The Ukraine war has been a global test for Russian weapons, as the war, which Moscow envisioned to be a quick military operation, drags on. This raises questions about the war’s impact on the position of Russian weapons in the global arms market, and whether the difficulties faced by Russian weapons on the battlefield will affect their global reputation, and thus the volume of world demand for Russian weapons and Moscow’s military exports, especially since the war has become a struggle over weapons effectiveness between Russia and Western nations, which have provided Kiev with a huge amount of weapons.
Russia ranks very high in the global arms market. Between 2016 and 2020, the Russian defense industry accounted for 20% of the world defense industry market, putting it in second place among the most prominent defense industry exporters in the world, after the United States. India is the primary importer of Russian arms, with 23% of Russian defense exports directed there, followed by China at 18% and Algeria at 15%.
Russia’s significant presence in the global arms market is due to several fundamental factors, including the fact that Russian weapons are less expensive and easier to maintain than Western alternatives and are available on more flexible payment terms. Moscow also is willing to transfer technology and license arms production to countries like India. Between 2011 and 2021, Moscow supplied about 60% of India’s total defense imports at a value of about $22.9 billion. During the same period, India accounted for 34% of Russia’s total defense sales.
Stumbles in the Field
Many reports indicate that the Ukraine war is negatively affecting the reputation of Russian weapons, noting that Russia’s war against Ukraine has harmed the Russian military’s credibility and reliability and been a poor advertisement for Russian weapons. This situation can be summarized as follows:
1. Major losses of Russian army equipment: Although it is hard to accurately evaluate Russia’s military losses, some reports reveal aspects of these losses. However, these losses must be taken with some caution, especially since they reflect the perspective of Ukraine and Western nations. In its survey of Russian losses through October 13, 2022, the Ukrainian foreign ministry revealed that 63,800 Russian soldiers had been killed; 268 fighter jets, 240 helicopters, and 1,182 drones had been downed; 2,511 tanks, 16 warships, 5,167 military vehicles, 1,556 artillery, 357 missile launchers, 183 air defense systems, and other equipment had been destroyed; and 316 cruise missiles had been shot down.
Meanwhile, estimates by the American magazine, Forbes, indicate that, since the beginning of the war, Russia has lost 121,042 pieces of equipment worth $16.56 billion, not including Russian missiles. Colin Kahl, US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, announced that Russia had lost half its tanks and had used up most of its precision weapons.
In addition, specific Ukrainian attacks caused particular losses of Russian equipment, such as the Ukrainian armed forces’ use of anti-ship cruise missiles on April 14, 2022, to sink the Russian guided missile cruiser, the Moskva, in the Black Sea. The Moskva, valued at $750 million,is the largest naval ship to be destroyed since World War II. In addition, a II-76 aircraft valued at $86 million was destroyed, along with the Saratov, a landing assault ship valued at $75 million, an Su-30SM aircraft worth $50 million, and an Su-34 aircraft valued at $40 million.
2. Raising doubts about the quality of Russian military equipment: Images of broken and abandoned military vehicles have raised questions about the quality and reliability of Russian-made military equipment, especially since most of the equipment Russia has deployed relies on Soviet-era designs, such as the T-90 tank, which is based on the more than 50-year-old T-72 tank. Thus, Russian military performance is linked to a lack of innovation in the manufacture of new equipment. Those images constitute negative propaganda against Russian equipment in the global weapons market, raising Moscow’s fears that this will cow Russian arms importers. The Western propaganda machine is focusing on and raising doubts about the quality and effectiveness of Russian military equipment, which it considers an important goal in the context of Ukraine war coverage.
3. Western arms undercut the effectiveness of Russian equipment: The assessment of Russian weapons in the Ukraine war is not based only on monitoring their losses. Indeed, several reports have been eager to compare Western and Russian arms in order to make the argument that Western weapons have undermined Russian military effectiveness. In this context, Turkish Bayraktar drones, US Javelin systems, US HIMARS missile launchers, Swedish-British NLAW anti-tank weapons, US Stinger air defense systems, and the British Starstreak have effectively destroyed Russian equipment. In addition, the destruction of the Russian warship Moskva in the Black Sea by two Ukrainian Neptune missiles, despite the presence of a comprehensive multi-layered air defense, has great symbolism.
