whole and particularly in the Middle East. Russia’s voluntary and abrupt withdrawal from the region left ex-Soviet allies in strategic limbo, with a great sense of vulnerability and uncertainty. While the Russian government was busy developing relations with the United States and Europe, Arab states sought to diversify their military and strategic relations. By the time the Russian government under Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov decided to refocus more attention upon the Middle East, it quickly discovered that it has lost credibility and is no longer perceived as major regional power. Moreover, many states understand that Russia is desperately trying to obtain great power status symbols while being unwilling to provide funds to support its influence.
Thus Russia’s initial attempts to revitalize ex-Soviet alliances in the Middle East were met with a great deal of skepticism practically everywhere in the region. Many states like Syria, Yemen and Libya (after the sanctions were lifted) are now seeking to use arms sales as a vehicle to gain more leverage over European and U.S. policies. Moreover, many states are acutely aware about Russia’s desperate dependence on arms exports and try to lengthen negotiations in order to secure better financial conditions. Unlike the United States, which continues to provide financial assistance to Egypt, Israel and Jordan for acquiring its equipment and offers training, Russia is no longer in the position to do so.
Thus the only two states where Russia did manage to link military cooperation to political relations were Iran and Iraq. Iraq needed Russia’s support to lift sanctions and hopes to use its assistance to eventually rebuild its military capability. Iran needs Russia to provide military equipment not available from Western sources. However, Russia’s alliance with Iran and Iraq did little to improve its role in the Middle East, as it became a constant source of concern throughout the region, as well as in both Teheran and Baghdad.
Another factor for the loss of Russia’s credibility as a reliable military partner for Arab states can be found in Russia’s domestic policies. During the 1990s, continuous tensions and rivalry between the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and various arms exporting agencies (which were reorganized nine times between 1995 and 2000), significantly undermined both the trust in Russia’s supplies and their effectiveness. Each of the agencies pursues its own agenda in the region. Therefore, despite many high-level visits to the region by various Russian officials, practically no significant contracts were signed. Moreover, different agencies within Russia often leak information about negotiated arms export deals in the press in order to expose their domestic rivals, complicating negotiations and preventing finalization of major arms export deals.
Finally, the most important factor that has undermined the effectiveness of Russia’s military cooperation is the decline in the quality of services and equipment. The decline of Russia’s armed forces in the 1990s is well known to its potential clients in the Middle East. Although the Russian armed forces are still better equipped and trained to operate equipment than most Arab armed forces, their expertise has significantly declined. Many of the best specialists who work as military advisers and have language skills left the armed forces to find employment in the commercial sector. Those who remain in the army lost their technical skills due to shortage of funds for regular training and military exercises. The quality of military education is inadequate to address the challenges of modern warfare. Moreover, many in-country advisers working on modernization of their clients’ equipment experience delays and poor quality in supply of spare parts.
Despite uncertain and inferior service, Russia continues to seek U.S. levels of compensation for its specialists’ work while other ex-Soviet states like Ukraine and Belarus are happy to provide similar service for a fraction of the price. And finally, in many traditional Soviet client states in the Middle East, such as Syria, Libya, Algeria and Yemen there is a gradual change in the political and military elites. While the old generation was primarily educated in the Soviet Union and speaks Russian, the new generation is often pro-Western and prefers to receive education in Europe.
Despite these problems, Russia managed to preserve and in some cases expand its military-technical cooperation with Middle East countries. The following chart summarizes Russia’s arms sales to the region since 1993.
RUSSIAN ARMS DELIVERIES TO THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE 1990s Â
One Kilo-class SSK, 10 Su-24, 8 MiG-29
80 ACV*, 1 Kilo- class SSK
|200+ T-72 delivered up to 1994,* 94 AAM||
2 T-72 MBT 2 BMP-1 ACV
One Kilo class SSK, Aircraft engine license, (2 An-74T Ukraine)
|100 T-72 kits, 200 BMP-2 Kits (3)|
|UAE||80 BMP-3 ACV||95 BMP-3 ACV*||
118 BMP-3 ACV
122 BMP-3 ACV
25 BMP-3 ACV
This article is based on a presentation made at the conference “Armed Forces in the Middle East: Politics and Strategy,” held on November 15-16, 2000. The conference was sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and the Bar-Ilan University Department of Political Studies. This article will also appear as a chapter in an upcoming book Barry Rubin and Tom Keaney (eds.) Armed Forces in the Middle East (Frank Cass, upcoming).