Who gets rich on the arms market? (ENG explainer)

“Belarus has become a nuclear state”, bragged Alyaksandr Lukashenka while opening the country’s first nuclear power plant. But that would require nuclear weapons, which Belarus does not produce. However, it does sell a billion dollars’ worth of conventional weapons each year. Russia, Israel, Ukraine, and Belarus are the world leaders in state revenue from the arms trade. Who makes money on the arms market, and what are the rules of the game?

Who profits from the arms trade?

According to experts, arms dealers earn $100 bn annually. Incidentally, the world computer game market is one-and-a-half times larger. The weapons-trading game is unbalanced, with Belarus and Ukraine dwarfed by the five dominant players on the map: the US, Russia, France, Germany, and China.

The US specialises in selling fighters, helicopters, anti-aircraft systems, laser-guided bombs, drones and, of course, Abrams tanks.

Russia’s export basket is similar, although it contains slightly less-advanced weaponry. France’s arms-export revenue has nearly doubled in five years thanks to Rafale fighters, and warships. Germany’s bestseller is submarines, while China is gradually strengthening its position on the warship, drone, and fighter market.

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But tank, aircraft, and ship sales account for under a hundredth of GDP for any country. The arms trade is more political than economic. In this game of strategy, countries sell weapons to defeat enemies or make friends, forming ties as tanks and aircraft entail decades of repairs and upgrades in the manufacturing country.

The tenser the relations between neighbours, the more weapons they buy. Due to the conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia has quadrupled its arms imports in five years. But the most active buyers are Middle Eastern and North African countries. Bloody wars have been raging for almost ten years in the region, particularly in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Who should not be armed?

International organisations strive to act as moderators in this global game. The UN’s list of countries to which arms sales are prohibited includes six African states engulfed in civil wars. The UN Security Council imposed embargos on Iran and North Korea due to their nuclear weapons programmes. Anti-government forces in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as terrorists from the Taliban and Islamic State are also banned.

The EU sanctions list covers eight more countries: Russia was included for its aggression against Ukraine, and for human rights violations – Belarus, China, Egypt, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Syria.

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The governments of 141 countries pledged not to violate the UN embargo, not to sell weapons that could be used for war crimes or terrorist attacks, and to report all arms sales to the UN. They signed the Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in 2014, yet this agreement stipulates no sanctions for possible breaches. Russia, the largest arms trader, did not sign the treaty.

EU countries are also prohibited from violating the embargo and selling weapons that might end up in the hands of militants or terrorists. However, as with the Arms Trade Treaty, no penalties for flouting the ban are spelled out in EU law.

Who arms those who can’t buy arms?

In short: almost everyone. Some states provide arms directly to dictators and sides in civil conflicts. The Kremlin generously supplies Bashar al-Assad’s army, and the Syrian dictator also buys weapons from Iran.

Russian military transport aircraft were recently spotted in Libya, where Moscow is arming General Khalifa Haftar’s rebels. Turkey also sells arms to his enemies, thus contravening the UN embargo.

Western goods enter conflict zones via intermediaries. Western Europe sells weapons to Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but does not track whose hands they fall into. These Middle Eastern countries then ship them to their vassals in Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

Three years ago, a mediation scheme between the United States and Saudi Arabia was exposed by journalists from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Washington and Riyadh were ordering former-Soviet machine guns, ammunition, and mortars to arm Syrian rebels. The weapons supplied to Assad’s enemies included anti-tank missiles from Belarus.

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But selling weapons to friends and their enemies, too, is no rarity in arms strategies. Armenia is fully equipped by Russia, its CSTO ally. Meanwhile, Armenia’s main enemy, Azerbaijan, also bought a third of its weaponry from the Russian defence export agency in the past five years.

The bottom line

The arms trade is a vital aspect of geopolitical strategies. Like in a computer game, weapons help capture the map, find allies and bring them closer. Today, this is being applied in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, where the interests of the United States, Russia, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries all collide. But, unlike the virtual world, the victims of these games are all too real.

Alyaksandr Papko, belsat.eu