Ukraine Has Ground Down Russia’s Arms Business

The Kremlin’s planned weapons exports are getting chewed up on the battlefield.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Russian-made MI-17 helicopter in the Central African Republic
A Russian-made MI-17 helicopter in the Central African Republic
A Russian-made MI-17 helicopter supporting private Russian forces, Rwandans, and loyalist forces flies over the region of Boali, Central African Republic, on Jan. 10, 2021. Florent Vergnes/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s planned big-ticket arms sales in Africa are expected to take a hit as a result of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. defense and intelligence officials told Foreign Policy, depriving the Kremlin of a major revenue source as the five-month war continues to devolve into a bitter stalemate.

The Defense Department and U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia’s severe losses of high-end equipment in Ukraine, including hundreds of tanks and helicopters disabled by American- and European-provided shoulder-fired rockets, will begin to cause significant slowdowns in the Kremlin’s arms deliveries into Africa, which could give inroads to Russia’s competitors, such as China and the United States. Russia accounts for nearly half of major arms exports to Africa, according to a count by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, primarily supplying weapons to Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, and Angola. 

“We anticipate that they’re going to have a real problem delivering equipment at the rate they’re losing equipment in Ukraine,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon. 

Russia’s planned big-ticket arms sales in Africa are expected to take a hit as a result of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. defense and intelligence officials told Foreign Policy, depriving the Kremlin of a major revenue source as the five-month war continues to devolve into a bitter stalemate.

The Defense Department and U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia’s severe losses of high-end equipment in Ukraine, including hundreds of tanks and helicopters disabled by American- and European-provided shoulder-fired rockets, will begin to cause significant slowdowns in the Kremlin’s arms deliveries into Africa, which could give inroads to Russia’s competitors, such as China and the United States. Russia accounts for nearly half of major arms exports to Africa, according to a count by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, primarily supplying weapons to Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, and Angola. 

“We anticipate that they’re going to have a real problem delivering equipment at the rate they’re losing equipment in Ukraine,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the Pentagon. 

Across Africa, Russia still has military trainers on the ground who are supporting the sales of helicopters and other equipment, the intelligence officials said. And even as the war in Ukraine has roiled the Russian defense industry and cut sharply into the footprint that the Kremlin can deploy into Africa, Russia remains focused on trying to exploit the 54-nation continent for natural resources, including oil and natural gas in Libya and gold from Sudan, which has flirted with allowing a Russian naval base on the Red Sea. 

Inside the Pentagon, top officials also see major impacts on Russia’s defense industrial base from pursuing the war in Ukraine as a result of U.S. and Western sanctions, which have already eroded the Kremlin’s ability to restock complex parts, such as guidance systems and microchips used in precision-guided munitions. 

In all, Russia accounts for about one-fifth of global arms sales. It has a long history of providing helicopters, such as the Mi-17 and Mi-35, to African clients for counterinsurgency operations. Experts said that officials in African countries are increasingly worried about getting spare parts for Soviet-era systems that are featuring heavily in Ukraine. 

“What we’re seeing is a significant challenge for them [Russia] on arms sales because of all the economic effects that they’re experiencing from their decision to pursue this war in Ukraine,” Kathleen Hicks, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official, said in May. “That is one of their major levers on the continent … they will be very constrained from using that lever going forward.” 

Arms exports aren’t just a tool of foreign policy. They also help drive the domestic Russian arms industry. Russia depends on defense exports to keep production lines humming and to support research and development costs to build new systems. In developing the Su-75 “Checkmate” fighter aircraft—a possible lower-cost alternative to the U.S.-built F-35—Russia has looked for an anchor client, such as the United Arab Emirates or Algeria, to drive down costs before beginning production, said John Parachini, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corp. And those sales have a ripple effect on Russia’s efforts to produce big-ticket items for themselves. 

“They can’t really afford to produce a smaller lot number at the price they’re having to pay for labor and materials,” Parachini said. “So they really need some export sales to lower the cost to furnish weaponry for their own military.”

While officials have not provided specifics on precise Russian sales that could be slowed down, Hicks, the Pentagon deputy secretary, said in May that Russia would struggle to produce advanced fighter jets, naval platforms, and space capabilities because of Western economic sanctions and export controls. Russia has also been hampered in its efforts to move ahead with the Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet program. 

Despite those setbacks, over the past two decades, Russia has grown into the world’s second-largest arms exporter. The Kremlin has devoted significant resources to state armaments and acquisition programs, as well as developing higher-tech systems, using a mid-2010s military modernization drive to field better aircraft and mobile artillery, as well as novel nuclear weapons systems. 

Russia won’t give up that position easily, despite the setbacks in Ukraine. “Right now, more and more resources are going to the war in Ukraine,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program. 

But Russia has to find a way to balance the task of both replenishing its own forces in an active fight in Ukraine while remaining a viable exporter, experts said. “Obviously, they’re not going to want to stop doing that because not only do they earn hard cash, but arms exports are a significant extension of Russian foreign policy,” Bendett said.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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