The U.S. intends to limit arms sales to countries that commit human rights violations. Currently, the lion’s share of U.S. weaponry is exported to Asian countries, where human rights are viewed differently than in the U.S. What are the chances that the Russian military industrial complex begins to encroach on markets that Americans decide to withdraw from?
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is preparing an overhaul of the arms export policy to increase the emphasis on human rights. The administration told Reuters that the new rules would be officially announced in September. “In some cases it will add an extra layer to getting to yes on a particular case,” a U.S. congressional source added.
According to him, the new policy will create difficulties principally in selling smaller weapons like assault rifles and surveillance equipment, which can be used by the police against civilians. Though the new policy will slow down sales, contracts concerning larger weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles or weapons for the Navy, will still be given the green light.
The administration itself admits that the updated policy will primarily affect arms sales to the Philippines, where human rights groups have called for an investigation into the brutality of security forces during raids. In particular, it has been repeatedly reported that drug traffickers may have been killed on the spot without trial.
Washington considers Manila a strategically important ally in countering China, but the bad reputation of local security forces prompted the members of the Democratic Party to propose banning U.S.-Philippines cooperation on weapons trading. However, after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to end the military agreement with the U.S., the proposal of U.S. lawmakers did not advance.
Recall that the U.S. is the world’s largest arms seller, earning it more than $175 billion a year. From 2016 to 2020, 47% of U.S. arms exports went to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone, which is not known for its consideration of human rights, accounted for 24% of total U.S. arms exports.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, took a major hit to its reputation after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in the fall of 2018; he had been highly critical of the royal family and especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, former U.S. President Donald Trump said that Riyadh spends billions “on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and many other great U.S. defense contractors,” and canceling the contracts would be “foolish.”
In this regard, Biden’s new rules are likely to be a departure from Trump’s policy, which prioritized U.S. economic interests in arms exports. Moreover, in January of this year, the White House imposed a temporary ban on arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. High-precision ammunition sales contracts are also planned to be renegotiated.
Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Arms Exports magazine, is sure that even if the Americans start to tie their arms exports to human rights, nothing will change for the Russian military-industrial complex. “To countries where human rights are violated, for example, African countries, the Americans do not supply anything anyway. But serious players like Saudi Arabia will always be able to find an explanation for why they need weapons. As a rule, the markets that the Americans work with are practically closed to Russia,” the expert explained.
In his words, if the Americans withdraw from the Middle Eastern arms market, “it does not mean that the countries of the region will immediately come to Russia for weapons.”
We already cooperate with Iraq, where the U.S. supplies weapons. The expert is sure that this initiative of the White House will remain a political declaration and it will not lead to real restrictions on supplies. “Biden is working on the Democrats’ agenda. In fact, a couple of deals will probably be broken, but nothing will change in principle,” the expert asserted.
In turn, Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, stresses that such deals are approved by Congress, and “it is Congress that has the final word.” On the other hand, it is unlikely that anything will seriously change for the U.S. military industrial complex. “The statements about tying exports to human rights are more like some kind of work behind the scenes,” the expert believes.
However, Pukhov does not rule out that, in the case that the U.S. puts restrictions on supplies, a “window of opportunity in exports for Russia will open up since people who pay huge sums of money for weapons do not like to be told how to use them. Also, we should not forget that the Russian and American arms markets are largely separate. We compete with the Americans primarily in the Indian market, which in the West is fond of being called the largest democracy,” the expert continued.
At the same time, Moscow has several advantages in competing for new markets with China. Russian weapons are more reliable and well known. “Chinese weapons, which may be in demand by the Arab monarchies and the Persian Gulf countries, are still underdeveloped as there are often problems with engines, for example. So there is a window of opportunity for us here as well,” Pukhov added.
At the same time, military expert Sergey Denisentsev reminds us that for decades there has been an implicit deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia: The Saudis buy arms from the U.S. and thus support the U.S. military industrial complex, while the Americans do not meddle in the internal political affairs of Riyadh.
“However, saying there will be a change in the export policy and going from just talk to action are not the same thing. I doubt that the Americans will take such a step. But even if it happens for political reasons, weapons from the U.S. could be supplied to troubled countries under the guise of British ones,” the expert admits.
“Russia has niches in the local markets, but it will be difficult for us to increase our presence for three reasons. First, because of high competition with suppliers from NATO countries. Second, because of the concentration in Saudi Arabia of huge stocks of weapons of a completely different engineering level. Third, because of Moscow’s unwillingness to act as a full-fledged moderator of local conflicts,” the expert says. Against this background, the Philippine market looks quite unimportant for Russia, Denisentsev adds.
“The Biden administration uses a tool for grading all countries according to their level of democracy to ensure human rights. Accordingly, if a country is authoritarian, Washington threatens to limit partnership, trade or sanctions with it,” explained political scientist Malek Dudakov.
“By doing so, Washington plans to promote the democratization of several countries. But so far everything remains at the level of rhetoric. The defense industry is beyond the scope of maxims about democracy,” the political scientist points out. “The Americans will not stop exporting arms to countries that are not particularly democratic like Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and others.”
Dudakov notes that “for the U.S., this is simply an important declarative gesture. First, it will motivate individual countries to move toward Biden’s understanding of democracy. And secondly, the White House will use this as a kind of ultimatum hanging over countries with an alternative understanding of democracy. And this is very important for Biden for domestic political reasons,” Dudakov summarized.