Examining a Russian T-90 tank at the Russian Arms Expo in Nizhny Tagil, Russia, September 2013
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Now in its sixth month, Russia’s assault on Ukraine has become an unrelenting war of attrition. The Russian military has suffered as many as 80,000 casualties, according to Pentagon estimates, and it has lost hundreds of planes, tanks, and armored vehicles. The longer the war continues, the more challenging the situation will be for Russia’s defense industrial base, which is being targeted by unprecedented Western sanctions and export controls. Although their full impact may not be evident now, these strains are likely to have long-term implications for Russia’s ability to project power abroad, especially in the Middle East. Moscow has long competed with the United States and Europe as a major supplier of advanced weapons and spare parts to Arab governments. But the war in Ukraine may reduce its capacity to reliably deliver these goods for the next few years and possibly longer, depending on how long the conflict lasts.  

Any dent in Russian arms sales in the Middle East will likely be greeted by the Biden administration as a welcome development, given its tendency to view the region through the lens of great-power competition and fragile regional security balances. The United States sees Russian arms sales as a driver of conflict in the region and a tool with which Moscow extends its political and military influence. According to this logic, fewer Russian arms sales could mean less military sway for Moscow and greater regional stability. But a reduction of Russia’s share of the Middle East arms market might also present second- and third-order challenges for U.S. interests, including the potential emergence of supply gaps that could prompt other sellers, such as China and Turkey, to capitalize on Russia’s troubles. At the same time, Moscow’s growing need for cash may encourage it to adopt ever more irresponsible defense export policies even as its overall share of arms sales in the region shrinks.

To manage these risks, the Biden administration should not rush to fill any real or anticipated gap left by declining Russian arms sales, even if other countries stand to gain a greater share of the market. As it seeks to draw down its military presence in the Middle East, Washington will need to get more comfortable with multipolarity and begin to see itself as one player among many. The United States needs to avoid overindulging Arab autocrats with arms or security guarantees that might trigger instability or by ignoring their domestic human rights abuses. When the Biden administration deems new arms sales necessary, these sales should be integrated into a comprehensive strategy that fills specific and legitimate gaps in the defense capability of U.S. partners and, more important, prioritizes economic and political reform to address the mounting internal challenges that many countries in the region face.

RUSSIAN ARMS, INC.

Over the past decade, Russia has reasserted its role as a major player in the Middle East. It has done so by exploiting instability and regional divides, often engaging with and offering arms to both sides of long-standing rivalries—for instance, between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Arms sales and military assistance advance both economic and geopolitical goals for Moscow. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was near collapse, for example, Russia provided a lifeline of weapons and military support in exchange for rights to air bases and ports for Russian forces and contracts for oil and gas exploration. In Libya, Russia again used military intervention to advance its broader strategic interests, sending mercenaries, regular military personnel, and advanced weaponry to support militia leader Khalifa Haftar in his 2019 bid to topple the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Although that effort failed, it left Russian forces positioned at air bases and around oil facilities across the country.

Since 2012, Russia has accounted for roughly 16 percent of all arms sales to countries in the Middle East and North Africa, second only to the United States, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Its largest regional clients over the last five years have been Algeria (which purchases 70 percent of its arms imports from Russia), Egypt, and Iraq. Middle Eastern buyers are attracted to Russia’s military wares because of their low cost and Moscow’s willingness to sell them to anyone who can pay. Russia’s most famous export may be the AK-47, a cheap assault-style weapon developed in the Soviet Union that has flooded war zones for 70 years and is now manufactured around the world. But these days, Moscow’s most internationally sought-after military merchandise is more advanced: the S-400 air defense system and Su-35 fighter aircraft, for instance.

Buyers are attracted to Russia’s military wares because of their low cost and Moscow’s willingness to sell them to anyone.

Russian arms sales to the Middle East had begun to fall even before the war broke out in Ukraine, dipping to just 10 percent of sales in the region between 2019 and 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. One reason for the drop may be the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a 2017 law that imposes financial penalties on any country that makes a “significant transaction” with Russian arms manufacturers. But the United States has been inconsistent in its enforcement of the law, and demand for Russian arms remains strong, even among allies of the United States. Egypt, for example, reached a major deal to buy Russian aircraft in 2019 when it could not get comparable technology elsewhere, and the United States did not invoke the sanctions act. India has also continued to buy Russian weapons without incurring sanctions.

SOLD OUT

Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has faced a much more serious challenge to its role as a top regional arms seller. According to top Biden administration and U.S. intelligence officials, the country’s defense industrial base has been damaged by attrition and sanctions alike. In testimony before the U.S. Senate in May, for example, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo noted that Russia was using semiconductors meant for refrigerators and dishwashers in military equipment because of shortages of specialized semiconductors. Despite such official pronouncements, it is important not to overstate the efficacy of sanctions. Experts disagree on the severity of their effect, something that is difficult to gauge because of Russia’s lack of transparency. Moscow is also clearly trying to circumvent these restrictions through a variety of means, reportedly including soliciting help from Chinese companies. Still, any disruptions in supplies of advanced components and crucial parts will exacerbate the existing limitations of Russian arms producers, including outdated manufacturing practices, high debt, and old equipment. And with Russian troops bogged down in Ukraine, more and more of Russia’s available production capacity must go to its war effort.

