Africa has never been a particularly high foreign policy priority for the Russian Federation. This is mainly due to a lack of resources and capacity in Moscow; for if those were present, an ambition to aspire to a role on the continent commensurate with that of the former Soviet Union would almost certainly have followed. Nevertheless, Russian arms sellers have never neglected Africa, whether above or below the Sahara Desert. Spokesmen for Russia’s arms export agencies frequently talk of Africa is if it were the new El Dorado (RIA Novosti, September 13).
Several key factors explain this primacy given to Russian weapons exporters when it comes to the country’s relations with Africa. First, policymakers in Moscow have long viewed arms sales in Africa, if not elsewhere, as a gateway to Russian influence over energy and mineral extraction rights, for which they explicitly discern an ongoing fierce geopolitical struggle taking place (Kommersant, January 27, 2014). Another reason for pushing weapons sales is Moscow’s quest for military bases, which arms deals are supposed to facilitate. Indeed, in 2014, Moscow officially declared it was seeking a global chain of naval bases, including in Africa. And if the sale of weapons—for example to Egypt (see EDM, May 15, 2014)—can in fact be interpreted as a prelude to a request for bases, one can expect Russia to try to request such military facilities in Alexandria (RIA Novosti, February 26, 2014).
Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has said that, “The FSVTS [Federalnaya sluzhba po voyenno-tekhnicheskomu sotrudnichestvu—Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation] at the moment is, it can be said, the country’s second foreign policy agency, a second MID [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], a second Smolensk Square, because it strengthens what the diplomats do today, not just in political terms, but rather authenticated in metal, treaty relations, contracts, maintenance services, equipment repair and its maintenance in a suitable state. From Russia’s perspective, when it seeks military export contracts, it is not simply searching for a consumer with a need, but is quite literally inserting weaponry and military technologies into a region to gain or increase its influence there.” Rogozin indicated that this is Russia’s stance when he added, “They [the FSVTS] trade arms only with friends and partners” (Interfax, December 11, 2013). Arms sales are, thus, one of Russia’s critical tools for building relationships in regions where it has special interests. This is particularly true considering that arms exports are one of the few areas, including energy sales and related services, where Russia has any kind of comparative advantage globally.
This context provides the backdrop for recent claims about Russian arms sales to Africa. On September 13, Yuri Demchenko, the head of the delegation of the state military export arm Rosoboroneksport, told reporters at the international arms exhibit “Africa Aerospace and Defence 2016” that total Russian arms sales to the continent are set to exceed $21 billion. He further added that Russia wants to expand its portfolio of weapons for sale and find new customers in both North and Sub-Saharan Africa. At this exhibit, Russia displayed Yak-130 training combat jets, Ka-52 assault helicopters, the T-90 tank family, and several naval vessels (RIA Novosti, September 13).
Demchenko’s $21 billion figure sounds unrealistically high. According to Russian officials, the country sold a total of $15.2 billion in defense exports worldwide in 2015 and will sell about the same amount in 2016, while retaining a portfolio of some $55 billion in announced orders (RIA Novosti, December 30, 2015). In addition, this past April, FSVTS head Alexander Fomin actually predicted that Russian arms sales would remain around the $15 billion level for the next 2–3 years (TASS, April 17).
In fact, rather than Africa, the priority customers for Russia will almost certainly remain Asian and Middle Eastern countries (although the latter could include North African states like Egypt, Libya and Algeria). In Africa, Russia has long known it faces fierce economic competition from China, which has far outstripped Russian investments and trade with this region. Moreover, other international arms sellers are also eagerly promoting their wares, which are often technologically superior to Russian weapons, throughout Asia and Africa.
Nor should the apparent progress of Russian arms deals raise undue alarm—even despite the above-cited figures or the vigor with which President Vladimir Putin and his arms salesmen promote their weapons around the world. In fact, by 2014, Russia had lost its position to the United States as India’s prime supplier. And since then, major European producers like France and even smaller players like Israel are vigorously trying to seize further market share there from Russia (RT, November 9, 2014). Similar developments are likely in Vietnam thanks to the new agreements Hanoi has made with Washington. Moreover, Russia is finding it difficult to sustain its level of arms sales and technological competitiveness due to its well-known defense sector structural pathologies as well as the impact of Western sanctions on certain military components (see EDM, May 24). So if current trends continue, Russia is likely to fall behind in Asia if not the Middle East. Africa will then become more important as a potential market for Russian weapons sales, but it is doubtful African customers will be able to take up all the slack.
For Moscow, what is most disturbing about this trend is that wherever Russia loses market share and ground to other arms sellers, it fears its other interests and international standing will take a commensurate and corresponding hit. A Russia increasingly perceived as militarily and technologically non-competitive will almost surely become seen as more and more politically non-competitive—an outcome that would be anathema to Moscow. As such, it is only natural to expect an ever more vigorous effort by Russia to sell more to China, India, Vietnam, the Middle East, Latin America and African. But given present trends, this renewed drive is not likely to overcome the plateau Moscow has apparently now reached in its weapons exports. Indeed, it will be lucky to hold its own in the arms business over the long term.