Russia now has little hope of becoming a major arms supplier in the Middle East


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely prove to be the final nail in the coffin of Moscow’s goal of becoming a major supplier of military hardware to the Middle East and North Africa.

On September 30, 2015, Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict alongside President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime was on the defensive at the time. Over the next few months, several of his new weapon systems made their combat debut, hitting targets across Syria and helping Assad’s forces regain the offensive against his ragtag rebel opponents.

Russia took the opportunity presented by the conflict to showcase and put its military hardware to the test. While the Russian expeditionary force from western Syria included Soviet-era workhorse aircraft like the Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot, sleek new aircraft like the Su-34 Fullback were also in action. Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers, which had never been used in combat before, flew long-range missions from Russia itself to bomb targets in Syria. In another demonstration of the Russian military’s reach, Kalibr cruise missiles were fired from the Caspian Sea into Syria early in the conflict.

In January, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former US Army commander, admitted to being surprised “when Kalibr missiles flew out of the Caspian Sea and hit targets in Syria.”

“That was a surprise to me, not only the ability but I didn’t even know they were there,” he confessed.

Hodges once called Russia’s Syria campaign a “live-fire training opportunity” for Moscow’s military. This view was shared by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who described his campaign in Syria as “more effective training for the country’s military than exercises”.

It appeared that the “new” Russian military would seize the opportunity to address the shortcomings that were so evident in its infamous five-day war against Georgia in August 2008, a conflict that Michael Kofman, a well-known Russia military expert, had once suggested “should be regarded as the last hurrah of the Soviet military.”

As Russia’s campaign in Syria began, rumors circulated that Algeria, a longtime buyer of Russian hardware, wanted Su-34s after seeing them in action. Putin certainly tried to use the Syria conflict to market Russian hardware, and Moscow has never shied away from using the war as an opportunity to increase its share of the unstable region’s arms market.

“As for the conflict situation in the Middle East, I don’t hide it, and everyone understands that. The more conflicts there are, the more they buy weapons from us,” said Sergei Chemezov, the head of the Rostec state defense of Russia’s conglomerate and a close ally Putin’s in 2015

Putin has completed a lucrative sale of S-400 long-range air defense missile systems to NATO member Turkey in an unprecedented deal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even hinted that his country might be interested in Russian Su-35 flanks, or even the fifth generation Su-57 that Felon Moscow has been developing for a long time. Putin personally showed Erdogan these planes during a 2019 visit to Russia after buying ice cream for the Turkish leader.

Then there is Egypt. In the mid-2010s, Egypt bought more military equipment from Moscow than at any time since the 1970s. These acquisitions included a fleet of MiG-29M2 fighters and S-300VM anti-aircraft missile systems. Iraq also bought T-90 main battle tanks from Russia in lieu of more US-built M1 Abrams, having previously bought a fleet of Russian attack helicopters, and has repeatedly considered buying S-400s in recent years.

After drones damaged Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities in September 2019, Putin took the opportunity to urge regional countries to buy Russian air defenses, claiming they are vastly superior to the US-built defense systems operated by the Saudis. In 2017, Russia and the United Arab Emirates reportedly developed a fifth-generation jet based on the MiG-29. Russia suggested that the UAE could co-produce its alleged fifth-generation Su-75 Checkmate in late 2021.

However, shortcomings in what Russia can actually offer, what regional countries want and the difficulty of doing business with Moscow have even become apparent In front the Ukraine war.

First, the United States introduced the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in 2017. Among other things, this law stipulates the imposition of sanctions on any country that buys high-quality Russian military equipment. CAATSA sanctions were imposed on Ankara in December 2020 for its S-400 purchase.

Then there were the proposals that never got off the ground and the deals that fell through.

While Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase the S-400 in 2017, it ultimately opted for the American THAAD system. Since talks to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter jet with Russia, the United States allowed the UAE to buy 50 fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II jets in late 2020. While Abu Dhabi has suspended talks on this landmark deal, that doesn’t mean it will turn to Russia for an alternative. It also remains to be seen whether Russia can even fully develop either the Su-75 or the Su-57. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates seem content with their multi-billion dollar order for 80 extremely impressive French 4.5-generation Dassault Rafale F4 jets they signed in late 2021.

In 2018, Egypt ordered a Su-35 fleet, risking CAATSA sanctions. Egypt issued this order after decades of refusal by the United States to sell it advanced long-range air-to-air missiles or heavy air superiority fighters. However, Egypt is reportedly unhappy with its purchase. For one thing, the Su-35 that Russia built for it lacks the Actively Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. In addition, Egypt found that the electronic countermeasures of its Rafale jets quickly overwhelmed the Su-35’s Irbis-E radar. Now Washington seems poised to finally sell Cairo F-15s for the first time, which would completely negate its need for Su-35s.

It is worth repeating that Moscow has experienced all these setbacks before its military rolled into Ukraine on February 24 and suffered hardware losses that fatally undermined Putin’s carefully cultivated image of a modern and competent Russian military. In retrospect, CAATSA will look like a minor annoyance compared to the sweeping sanctions imposed on Moscow for its aggression against its neighbor.

Russia will not only find it significantly more difficult to sell new weapon systems, but also to maintain and supply spare parts to existing operators of Russian hardware. This could prompt even longtime Russian defense customers like Algeria to reconsider their options for the future.

“I think a lot of countries that have these old Russian systems will be worried — not just worried about buying new fancy systems like the S-400, but we’re just talking about ammo, spare parts, basic supplies for Russian legacy systems that they already have,” Donald Lu, deputy secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, told a Senate foreign relations subcommittee in early March.

All of these difficulties, obstacles, and uncertainties will most likely lead more countries in the Middle East, like most other parts of the world, to conclude that getting into the arms deal with Russia is more trouble than it’s worth.


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