Russia uses arms sales to challenge the West in Middle East
Russia, its relations with the West deteriorating sharply over the conflict in Ukraine, is stepping up its drive to restore Moscow’s former influence in the Arab world and the eastern Mediterranean as US influence wanes. And, as it was during the Cold War, arms deals are a key component in the Kremlin’s effort to challenge its old adversary.
In the last few weeks, President Vladimir Putin’s regime the state-controlled Tass news agency reported that Moscow has offered to sell Iran the advanced Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile system – which would mark a colossal boost to Iran’s ability to defend its nuclear facilities against US or Israeli attack. Moscow will supply Egypt with the same weapon in 2016 under a deal worth more than $1bn.
The arrangement is part of an arms package to Egypt worth at least $2bn, proposed by Moscow, that would constitute a major revival of large-scale military cooperation.
Egypt’s “new turn toward Russia recalls the dramatic shift by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-1950s, who turned to Eastern Europe and the USSR for arms when London and Washington sought to isolate him and topple his government,” observed US analyst Bob Dreyfuss
On top of this Russia is supplying Iraq, which during the rule of Saddam Hussein was one of Moscow’s main arms customers, with Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack jets at a time when the United States was hesitant about major arms deliveries to the Iraqi military, in disarray after the northern blitzkrieg by the Islamic States (IS) in the summer of 2014.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, 10 of these aircraft, which were Iraqi Air Force jets flown to Iran in the 1991 Gulf War, were actually supplied by the Islamic Republic under an agreement between Moscow and Tehran to expedite the warplanes to the beleaguered Baghdad government.
Capitalising on US foot-dragging to fast-track arms shipments already ordered by the Iraqis, primarily to bolster their demoralised forces, the Russians convinced Baghdad to renew a controversial arms deal worth $4.2bn that was put on ice in 2012 amid corruption allegations.
This includes the sale of 28 Mil Mi-28NE attack helicopters, the export version of the all-weather Russian tank-killing Mi-28 that are designed to counter insurgent forces like the IS’s jihadists.
The arms also includes 48 Pantsir S-1 short-to-medium-range air defence missile systems. But since IS has does not have an operational air force, although it has mounted a couple of strikes in captured jets, delivery of the Pantsirs can wait.
Russia has also been supplying the embattled Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad with a continuous flow of weapons and ammunition since the civil war in that former Soviet client state erupted in March 2011 and shows no sign of ending four year on. This gives Moscow additional leverage in the Middle East.
The Americans’ dithering in supplying arms and military support to the fractured Syrian rebel forces while reluctant to give its supposed ally in Iraq, the threatened Baghdad government, the weapons it demands for the fight against IS has undermined the support that key Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have accorded the US over the last five decades.
Russia’s arms deals with the regime of Egypt’s military strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, and with Iran constitute Moscow’s main arms sales thrust into the Middle East, which will allow Putin to apply pressure on the US and the European Union as the conflict in the Ukraine escalates.
Putin’s push into Egypt, which in 1955 was the first Arab state to buy Soviet arms and remained a close ally of Moscow until the mid-1970s, is arguably the most critical of Russia’s advances in recent years as it recovers from a string of historic setbacks, aided by the upheavals of the Arab Spring.
When the late Anwar Sadat signed the historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt moved into the US orbit and has since received around $1.1bn a year in US military aid. But relations with Washington have deteriorated since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, a longtime key US ally, in 2011, and the military’s July 2013 overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who was Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
The Americans have rolled back on military deliveries to Egypt as Sissi, the former commander of the army, imposed a series of domestic restrictions. The US action has pushed Sissi towards Moscow’s eager arms, signalling a geopolitical U-turn by a disillusioned Cairo, taking the Arab world’s most populous nation back into Moscow’s orbit as relations with the US become increasingly difficult.
This is taking place at a time when the Americans are reducing their military and political presence in the Middle East, seeking to reshape the geopolitical paradigm in the Sunni-dominated region by negotiating a rapprochement with Shiite Iran, the country the Obama administration sees as the region’s paramount power of the future.
Putin’s visit to Egypt on 9-10 February put the stamp of strategic partnership on the emerging relationship with Egypt and mutual interests that are aligning closely.
Russia’s economic crisis stemming from the collapse of oil prices since last summer could prove to be an impediment. But its growing military exports will help turn that around. Putin has revitalised Russia’s defence industry, which in 2013 generated arm exports totalling $13bn.
US analyst Jack Caravelli observed in October that was is through “arms sales to Syria and Iran that Russia most effectively uses its weapons deals clout to advance the Kremlin’s strategic interests.”
The Antey missile deal with Iran is seen as an effort by Moscow to patch up strained relations with Tehran that followed Russia’s 2000 cancellation of the planned sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, a less sophisticated and short-range air-defence system, under heavy US and Israeli pressure.
But times have changed dramatically as Putin goes all-out to rebuild the power Moscow held before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.
It’s not clear whether the offer of the mobile Antey-2500, NATO codename SA-23 Gladiator and capable of shooting down aircraft and precision guided bombs as well as missiles, is linked the effort the Tehran government of reformist President Hassan Rouhani has made to conclude an historic agreement with the US and other world powers – including Russia – to curtail its nuclear programme in return for easing harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic imposed in recent years.
But, with a 30 June deadline for an agreement approaching, an arms deal involving such powerful and sophisticated weapons as the Antey could stiffen the fierce opposition by Iranian hardliners, including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, to such a rapprochement. They they are convinced that will dangerously weaken the Islamic Republic just as it’s expanding its influence across the region, from Yemen to Lebanon.
Putin’s recent successes in the Middle East look formidable, but the region is convulsed by unparalleled upheaval and all the signs are that this will only get worse, and that could work to Moscow’s advantage, even though its military reach these days is a shadow of its might at the height of the Cold War, whereas the Americans still provide muscle when pushed hard enough.
But it will take Arab states like Egypt whose military forces use US systems and doctrine many years, not to mention countless billions of dollars, to revert to Moscow’s equipment, most of which is inferior to US systems.
Some observers don’t believe Russia will be able to sustain its new-found influence in the region. Arab analyst Hussein Ibish says “the whole notion of a new Arab-Russian entente is practically deficient and morally indefensible. Russia cannot supply the Arabs with what they need, except in the limited case of Assad, of all people. And the role it’s playing in Syria ought to make Russia unacceptable as a potential Arab ally, even if it could.
“All of the talk about the old alliance between the United States and its major Arab allies being moribund or in its death throes is not only exaggerated, it is reckless and irresponsible. The Americans and the Arab states still need each other as much, if not more, than ever.”