March 10, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9223

Russia Hopes To Exploit The Chill In US-Saudi Relations And Gain A Foothold In The Saudi Arms Market

March 10, 2021
Russia, Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 9223

On March 9, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began his visit to the Middle East with a working visit to the Union of Arab Emirates, from there he will proceed to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.[1] Russia hopes that Lavrov's visit to Saudi Arabia will facilitate the sale of Russian arms to the Saudis, particularly given the cooling of relations between Washington and Riyadh. Military specialist Ilya Kramnik, who is also an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council surveyed the Saudi arms market and the prospects for a boost in Russian arms sales for Kommersant. Russia hopes to entice the Saudis with battle proven and budget priced systems that are ideal for the local conflicts involving the Saudis, as opposed to oversophisticated and super-expensive American hardware. Additionally, these systems are tailor made for third world mercenaries employed by the Saudis, who have experience with other Russian weapons platforms. In addition to the need for export sales, weapons transactions with the Saudis can send a signal to the Iranians, who have not always been a positive influence on Russia's policy in the region.

The Kommersant article follows below:[2]

Russia's Mi-17 helicopter (pictured) may be on offer to the Saudis (Source:

"The administration of US President Joe Biden has embarked on implementing a promise to 'recalibrate relations with Saudi Arabia. At the end of February, a US intelligence report was published in which Mohammad bin Salman the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was named responsible for the October 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Washington subsequently announced the introduction of sanctions [against Saudi Arabia]. This week, the State Department confirmed that the approach on arms sales to Riyadh will also change. At the request of Kommersant, Ilya Kramnik, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a junior researcher at the Center for North American Studies at IMEMO RAS [Russian Academy of Sciences], evaluated the prospects that are opening up for Russia in this regard.

"Because, so it seems, the Kremlin does not intend to miss the opportunity, and next week Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will pay a visit to Riyadh.

"Recalibration Of Relations

"A possible cooling of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia due to the publication of a report by the US National Intelligence, in which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was named guilty of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, will likely affect the situation in the arms trade market.

"'That for any weapons sales or transfers, there is now a process in place, thanks to President Biden and his efforts to recalibrate this relationship from the start, that will evaluate, on a case-by-case basis, proposed weapons sales and transfers based on two criteria: our interests and our values.' said Ned Price, spokesman for the US Department of State.[3]

"Many commentators have already started discussing the possible supply of Russian systems (for example the S-400 [air defense system] and Sukhoi Su-35 combat planes to Riyadh), however the reality might be more modest, albeit more interesting.

"Saudi Arabia is currently the world’s biggest importer of arms and military equipment and the largest buyer of American weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Riyadh’s share in US arms exports increased from 7.4% during the period of 2010-2014 to 25% during the period of 2015-2019.

"Back in 2015, because of the start of Arab coalition military campaign in Yemen, headed by Saudi Arabia, a number of American congressmen made several attempts to limit the export of American arms to Riyadh. However, until 2019, large supplies of arms to Saudi kingdom continued, for example the Saudi Air Force received 30 F-15SA jets (out of 154 ordered in 2011).

"According to some experts (in particular, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution), the Obama administration had a chance to nip the war in Yemen in the bud, had it refused to support the Arab coalition. At the same time, Bruce Riedel stresses that Lloyd Austin, the then chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) (now he serves as the secretary of defense) spoke out against supporting the Saudi military operation, predicting its failure.

"There are no details of these discussions, occurring during the last year of Barack Obama's term of office. The Trump administration, on the contrary, supported the war, while occasionally bypassing the standard procedures for approving of [arms] deals.

"For example, without prior congressional approval, 59 thousand guided aerial bombs were supplied to Saudi Arabia. The argument used was the need to support US allies in the region in order to contain Iran.

"Aside from the United States, Saudi Arabia actively purchases weapons from other Western countries, in particular from Great Britain - [Riyadh accounted for] 41% of British military exports in 2015-2019, Italy - 7.2% in 2015-2019, Switzerland -14% [of all military exports]. Nevertheless, the share of the United States’ arms in the total volume of Saudi arms imports remains significant. 73% of all arms purchases in 2015–2019 were made at American manufacturers and 13% from British companies.

"In total, during 2015-2019, the American administration approved 64.1 billion USD worth of arms supplies of to Saudi Arabia. However, plans to radically increase arms exports up to110 billion USD or even up to 350 billion USD in 2020s, probably won’t be realized or at least the estimated figures will decline sharply.

"At the end of February, US intelligence released a report in which the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman was named responsible for the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. After that, Washington announced a review of relations with Riyadh. This 'review' will concern arms supply in particular.

Previously, the Biden administration temporarily suspended the implementation of the [arms trade] agreements concluded by Donald Trump. These contracts provide for the supply of 3 thousand Boeing-produced GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb I glide aerial bombs worth 290 million USD and 7 thousand high-precision laser-guided Paveway IV aerial bombs by Raytheon Technologies worth 478 million USD.

