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Arms: Analysis from Washington--Arms Races and Cash Flows

  • Paul Goble

Washington, April 4, 1997 (RFE/RL) - Competition between Russian and Ukrainian firms selling arms in the Persian Gulf and South Asian regions has had unintended political consequences for both countries, the two regions, and the international system as a whole.

It has driven yet another wedge between Moscow and Kyiv and underscored the limited ability of either to regulate its own arms merchants or to control ties between them.

It has increased tensions and made conflict more likely in the Persian Gulf and South Asian regions to which the two former Soviet republics are now selling much of their weapons production.

And it has posed a challenge to the international community by highlighting the risks of the free trade in arms in a post-Cold War world which lacks both the discipline of bipolar competition and the protections of regional security arrangements.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Russian and Ukrainian firms have been working hard to penetrate the lucrative international arms market.

In both countries, their relatively inexpensive but increasingly sophisticated weapons systems are among their best hard currency earners.

Russian firms alone have seen their earnings from the export of arms rise from under $ 2,000 million in 1994 to what Moscow officials say will be $ 4,000 million in 1997.

But Russian firms now face increasing competition from Ukrainian ones in precisely the same markets: those countries in the Middle East and South Asia interested in purchasing relatively inexpensive arms.

Even as they compete for the same markets, Russian and Ukrainian firms remain closely tied in terms of the production process, a pattern which produces some unexpected results.

Last month, for example, Russian officials under pressure from India tried to block a Ukrainian sale of tanks to Pakistan, but Russian firms currently supplying parts to the Ukrainian plants making the tanks forced the Russian government to back down.

As a result, everyone involved was angry at everyone else, but the sale went through anyway.

And such sales by Russian and Ukrainian firms to countries in the Persian Gulf region and South Asia are only making often tense situations still worse -- and in a double sense.

On the one hand, in their rush to make money by selling arms, both countries are often providing weapons to states that already have tense relations with their neighbors.

And on the other, precisely because these sales are driven by a desire to make money rather than recruit supporters as used to be the case during the Cold War, such sales may unintentionally lead to conflicts that one or both of the sellers want to avoid.

And those two developments call attention to another: the dangers inherent in the unrestricted sales of armaments to countries in unstable parts of the world.

During the Cold War, both Moscow and the West were subject to a kind of discipline with regard to arms sales. That is, each side knew that the other would likely counter anything it did.

And as a result, each side was often restrained from doing things that the pure pursuit of profit might suggest.

Now, those constraints are largely gone, and consequently the drive to sell munitions to make money may lead to dangers that none of the governments involved actually wants.

At the same time, such sales, often to rogue states such as Iran or to pairs of hostile countries such as India and Pakistan, also highlight what happens in regions where there is no international security system in place.

So far, competition between Russian and Ukrainian arms merchants has been largely confined to these non-European venues.

But should a similar pattern of sales occur elsewhere such as to the countries of Eastern Europe, those might become even more destabilizing than the ones the Russians and Ukrainians have already made elsewhere.