These challenges won’t render Russia entirely unable to produce and sell arms abroad, but they could impede its ability to deliver and maintain specific weapons systems—especially long-range missiles, tanks, and air defense platforms, which are in high demand from Russian forces in Ukraine and arms buyers in the Middle East.

Evidence of the disruption of Russian arms sales is likely to become apparent only over time, but already there are indications that producers are falling behind on orders. Indian defense officials have told the press that they expect short-term delays in the delivery of everything from missile systems to fighter jets. Meanwhile, U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe that Russia will struggle to deliver arms on time to countries in Africa, including Arab governments such as Algeria and Egypt.

Already, there are indications that Russian producers are falling behind on orders.

A declining Russian role in the region’s lucrative arms trade would have profound effects for Russia’s position in the Middle East. Not only would Moscow lose much-needed revenue if it cannot meet Middle Eastern demand for weapons but its ability to exert political influence in the region could diminish without arms sales as an entry point. Although Russia has sought other avenues to build its influence, such as engaging with nonstate actors, peddling propaganda and disinformation, and pursuing deals in the energy, agricultural, infrastructure, and tourism sectors, these efforts have had mixed results and pale in comparison with Moscow’s role as an arms provider.

PROCEED WITH CAUTION

A drop in Russian arms sales could have a strategic upside for the United States. Washington has long viewed Russian military activities in the Middle East as a source of instability, particularly in Syria and Libya. And Russia’s malign role in conflicts in these countries suggests that such concerns are not misplaced, even if they are sometimes overstated.

But reduced Russian influence via arms sales could also generate new challenges for the United States. For one thing, it could create a void for another U.S. competitor, such as China, to fill. China has been seeking to expand its arms exports and thereby its role in the Middle East, and like Russia, it offers cheap weapons without preconditions. Alternately, a regional supplier such as Turkey could step in to intensify the marketing of its own systems. In addition, Arab states could seize on Washington’s fear of encroachment by new arms sellers to try to extract concessions from the United States, as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have already sought to do to avoid scrutiny of their human rights records.

The Biden administration is already plying autocratic Arab partners with weapons to deter and counter Iran and, implicitly, to reward them for making peace with Israel or to induce them to pump more oil. It should not add filling the void left by declining Russian arms sales as yet another impetus. China may have ambitions to become a major weapons supplier to the Middle East, and it has certainly carved out a niche by providing low-cost capabilities such as drones. Yet buyers have raised concerns about the quality of these weapons, and it is not clear that Chinese producers are fully up to the task of competing with other suppliers to offer the high-end systems that Middle Eastern customers increasingly demand. Moreover, the volume of Chinese arms flows to the region remains relatively small, making up less than five percent of total imports to the Middle East between 2016 and 2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Given these limitations, the United States should avoid trying to dissuade hedging Arab partners from engaging with China or other arms exporters by expediting U.S. weapons transfers or easing restrictions on such weapons. That will require pushing back against the demands of U.S. military leaders, ambassadors, and others who have urged the United States to speed up arms sales to Middle Eastern partners to preempt other possible sellers and preserve or extend U.S. influence. Such calls for expedited transfers seem to hinge on the assumption that rushing weapons to partners engenders reciprocity and gratitude in the form of pro-U.S. policies, but there is little empirical evidence that this is the case. Washington need not fear that applying the appropriate due diligence to arms sales will erode its influence in Arab capitals.

In specific instances, it may make sense for the United States to sell new arms to regional partners. But any U.S. arms transfers should be part of a holistic approach that places greater priority on political reforms and economic development in recipient countries. One country that could benefit from such a comprehensive strategy is Egypt, which the United States appears to be working to wean off Russian arms. In May, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of CH-47F Chinook helicopters to Cairo, and it seems likely to greenlight the sale of F-15 aircraft as well. But using such transfers to compete with Russia or China sends unhelpful political signals to a regime engaged in political repression and human rights abuses and facing a daunting economic crisis. The United States should therefore continue to condition military aid to Egypt on a willingness to enact much-needed economic, political, and judicial reforms, such as ending the widespread imprisonment of rights activists and critics of the regime. Only through a more deliberate and restrained approach to arms sales can Washington hope to balance security priorities with the broader political and economic needs of the region.

Every month that the war in Ukraine drags on, the costs to Russia’s defense industrial base are likely to grow. Even an isolated and diminished Russia will probably remain a player in the Middle East, as evidenced by the desire of Arab states to hedge their bets and avoid alienating President Vladimir Putin. But any erosion of Moscow’s once prominent profile as an arms seller could have unforeseen ripple effects in a conflict-prone region that is awash in weapons and hungry for more. This shakeup will create opportunities and risks for the United States, both of which will necessitate a measured response. Just because there might be new demands for weapons in the Middle East doesn’t mean that Washington should meet them.

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  • JENNIFER KAVANAGH is a Senior Fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 
  • FREDERIC WEHREY is a Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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