"' So we’re reviewing these arms sales and we’re making sure that going forward, what we do provide goes to the defense of the kingdom, not its ability to prosecute offensive operations',[4] said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"The US' NATO partners are also considering restrictive measures [against Saudi Arabia]. Thus, at the end of January, reports appeared on the termination of Italian supplies of military-technical equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This was announced by Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who tied this decision to the ongoing Saudi operation in Yemen.

"A Market Falling Vacant

"Russia has different plans. On February 19, 2021, a Russian government decree on signing an intergovernmental agreement on military-technical cooperation with Saudi Arabia was issued.

"This is not the first attempt by Russian arms producers to enter the Saudi market, however until now a relatively limited range of weapons [purchases] was realized, including small arms, anti-tank systems, and TOS-1A “Solntsepyok” multiple rocket launcher systems. Additionally, a contract was signed to establish joint production of Kalashnikov assault rifles.

"The plans to supply more 'politically sensitive' types of weapons and military equipment, including the S-400 air defense systems, were never realized. Experts doubt that the prospect of decreased cooperation between Washington and Riyadh will significantly alter the situation.

"According to the military-technical cooperation experts interviewed by Kommersant, two factors, both the desire of Russian exporters to get a share in the emerging arms market and Riyadh’s hopes to diversify suppliers, reducing its overwhelming dependence on American weapons systems, will play an essential role.

"Konstantin Makienko, deputy director of the Russian Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), claims that Saudi Arabia will be primarily interested in a set of relatively inexpensive but effective systems of disposables, that are actively used in local conflicts.

"'It should be noted that the Saudi Arabian market is oversaturated with expensive and super-expensive weapons systems: large number of modern combat aircraft, Patriot missile systems [MIM-104 Patriot], Apache [AH-64D] Longbow helicopters and a number of other advanced systems. Such weapons are excessive for the country’s defense tasks and does not bring success in the local conflict in Yemen,” the expert told Kommersant.

"According to Mr. Makienko, the likelihood that Russia will supply S-400s or combat aircraft to the Saudis is not very high, both due to the political sensitivity of such arms deals and due to the objective lack of demand for the Russian-made weapons of this class.

"'At the same time, Rosoboronexport [state owned company for arms export] can offer to the Saudi Armed Forces the weapons systems they really need, that is relatively inexpensive by modern standards weapons and military equipment, which are able to solve specific tasks in local conflicts. Air defense systems, or likely short-range and medium-range systems, such as “Pantsir” or “Tor” missile systems and, possibly the Buk-M3 medium-range systems. In addition, [Riyadh] may be interested in armored vehicles, especially considering the reputation that the T-90 tank has in the region,' said Mr. Makienko."

Konstantin Makienko (Source:

"The expert stressed that the T-90 tank is very reliable and demonstrated an ability to successfully perform tasks in the region's extreme climatic conditions of the region, (the tank passed very tough tests in the early 2010s in the Saudi desert), after a little additional training, the vehicle can be operated by mercenaries from third-world countries with experience in any Soviet tanks (which makes the use of these machines for Saudi Arabia even easier). BMP-3 armored personnel carriers, which proved themselves in the UAE armed forces might also fall into this category.

Additionally, according to Mr. Makienko, Saudi Arabia, for similar reasons, could also be interested in helicopters– both combat and transport machines – from the Mi-8/17 series, including their assault versions. It is a powerful, reliable, inexpensive weapon and transport vehicle that can be operated by the not-highly -paid specialists from many countries, given the long tradition of using mercenaries in the armed forces of Saudi Arabia. The latest versions of the Mi-17 assault helicopters include upgrades, installed after studying the performance results of these machines in Syria.

"For the abovementioned reasons, the CAST deputy director drew attention to the Mi-35M. More expensive and modern vehicles like the Mi-28N or Ka-52 are probably not needed by Saudi Arabia, considering that they have American-made AH-64D helicopters. The Mi-35M helicopter is capable of operating effectively in local conflicts.

“Finally, Russia can provide Riyadh with a large number of artillery systems, from ordinary howitzers and cannons to multiple launch rocket systems, as well as ammunition for them. Today such weapons are getting more expensive, while the demand for artillery in local conflicts is not about to decrease,” summed up Mr. Makienko.

"Nevertheless, the prospects for signing Russian-Saudi contracts will remain influenced by Moscow and Riyadh’s relations with the United States, Israel and Iran.

"'Considering the relations with the Iranians, the development of ties between Moscow and Riyadh can become as a political signal for Tehran, whose influence on Russian policy in the region many consider excessive and not always constructive,' claimed the Kommersant source familiar with the situation on the arms markets.

"In addition, as the Turkish example demonstrated, the United States, reacting to military cooperation with Russia, can introduce sanctions against any, even its most important partners. It should be noted that Riyadh’s position has become less stable since the arrival of the Biden administration. Anyhow, for now, the majority of US-Saudi contracts remain in force."

Ilya Kramnik (Source:



[1], March 9, 2021.

[2], March 5, 2021.

[3] English original text in, March 1, 2021.

[4] English original text in, February 26, 2021.


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