Monday

9th Dec 2019

Investigation

Several EU states impose arms ban on Russia

  • Russia wants the Mistral for its command-and-control systems, Sutyagin said (Photo: bernard grua)

Most of the EU’s top arms exporters have imposed a quiet ban on sales to Russia, but Ukraine’s military embargo could have a bigger impact on the crisis.

EU countries are still in talks on whether to impose a collective arms ban as part of “stage three” sanctions if Russia escalates.

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The indecisiveness has seen France press ahead with delivery of two “Mistral” warships to the Russian navy in a deal worth €1.2 billion.

France has also not ruled out approving new defence contracts so long as there is no EU-level policy.

Spain, which has no ongoing Russia contracts, is taking the same line. Miguel Morer Errea, a Spanish defence ministry spokesman, told EUobserver “it couldn’t be said an embargo has been imposed on Russia [by Spain]”. He added that any new request for an export licence would be treated “on a case-by-case basis”.

By contrast, Germany and the UK froze licences after Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Berlin said in April that “due to the current political situation no permits for the export of arms to Russia are … being granted”. A British spokesman told this website on Friday (4 July) the UK “suspension remains in place”.

The German decision saw it halt a pre-crisis deal to build a €125 million combat training facility in Mulino, central Russia, although most of the contract had already been fulfilled.

Italy also had an €800 million contract to make armoured vehicles for Russia. But Moscow cancelled it last year, saying its own vehicles are cheaper and more robust.

Rome declined to say officially how it would treat new licence applications.

An Italian source told EUobserver: “It’s an issue of great sensitivity right now because we are trying to reduce tensions between the US, Europe, and Russia.” But he added that, in practice, “we would behave like Germany and the UK: We would most likely reject any new application”.

Most of the EU’s other big exporters - Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden - have followed suit.

In Belgium, licences are granted separately by the regions of Flanders and Wallonia. Both regional authorities told this website they would block new Russia sales.

A Finnish defence ministry official, Arto Koski, said: “If there would be a new application … I think our answer would be negative”. A Dutch diplomat, Roel van der Meij, noted: “All new licence applications for export of military goods to Russia have been suspended”.

Sipri, a Stockholm-based arms-control NGO, said Sweden would not have approved sales of sensitive items to Russia even before the crisis.

Pieter Wezeman, a Sipri researcher, noted that, unlike official embargoes, the "de facto bans ... can easily be adapted when the circumstances change again".

Commenting on France, Igor Sutyagin, a military expert exiled from Russia on espionage charges who now works for Rusi, a think tank in London, said the Mistral deal is important because it includes transfer of advanced “command-and-control” technology.

He indicated that if any Western ban is to have teeth it should target “dual-use” material instead of weapons.

He said European firm Eads makes components for Russian spy satellites, while a US company, Intel, makes microchips for Russian military computers. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, a British consulting firm, noted that France also sells avionics for Russian jets and “electro-optic infrared” technology, used for surveillance and targetting, for Russian helicopters and tanks.

Even little contracts risk embarrassment for EU countries and companies, however.

Back in 2008, during the Russia-Georgia war, South Ossetian paramilitaries, a brutal contingent in the Russian force, were photographed carrying sniper rifles made by Finnish firm Sako, which had been sold to Russia as “hunting” equipment for sportsmen.

Nuclear deterrent

For its part, Ukraine halted military co-operation with Russia on 17 June.

One reason for the late date is the deep nature of Russian-Ukrainian military ties.

Guy Anderson, from IHS, said “ties were absolute in the Soviet era” and Russia “continued to treat Ukraine as part of its national military-industrial supply chain” after Ukraine gained independence.

Sutyagin said the list of vital Ukrainian exports and services is “almost endless”.

He noted that half of Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal depends on guidance systems produced and maintained by firms in central, east, and south Ukraine. Its combat helicopters, warships, and fighter jets use Ukrainian engines. Its best air-to-air missile, the AA-11 Archer, uses Ukrainian guidance technology.

With Ukraine over the weekend capturing the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk, pro-Russia forces reportedly regrouped in Donetsk in what could be the stage for a decisive battle.

Some analysts believe rebel losses might see Russia intervene more heavily to save face.

Mark Galeotti, a Moscow-based US expert on Russia affairs, told EUobserver: “[Russian leader] Putin’s preference would be for a federal, but united Ukraine which remains in Russia’s sphere of influence. Maintaining a frozen conflict in east Ukraine would be too expensive economically and politically. But if it’s that, or slinking home with his tail between his legs, we know what he'll do”.

IHS’ Anderson noted that Russia is “rapidly retooling local plants to meet the gaps caused by the break-down in relations” with Ukraine.

But Rusi’s Sutyagin thinks Russia's military dependence could make Putin recalculate his plans.

Toothpaste, tube

Andersen and Sutyagin said it would take “years” and cost “trillions” to replicate the Ukrainian assets.

Sutyagin added that if Russia invades, Ukrainian forces might destroy the facilities as they retreat or make it too costly for Russia to occupy the territories which host them on a long-term basis.

“Invasion is against Russia’s fundamental interests. Putin’s considerations for this adventure where purely tactical and not strategic”, he said.

“We are already seeing a slow-down in anti-Ukraine rhetoric in Russian propaganda and an attempt to encapsulate the conflict”, Sutyagin added.

“He [Putin] is trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube”.

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