4. Western talk about the failure of Russian offensive weapons: Numerous Western reports raise doubts about the effectiveness of Russian offensive weapons, accusing them of failure. This is not solely due to comparing Russian and Western weapons, but also to independently examining the success and failure rates of Russian arms. For example, assessments by American defense officials indicate that the performance of Russian offensive weapons in the Ukraine war have been disappointing, and that Russia is experiencing a 60% failure rate in the accuracy of some precision-guided missiles, indicated by the percentage of Russian offensive missiles that fail to launch, malfunction mid-flight, or miss their target due to design flaws or outdated and poor equipment.
5. Moscow’s need for foreign weapon support: The Ukraine war has revealed some of Moscow’s weapons gaps, especially with regard to unconventional weapons, such as drones. This has prompted Moscow to seek out foreign sources to acquire such weapons, resorting to Iran, which supplied Russia with several drones. While Russia looked upon Iranian drones as a low-cost, high-benefit alternative that forestalls the expanded use of high-cost weapons in the Ukraine war, this approach may leave a negative impression of the Russian arms industry and its ability to provide modern weapons systems similar to other countries. It does not have the same influence in the global arms market.
Besides the Ukraine war’s effect on the reputation of Russian weapons and their global position, it has also created other challenges to Moscow’s ability to continue to export defense equipment and systems with the same efficiency and pace, including:
1. Need to compensate for war losses: Many estimates predict that the Russian defense industry’s production capacity will suffer in order to compensate for the huge losses of vehicles and equipment sustained by the Russian army during the Ukraine war, and that Russian manufacturers will be busy during this period repairing damaged equipment, upgrading existing equipment, or producing replacements and spare parts. In the short term, the war necessitates directing shipments of ammunition and spare parts to support the Russian war effort, which may cause Moscow to delay or cancel the delivery of some arms orders, or be unable to fill new orders, during the war.
2. Cutting supply lines of weapon components: Western sanctions on Russia have raised questions about its ability to obtain internal components and technology for its weapons and to provide maintenance for the weapons it sells. The Russian defense industry is likely to be affected by the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, as the sanctions not only target Russia’s financial transactions, but also disrupt the supply of components, basic parts, and production mechanisms, in addition to their maintenance and sustainability, at a time when the Russian arms industry depends on other countries for equipment and components. Many electronic parts, advanced components, and related materials are imported from different countries, including Europe, China, and other Asian countries.
The sanctions on Russia may lead to difficulties in this process, and perhaps to a significant decrease in manufacturing capacity and a significant increase in prices. The Russian defense industry may lose an aspect of its competitive power with regard to advanced weapons, such as air defense systems, aircraft, guided missiles, and sensing equipment, amid Russia’s heavy dependence on foreign technology. For example, the main components of Orlan-10 drones are Western-made, Russian T-72 tanks are equipped with French thermal imaging, the 9M727 Iskander and Caliber cruise missiles rely on Western chips, and the TOR-M2 anti-aircraft system is equipped with an oscillator developed by the United Kingdom.
3. Some importers’ fear of sanctions: The sanctions imposed on the import of Russian equipment, weapons, and defense systems have contributed to hesitation from some countries seeking to obtain Russian equipment, due to the risk of being subjected to US or EU sanctions. The threat of CAATSA sanctions was the deciding factor in the Philippines’ decision not to pursue a defense contract with Russia to provide two submarines in 2020, and Indonesia’s decision to cancel an order for 11 Russian-made SU-35 fighter jets in December 2021, in favor of American and French fast jets. With the intensification of the Russian-Western conflict against the backdrop of the Ukraine war, and the division of countries in terms of their position on the war, the countries that import Russian weapons the most increasingly fear that they will be subjected to Western sanctions, or that their relationships with the United States and European countries will be strained. Therefore, assessments warn that some countries that do not want to anger the United States might refrain from dealing with Russian arms suppliers during the current period.
Finally, apart from the criticisms of Russian military equipment, many of the Russian army’s equipment losses are due not just to the equipment itself, but also to charges of corruption, poor training, poor military leadership and planning, and insufficient supplies of soldiers and equipment.
Despite all the criticisms of Russian arms, they still have their place and advantages. In addition, previous historical experiences have shown a limited impact of wars on the purchasing processes of the main traditional importers of Russian weapons. For example, after the Gulf War, importers of conventional Russian weapons, such as India and Algeria, did not back off from relying on Russian weapons. Russian weapons still have their appeal and comparative advantages for those countries and others, as well as other factors govern arms purchases.