Anna Borshchevskaya

Russia’s arms sales, military relationships, and paramilitary activity across the region remain central to expanding its local influence and boosting its anti-Western strategic interests.

Conflict across the Middle East continues to spiral, and the future US position in the region remains at the forefront of foreign policy discussions. However, this discussion would be incomplete without looking at Russia’s role in the region—specifically, how Moscow uses defence relationships to enable long-term competition with the West in the Middle East.

In the backdrop of the ongoing escalation between Iran and its proxies with the United States and Israel stands the question of long-term competition between great powers in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, believes he is fighting an existential battle with the United States, and the Middle East is an arena where he believes Russia can shape this competition.

Before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Middle East and North Africa had emerged as Russia’s second most important arms market. Russia itself had re-emerged as one of the world’s top arms exporters, second only to the United States.

However, with Moscow’s fixation on Ukraine, foreign policymakers must monitor the state of Russia’s arms trade and how its defence relationships in the Middle East are propelling its influence and larger strategic interests. Russian defence presence in the Middle East stands on three pillars: arms sales (along with joint military exercises), access to military bases, and use of paramilitary forces, chiefly the Wagner group, recently renamed the Afrika Korps.

Arms Deals with the Middle East

Available data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) shows that Russia’s share of global arms exports fell before the invasion of Ukraine. However, the primary reason for this trend is that India, the top purchaser of Russian weaponry, significantly reduced its imports of these weapons (though most recently, India significantly increased its imports of Russian oil).

Russia has continued to focus on Middle East arms sales, which compete with traditionally dominant sales from the West. In February 2021, Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation stated that military exports to the Middle East had hovered around $6bn per year over the previous five years, or between 40-50% of total military exports. Russia also emerged as Algeria’s largest weapons supplier by 2021—in particular, supplying some of its most advanced systems, such as fighter aircraft, including the Sukhoi 57.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, reports citing US government officials stated that Russian supplies of weaponry became constrained by sanctions, export controls, Russia’s prohibition from using the SWIFT payment system, and its own shift in focus towards supporting its forces in Ukraine. Indeed, in private, Middle East officials expressed concern at the start of the invasion of Ukraine that Russia would be unable to deliver on existing contracts. Two years on, these concerns have been validated as the Russian military has received a drubbing at the hands of the Ukrainians, forcing Russia’s armament industry to turn its full attention to maintaining and reconstituting its own forces in Ukraine.

As the invasion progressed, some wondered if Russia’s poor military performance would reduce interest in Russian arms in the region. This poor performance has not gone unnoticed, but there has not been a corresponding drop in interest as experienced after the US-led coalition destruction of the Soviet-trained and equipped Iraqi military in 1991.

One reason for this current reality is likely to be the types of weapons Russia exports, primarily aircraft, aircraft engines, and missiles. The weaponry that has performed poorly in Ukraine, such as tanks and armoured fighting vehicles (AFV), is not a primary export.

Nor have Russian air defence systems shown themselves to be a failure. Thus, interest in Russian aircraft, missiles, and air defence systems is likely to continue. On the contrary, Iran’s use of aerial drones against the Saudi oil terminals at Abqaiq in September 2019 and the Houthi use of these drones and ballistic missiles keep Russian air defence weapons a relevant and desired commodity among countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, in recent months, some regional officials have privately observed that Western sanctions prevent additional purchases of Russian weapons, implying that their own interest in Russian weaponry has not declined. In May 2023, several sanctioned Russian weapons manufacturing companies with direct ties to the Russian military, including companies that produce helicopters deployed to fight in Ukraine, came to Saudi Arabia to participate in a trade event.

At the end of the year, Putin personally visited both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where he declared the UAE as Russia’s main trading partner in the Arab world. Reportedly, topics of discussion during these meetings included trade in advanced technology. Algeria, for its part, held a military dialogue with Russia at the end of 2023.

To be sure, there are tell-tale signs that things are not good with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state armaments manufacturer. Russia sought to retrieve parts of the defence systems it exported to countries to replenish its own weapons stocks being expended in Ukraine.

One of those countries was in the Middle East, specifically Egypt. The Wall Street Journal reported in November 2023 that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi agreed to deliver approximately 150 engines. This report came after reports in April of another Russia-Egypt deal to send Russia 40,000 rockets, a deal that ended following US pressure on Egypt.

This overall picture suggests that while Russia’s ability to export weapons to the Middle East may become limited in the long term, Moscow remains attentive to the region, which sees it as an important player in balancing the great power competition engulfing it. Arms sales are and will likely continue to be at the tip of Moscow’s foreign policy spear in this competition.


Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute’s Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Program on Great Power Competition and the Middle East.


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