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....