Impact of the U.S. and Allied Sanction Regimes on Russian Arms Sales

by John V. Parachini, Ryan Bauer, Peter A. Wilson

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Research Questions

  1. What are the challenges and prospects of using third-party sanctions to prevent Russian arms sales abroad?
  2. Which country cases might be more susceptible to diplomatic discussion about alternatives to purchasing Russian weapons? Which country cases will prove difficult?

In this report, the authors examine Russian arms exports and the impact of sanctions designed to discourage third country purchases and raise the cost of future Russian malign interference in other nation-states. The authors draw from publicly available information compiled in a database to illustrate when U.S. diplomatic engagement or the prospect of U.S. sanctions has led third countries to reconsider importing Russian weapons. The data set used for this report contains 65 cases in 33 countries of Russian arms export negotiations and sales, beginning in July 2017 and ending in May 2021; these cases illustrate that, as U.S. officials acknowledge, the monetary value of lost Russian arms sales due to U.S. diplomatic efforts buttressed by the prospect of third-party sanctions is difficult to determine with precision.

However, there are several examples of countries that clearly entertained purchasing Russian weapons and then, because of the chilling effect of possible sanctions, demurred and opted not to do so. Analysis of these cases indicates that diplomatic outreach to arms-buying countries will likely be most effective when it acknowledges the legacy of Russian arms exports; the desire to assert independence from Russia and/or the United States; and the availability of suitable, competitively priced alternatives to meet buyers' security needs. To better meet the objectives of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the United States must ensure that foreign officials and publics receive a narrative focused mainly on the harm caused by Russian malign behavior rather than the threat of U.S. sanctions.

Key Findings

  • While the cost to Russia of U.S. diplomatic efforts buttressed by the prospect of third-party sanctions is difficult to determine with precision, there is no question that the "chilling effect" has resulted in Russia losing arms sales.
  • Countries with significant portions of their military arsenal composed of Soviet Union and Russian weapons systems, such as Vietnam and India, face formidable challenges in quick diversification away from Russian systems; even countries eager to diversify away from Russian systems may find it difficult and costly to do in the short run.
  • Countries that do not have legacy arsenals composed of Soviet and Russian systems may be more amenable to eschewing Russian arms export offers if suitable, competitively priced, and politically desirable alternatives are available.
  • Diplomacy paired with the prospect of sanctions will likely be most effective when it acknowledges the legacy of Russian arms exports to certain countries; the desire to assert independence from the influence of Russia and/or the United States; and the availability of suitable, competitively priced alternatives to meet buyers' security needs.

Recommendations

  • The United States will need to approach diplomatic discussions strategically with governments that have large quantities of former Soviet or Russian weapons in their arsenal—especially states with which the United States has other important or even vital interests.
  • The United States should choose strategically when to leverage the prospect of sanctions, when to issue a waiver, and when to demur on the issue of sanctions altogether.
  • The United States, European Union, and like-minded nations need to provide credible diplomatic and military alternatives to Russian arms exports and work with countries to address their security needs; this effort might be aided by recasting the diplomatic narrative to focus on Russian malign behavior rather than U.S. sanctions.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Policy on Russian Arms Exporters, Sanctions, and Malign Interference in Other States

  • Chapter Two

    Highlighting Russian Malign Interference by Curtailing Russian Arms Exports: Turkey and India

  • Chapter Three

    Other States Meet Security Needs and Comply with CAATSA Objectives: Indonesia, Morocco, and Nigeria

  • Chapter Four

    Arms-Importing States Have Adapted to U.S. and Allied Sanctions

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusions and Recommendations

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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