Russia is apparently ready to flaunt its arms sales programs to countries at risk — or who pose a risk — of war and to do so in Africa. Recent reports announce that Moscow will continue modernizing Eritrean aircraft and sell Eritrea 80 of its Kornet-E anti-tank missiles, even though that country is on the brink of war with another Russian customer, Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia receives most of its weapons from Moscow, this is not an impediment to selling Eritrea anti-tank missiles that will obviously be used to repel Ethiopian armored advances, presumably using Russian-made tanks. Yet at the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov piously announced that both Russia and Eritrea sincerely want the “speediest settlement of conflicts on the African continent,” presumably including the dispute between these two states. Eritrean Foreign Minister Ali Seid Abdalla met with Lavrov in Moscow on April 13.
Undoubtedly Eritrea and Ethiopia’s rivalry for Moscow’s favor goes over well in a Russia desperate for influence wherever it can find it. Eritrea clearly is shopping for major power patrons and hopes to undermine at least some of Moscow’s prior support for Ethiopia. But what is clear, beyond Eritrea’s quest for leverage and enhanced capability, is Moscow’s quest for influence in Africa beyond the revenues it garners from arms sales. Russian spokesmen say that this development reflects Moscow’s intention to “activate the African track” of its foreign policy, and to focus on the following issues: Russia’s program for a new system of international relations, UN reform, bilateral relations with Eritrea, and Russia’s overall relations with African governments, particularly in the Horn of Africa.
More tangibly Russia is clearly interested in obtaining access to and influence over Eritrean minerals and energy holdings that may be discovered or developed. As Lavrov said, “There are prospects for this [enhanced cooperation] in geological survey, mineral resource development, fisheries, and construction.”
Apart from the utter cynicism of the policy of selling weapons to both sides in a rivalry that could again erupt into war, this new arms sales gambit confirms what has become a particularly sinister aspect of Russian arms sales, namely the sale of conventional weapons by both legal and illicit means to dubious states or even non-state entities. It is probably no accident that Viktor Boot, who is wanted in Belgium and a host of other countries for numerous and extensive cases of running weapons to Africa in the 1990s is being protected by the Russian government and appears openly in Moscow, as the New York Times reported last year.
Likewise it is probably not coincidental that this latest effort to sell weapons to Third World countries in crisis zones comes immediately after the revelations of Russian arms sales to Venezuela and Syria, two states known for their willingness to support terrorism. And the amount of arms being sold to these states pales in relation to what Moscow is selling Iran, Russia’s third-largest customer and a certified sponsor of terrorists around the world. It is well known that the Russian defense industrial sector is still in desperate need of arms markets because it would otherwise collapse. The fact that it is pushing for such sales suggests that this industry remains a non-competitive one relative to other major sellers in the world market and that it is under considerable pressure from them.
Another disquieting aspect of this sale and of the weapons sales to Venezuela is that Moscow appears to be following the Chinese pattern of selling arms to states in the Third World that have large-scale energy or mineral holdings or that may possess a strategic location in order to enhance its access to those resources and gain influence over the buyer’s policies. In Beijing’s case there is some added evidence that not just weapons but Chinese military personnel go to these states to guard their government’s investment, as in Sudan, another client of Russia.
The multiplication of such unsavory arms sales and the evidence of pervasive corruption in the Russian government and defense industry, as well as their unbounded cynicism, hunger for cash, and willingness to sell to just about anyone suggests a fundamental irresponsibility at work in Russian policy, assurances to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, the question must be asked what exactly Russia gains form the sale of arms to the sponsors of terrorists or of new wars that destabilize whole areas. Apart from a few million dollars to arms producers or to highly placed elites who can assess “carrying charges” and be well paid for running guns to Ethiopia, Eritrea, or other countries how exactly does the Russian economy or the do the Russian people benefit from these essentially unproductive and even counterproductive gambits?
(Kommersant, April 15; RIA-Novosti, April 13, 14; Itar-Tass, April 13, 14; Eritrean Ministry of Information Shabait Website, April 15, 16; Interfax, April 14)