Arms exports are an important source of income for Russia, usually surpassed only by oil and gas exports, and the war in Ukraine has threatened this source of income. Russia’s arms sales have plummeted in recent years, and the combination of Western sanctions and Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine will not help. The US can use this opportunity to lure partners away from Russian arms and begin pushing Russia out of strategic markets. But she needs to change her approach.
America’s most notable attempt to dissuade countries from buying Russian arms was the bipartisan Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017, known by the acronym Caatsa, which included a policy to impose sanctions on nations engaged in a “significant transaction” with Russia Defense or intelligence sectors involved. The penalties include a range of financial restrictions, including exports and credit and banking with US institutions. A later amendment gave the President the power to make exceptions in certain cases. Caatsa sanctions were imposed on Turkey after Ankara took possession of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems in 2020. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was then kicked out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program because of its deal with Russia.
But Caatsa gives US policymakers too much leeway, weakening their ability to deter potential Russian customers. India bought the same S-400 system from Russia and was not sanctioned by Caatsa. Policymakers regularly argue that India — which is a key partner in US competition with China but has a long history of buying arms from Russia — is worthy of a Caatsa waiver. But America’s willingness to impose sanctions on a NATO ally rather than India has confused many other countries.
In the Middle East, the Caatsa sanctions play a major role, but also suffer from inconsistent application. In 2017, the United Arab Emirates and Russia announced plans to jointly produce a fifth-generation Russian jet fighter. Although no actual aircraft has yet emerged from this contract, the first prototype of Russia’s fifth-generation Su-75 Checkmate made its debut at the Dubai Air Show in November. Egypt, a trusted customer of both American and Russian arms, appears to have crossed the Caatsa red lines, although Washington has not responded with sanctions. In 2018, Cairo placed a $2 billion order for more than two dozen Russian Su-35 fighters. By 2021, Egypt had started delivering several jets.
Turkey, Egypt, India and the United Arab Emirates are all countries that have either purchased Russian arms or engaged in significant activities with the Russian defense industry since the passage of Caatsa. They are respectively a NATO member, a key non-NATO ally, a key defense partner, and a country currently deploying US troops. Collectively, this group represents a cross-section of Washington’s key strategic partners, and all have rebuffed US efforts to stem arms purchases from Moscow by threatening Caatsa sanctions. The US must change course if it is to turn customers away from Russian weapons, gradually reduce another source of revenue for Moscow, and win back partners.
The complacent U.S. defense contractor all too often sees itself as the “preferred partner of choice” for foreign customers, viewing U.S. materiel and support as superior to its competitors, despite onerous bureaucratic obstacles, long delivery times, and often uncompetitively priced U.S. weapons. It must take a good look at itself to identify these shortcomings and address the valid complaints of its partners.
The US also needs to change the way they market material around the world. One possibility is to explore the possibility of co-producing selected US weapons systems with reliable partners. Outside of the F-35 program, the US has been reluctant to share technology for fear of jeopardizing proprietary information. For some top-tier systems, that makes sense. For others, it’s a fun idea. US partners have been looking for a co-production for years, but are now beginning to look elsewhere. Saudi Arabia recently signed a deal with China to jointly manufacture armed drones and is reportedly producing ballistic missiles with China’s help.
Another way is to entice potential customers by rewarding long-standing customers. Partners who have consistently sourced in the US and are not seeking closer ties with Russia or China should be preferred for prime US material. The Trump administration opened the door to such an approach when it relaxed the export of armed drones like the MQ-9 Reaper to select partners. The Biden administration should continue to offer the MQ-9 to America’s closest partners.
Caatsa is a blunt tool that punishes bad decisions but does not motivate countries to make good decisions. Worse, its inconsistent implementation alienated friendly states, driving them away from the US and closer to Moscow. Washington should change its approach by clarifying its implementation of Caatsa, streamlining the military procurement process, and making some of the crown jewels of America’s arsenal available to close partners. The US can and should use the momentum against Russia’s invasion to correct policies that just aren’t working.
Mr. Rumley is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute and a former Middle East Policy Adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Mr. Schenker is Senior Fellow and Director of the Arab Politics Program at the Washington Institute. From 2019-21 he was Deputy Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs.
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