Chessboard Strategy: Russia and UN Resolution 2117

The Russian government has made great leaps since the collapse of the Soviet Union, “moving from a globally-isolated, centrally-planned economy towards a more market-based and globally-integrated economy.” A large boost to its economy was the privatization of most industry.

However two notable sectors were kept under government control: the energy and defense-related sectors. The purpose of this brief paper is to examine the current actions of Russian approaches to influence the transnational weapons market throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. This will be accomplished through critically analyzing Russia’s actions associated with U.N. resolution 2117, where it abstained from voting and honored instead an arms sale plan with Iran, shipping a modern-day missile-defense system, and a recent sale to Iraq that provided fighter jets for the fight against DAESH.

In 2013, the United Nations, “expressing grave concern that the illicit transfer, destabilizing accumulation, and misuse of small arms and light weapons continued to cause significant loss of life around the world,” felt a need to remind governments of their obligation to comply fully and effectively with Council-mandated arms embargoes. By a vote of 14 in favor to none against, with one abstention – the Russian Federation – the Council adopted resolution 2117. It was the first-ever resolution dedicated exclusively to the issue of small arms and light weapons. The ensuing debate marked the first time in five years that the 15-member body had taken up the issue, which had been previously deleted from its agenda.

The choice of Russian council members to abstain from this vote was an interesting move politically. A vote to abstain meant that Russian officials could avoid criticism for a negative vote but also prevented them from being obligated to follow the treaty that prohibited sales of light weapons, something from which Russia greatly benefits. One such transaction, though not small-arms in nature, revolves around Russia’s plans with Iran on the S-300 air-defense system. According to U.S. officials, “Russia is moving ahead with plans to sell Iran a sophisticated missile defense system that could undercut Washington’s ability to challenge Tehran’s airspace.” This system, identified as the S-300, would result in a rather concrete air-defense system for Iran which would mean that “U.S. or Israeli warplanes likely couldn’t sneak into Iranian airspace if they wanted to bomb Iran’s possible nuclear facilities.” Additionally, any attempt to launch preemptive strikes and the S-300 could provide an early warning for the Iranians and afford them time to shore up other defenses.

Iran had already fronted Russia the money for the weapons system, nearly $800 million, but there were some non-delivery disputes. In January 2015, official Russian media reported that the two sides had settled their differences after Moscow agreed to provide older Tor surface-to-air missiles with an unspecified date of delivery. Iran’s state media also reported a settlement, but without providing details. At around the same time, reports emerged also that Russia and Iran were again discussing either the S-300 system or a newer system, the Antey-2500. This Russian-Iran weapons deal gives Russia a staunch foothold in an already anti-western nation and only affords additional options for future transactions. Another interesting fact: the transaction is NOT in disagreement with any current international prohibitions because the weapons system is defensive in nature. Additionally, Secretary of State John Kerry raised U.S. concerns with the Russians directly after Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani recently traveled to Moscow, a probable sign that the S-300 deal and future deals were back on the table and being finalized. Iran is not the only country garnering weapons sales from Russia, however. Iraq is also benefiting from Russia’s proactive capitalist strategies in the weapons market.

In 2014 and 2015 the Iraqi government struggled to re-build its tactical Air Force. The Middle East government worked closely with the U.S. in an effort to purchase F-16 fighters, however the U.S. was not the only seller in the region. Due to an urgent need for close-air support and growing delays in the U.S. government’s provision of 36 F-16s, the Iraq government turned to Russia and Belarus to purchase used fighter jets. Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chastised the U.S.’s slow ways. The delay in sales allowed Maliki to turn to other sources for purchase and exacerbated an apparent bitterness within the Iraqi government, as it believed that it should not have just bought U.S. jets, but also British, French and Russian ones to provide air support and prevent the fall of Mosul. The jet purchase followed desperate requests by Maliki to combat DAESH. The fact that Russia was able to swoop in and provide assets to a struggling government not only created another revenue stream for Russia, but it also showed Iraq that Russia can be a proven ally within the region and fostered greater doubts about substantive American support for the regime.

The Russian government has taken great steps to influence the transnational weapons market throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Russia’s actions associated with its abstention vote of U.N. resolution 2117 was an ingenious diplomatic move. Russia is able to pursue its own legitimate national security interests (only the U.S. prioritizes the fight against radical Islam as adamantly as Russia), bolsters an important economic market that bypasses the severe sanctions levied against it, and fosters cooperative engagement in a geopolitically crucial region within which the United States wishes to remain dominant. While America clearly has criticized Russia for abstaining from the Resolution 2117 vote, it is a perfect example of how conflicted and complex global affairs tend to be. Although America sees Russia’s abstaining in purely black-and-white terms, there are many other significant players on the global stage that do not see it so clearly. In this convoluted fog of multiple interpretations, Russia so far has proven to be the more adept chess grandmaster.