Apr 16, 2018

The global arms race between the U.S. and Russia

Money, weapons and geopolitics are colliding all over the world as Russia — the world's second-biggest arms exporter — seeks to narrow the gap with the U.S.

Note: The Trend Indicator Value unit is based on known costs of some weapons systems and represents the transfer of military resources rather than financial value; Data: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Snapshot: Standing beside Vladimir Putin earlier this month in Ankara, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the purchase of an advanced Russian S-400 air defense system was a “done deal,” despite protests from Turkey’s NATO allies. Putin said delivery of the system would actually be accelerated.

The big picture: As in the Cold War, choosing to buy arms from Russia or the U.S. is "absolutely a political statement," says Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center.

  • For Turkey and Erdoğan, this is an opportunity "to leverage intimate ties with Russia to gain more from the U.S., particularly in Syria," according to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
  • Meanwhile, Russia exported $1.1 billion in arms last year to Egypt, historically a top U.S. customer, per SIPRI. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is hedging his bets between Moscow and Washington, and he's not the only leader in the region doing so.
  • Russia is making some inroads across the Middle East, but “competition in the region is much more intense than in Asia,” by far "the most important export market for Russian arms,” according to a Chatham House report. 56% of Russia’s arms exports since 2000 went to India or China.
  • Stronger U.S.-India ties pose a threat to Russia’s dominance in that market, but those ties have also pushed Pakistan and Russia closer together. The last two years were the first in more than a decade that Pakistan imported more Russian than American weapons.

The bottom line:

  • Weapons exports are “one of the few areas of manufacturing in which Russia can be considered a world leader,” and Moscow’s “efforts to cultivate new relationships across the world... have proven successful,” per Chatham House.
  • The U.S., which exported to twice as many countries as Russia last year, has some advantages, according to Stohl: “Russia doesn’t have all of the systems” wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia (the top U.S. customer) want, and many countries are afraid to jeopardize their relationships with Washington.
  • Russian arms, however, come with fewer strings attached.

Go deeper: Cold War 2.0.

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