In mid-December, the United Nations granted Russia an exemption to the arms embargo on the Central African Republic, after a petition from Moscow to supply the country’s embattled military with light arms and ammunition, according to reporting by the AFP. The second-largest arms exporter in the world after the United States, Russia already sells billions of dollars in weapons annually across Africa. In an email interview, Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discusses Russia’s arms trade with Africa, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and how arms sales fit into Russia’s broader approach to the continent.
WPR: What are Russia’s major arms sales relationships in Africa, and how important is the African market to its overall arms trade?
Paul Stronski: Russia has always been a significant supplier of arms to Africa, dating back to the Soviet era. At that time, the Soviet arms trade was largely confined to countries that were ideologically aligned, or at least friendly to the Soviet Union, giving the commercial relationships clear Cold War overtones. Russian arms sales to the continent in the past decade, however, have been commercially driven. They are also important in shoring up the Russian military-industrial complex—an important industry and key constituency of the Putin regime’s domestic support in terms of people who both control the industry and the factory workers who are employed by it.
With only about 12 percent of Russian arms exports going to Africa in 2016, the continent is not an overwhelmingly large market in terms of Russia’s total sales. It is, however, an important market as Africa is second only to Asia-Oceana, which accounts for 68 percent, as a destination for Russian arms, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. And given rising defense spending across Africa and concerns about Islamist extremism in some countries, Russia sees the continent as an area of opportunity for growth.
Conversely, Russia is by far the largest arms supplier to Africa, with 35 percent of the continent’s arms imports coming from Russian suppliers—mostly Rosoboronexport, a state intermediary with exclusive rights to export the full range of permitted arms for sale. Rosoboronexport reportedly has long-term military and technical relations with Algeria, Angola, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe and several other states that include arms sales and weapons repair. The company reportedly has signed $21 billion worth of contracts in Africa since its founding in 2000, but it is not clear how many of these contracts have been implemented through to the sales and delivery phase. The lack of information on how many arms contracts were actually implemented makes it difficult to gauge how robust Russia’s realized arms sales actually are.
Russian arms do have a comparative advantage to their competitors, in that they are cheaper than American and other Western-produced arms, yet still reliable and compatible with Soviet-era stocks still in the region. As an indication of the importance of the African market to the Russian arms industry, Russia has built several service centers in Africa since 2013 to maintain and repair Russian helicopters and other arms exports. It also offers modernization programs for existing weapons stocks, providing relatively inexpensive ways to enhance military readiness, suggesting sales are part of a broad package of military technical cooperation and assistance.
WPR: What are the implications of Russian arms sales in Africa, particularly with regard to the proliferation of light arms?
Stronski: The human costs of the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, including the AK-47, are dramatic. They have helped fuel violent conflict and gender-based violence in various parts of Africa, according to a 2017 Oxfam study on arms proliferation in Africa. Russian and Chinese weapons have reportedly fueled the conflict in South Sudan, where both Moscow and Beijing opposed a 2017 effort to impose a United Nations arms embargo and sanctions.
Light weapons can also fall into the hands of violent extremist groups. Because of these risks, Russia reportedly has tightened end-user controls on its weapons deliveries over the years. However, many of the small arms and light weapons used illicitly in Africa are purchased illegally from arms brokers, seized from state institutions by non-state actors, or diverted from official state stocks through corruption. Official state stockpiles, for example, were looted from the Central African Republic in 2013 and from Libya after the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. Some of those Libyan weapons have helped fuel conflicts in Gaza, Mali, Niger, Somalia and Syria, according to the U.N.
Given the robust illicit arms trade in Africa, it is important that Russia continue to enhance end-user controls on all of its sales to the region. Russia recently requested that the U.N. grant it permission to send weapons to the Central African Republic, a country that has been under a U.N. arms embargo since 2013. The arms were earmarked for European Union-trained battalions in the Central African Republic’s military. The weapons transfer was ultimately approved by the U.N. after Russia provided the U.N. with the serial numbers of the weapons to allow international observers to track them. Russia also agreed to enhance security at storage facilities in the country and to stagger shipments to enhance observers’ ability to monitor deliveries. Several Western countries insisted on this given the 2013 looting of government arms in the country. It is important that Russia abide by such stringent measures in this and all future arms deliveries to the region.
WPR: How do arms sales fit into Russia’s approach to broader economic and political ties with Africa, and how have they affected Russia’s position on issues like U.N. sanctions against arms deals with certain African countries?
Stronski: Russian arms sales are part of Russia’s broader policy of building influence globally by creating economic links and long-term dependencies on Russian technology. The Russian economy is largely based on natural resource extraction—much like Africa’s. So the arms trade is one of the few sectors of the Russian economy where Russian manufactured products are marketable on the continent. Russia has tried to target North African countries, justifying to Russian domestic audiences and the international community that Russian arms sales there are needed to fight radical extremist groups and prevent the mass exodus of African refugees into Europe.
With the United States and Europe increasingly looking inward, the arms trade is also part of Russia’s efforts to insert itself in places where there are vacuums of Western power or antagonistic relations between African countries and the West. This likely explains Russia’s efforts to broker arms deals and military cooperation arrangements with Egypt, long considered a close U.S. ally. Russia also has used the threat of violent extremism emanating from Libya to help sell—and certainly justify sales of—weapons to Egypt and other countries in the region. It has had some success in recent sales to Algeria, a country where France has long had a privileged position as an economic and security partner.
Beyond the arms trade, Russia aspires to become more influential in Africa. It takes part in U.N. peacekeeping operations, putting troops on the ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sudan and South Sudan. Russia also uses debt relief as a tool for influence in Africa, often offering debt relief in return for arms sales or natural resource exploration rights for Russian companies. Algeria, Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea, Libya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia, among others, have all been recipients of Russian debt relief over the past decade. In some cases, Russian debt relief is a way that Moscow can enhance its influence in Africa despite its relatively marginal importance as a trade partner with the continent. Some Russian debt relief has been conducted under the auspices of various U.N. sustainable development programs. Russia also has sought to invest in the region’s oil and gas sectors and mining, although its efforts to do so pale in comparison to China’s. Western sanctions and Russia’s economic slowdown appear to have further weakened Russia’s competitiveness in these sectors.