Russia eyes Africa to boost arms sales

More than 1,200 rusted Kalashnikovs and machine guns were handed in during a civilian disarmament in South Sudan. Photograph: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
At the start of April, the UN general assembly overwhelmingly approved a new arms trade treaty. The treaty had been nearly 20 years in the making and seeks to regulate the $70bn international trade in conventional arms. Despite the recalcitrance of North Korea, Iran and Syria – the only three countries who voted against it – the treaty was widely supported, garnering the approval of 154 of the 193 nations in attendance. Twenty three abstained.

Notably, many African countries were the most strongly supportive of an arms trade treaty while among the abstentions was Russia, the world's second biggest arms exporter after the US and a highly significant arms partner with much of Africa. What the new treaty will mean for Russia-Africa relations and their arms deals remains to be seen, but Russia's military deals with Africa have shifted in recent years and the time may be right to recast this relationship.

Arms deals with Africa

As part of its foreign policy, Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with a number of African countries. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available.

In 2012, Russia's overseas arms sales reportedly exceeded $14bn, and around 80% of these sales were accounted for by state intermediary agency Rosoboronexport. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported in December 2011 that Russia accounted for 11% of the volume of major arms supplied to sub-Saharan Africa.

Rosoboronexport's cooperation with traditional importers of Russian weapons from Africa include Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Libya, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Sudan, South Africa and Uganda. It could also extend links with Zimbabwe in the not-too-distant future.

Strictly business?

Russian military deals with Africa are going strong, but since the end of the Cold War, these arms exports have changed in emphasis and in the role they play. "The current Russian arms transfers to Africa should not be interpreted the same way as they occurred under the Soviet Union," said David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. "The Soviet Union provided huge quantities of arms to client states such as Ethiopia and Angola during the Cold War. It also provided a significant amount of military training to select African countries. The focus was to counter western interests in Africa."

By contrast today, Shinn said, "Military transfers and training by Russia are commercial deals as a way to make money. Ideology is not a significant factor."

Similarly, Dmitri Bondarenko, deputy director of the African Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, said: "With African countries, the primary aim now for Russian business is to regain a competitive edge in the global arms trade, and what's interesting today is that the approach is not ideological but very pragmatic – you pay, we ship. It's simply business and nothing more."

In this business, Russia has long been a major global player, and its reputation, products and value-for-money make it a popular source for arms.

"Military equipment is one of Russia's competitive advantages", said Charles Robertson, senior economist at Renaissance Capital. "It is unfortunately for Russia less valuable than it used to be, [but] military equipment are some of the few industrial products where Russian brands are well-known."

Furthermore, said Tom Wheeler, a research associate at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Russia's two main export products are natural resources and military hardware, and of these Africa has its own supplies of the former and plenty of demand for the latter.

A broader strategy

As well as being an important area of business, some analysts also see Russia's arms trade with African countries as part of a broader strategy to gain economic links and influence in the region. The arms trade itself is significant, but it can also feed into other arrangements beyond just military deals.

"Russia has revived contacts with its African comrades that used to be traditional buyers of Soviet weaponry", said Scott Firsing, a lecturer in International Studies at Monash University in Johannesburg. But although much has changed, "it is a similar policy in the sense that they are using military diplomacy once again in order to gain stature and influence in certain countries".

According to Firsing, these military relations go on to affect Russian-African relations and economic partnerships in other industries. "[Russia] thinks strategically", he said, "and they are taking the right approach by using their expertise in everything from arms to nuclear power to satellite technology in order to ensure mutually advantageous cooperation with strategic African partners.

"They are late into the game, but have a historical advantage over others, helping many African countries win independence. And there are signs it is working. [Russian diamond company] Alrosa has prospecting mining operations in Botswana and Zimbabwe. [Russian oil company] Lukoil is now drilling three wells in the Ivory Coast, one in Ghana and one in Sierra Leone. Better late than never as they say."

Some analysts say Russia should also more explicitly target priority development projects in Africa. "There are so many investment areas", said Shaabani Nzori, a Moscow-based oil and gas specialist and foreign policy expert. "What is important these days is that Russia has to go beyond just selling arms to Africa. Still, Russia has the chance to transfer its technology to agriculture and industries in Africa."



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