When the United States unceremoniously dethroned Qaddafi, a dictator of unimaginable brutality, a people were finally free to choose their own destiny. And the Russians lost one of their largest arms smugglers in the region. After all it was Qaddafi who, with the help of the Russians, imported massive amounts of Kalashnikov rifles and rocket propelled grenades among the other panoply of war. These were given to Qaddafi at a steeply discounted price. Qaddafi in turn sold these weapons to rebels and the governments which were trying to quell their rebellions at enormous markups. We know this because of the serial numbers that accompanied the weapons (as well as the story of Viktor Bout). By the time the 2000’s had come around war was endemic in western Africa (Sierra Leon, Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire you name it), and Qaddafi had created his own veritable cottage industry. This cycle of weaponry for diamonds and gold came to a screeching halt when in the summer of 2011 Qaddafi was killed in a brutal manner by the people that he oppressed for over 40 years. This weapons vacuum which has yet to be completely filled by any one entity, left the Russians with few options to make up the surge the likes of which was found in Qaddafi, until Syria arrived.
Syria acts as one of the most successful conduits of Russian weapons systems and small arms since the end of the Cold War. By most estimates Bashar al-Assad has purchased in excess of $1 billion in weaponry from Russia since the wars beginning, as his economy lies in ruins. Numbers like this however are chump change when you consider the amount of possibly unfulfilled deliveries to countries such as Algeria which, as of 2009, had $5.2 billion in unfulfilled orders from the Russians this includes some of their most advanced air defense systems as well as Jet fighters. If this is any indication of how sales are going in Africa alone, business must be good indeed. Although not good enough, since the Russians have since sent some of the same advanced air defense systems to the Syrians who are in the middle of a brutal civil war. The strategic interest in Tartus, a sea port, for the Russians can’t be discounted; however the amount of prestige that they have expended on Al-Assad could come at a price even heavier than the Russians can handle down the road.
They can find new end markets outside the North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) region however sanctions and emerging super powers such as China make that a difficult proposition. Russia recently stated as its goal to become the world’s largest arms supplier. And though statements such as that come as a welcome respite to African despots, guerilla insurgents, and petty tyrants, I’m sure that when that was read aloud in the West a collective rolling of the eyes was no doubt the first reaction in their respective capitals. Assessments aside, the current negotiations in the Security Council, for a use of force measure to be included in the currently debated resolution needs a proper amount of leverage an order to arm twist the Russians to agreeing to it. That’s why I propose that the U.S. in concert with its allies find a way to impede Russian arms sales not just in Syria, but throughout the world. As I mentioned earlier Algeria has $5.2 billion in pending orders with the Russians if they can somehow be persuaded to cancel, postpone, or possibly even renege on prior agreements and buy European weaponry, that would go a long way in this arm twisting business with minimal effort. One point of cooperation which may convince the Russians to cut their losses is the proposed North Korean-South Korean Pipeline or PNG. This pipeline would supply gas to South Korea from Russia via North Korea. Its worth is estimated at $100 billion dollars. Another area of cooperation that the Russians are most assuredly interested in is the security for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. The latest reports from the Caucasus region are that Islamic extremist plan on disrupting the Olympic Games by any means necessary. By providing adequate security in concert with the Russians we can build trust among one another and also help further quell Islamic extremism in a region which is rife with it. These are just some of the examples of how U.S.-Russian cooperation can be fruitful for both sides.
The conclusion is this: Russian must not be allowed to make a mockery of the international order, indeed international norms and common law. If we hope to prevent al-Assad’s mass graves and prevent the sort of internecine conflict that we’ve seen in Sierra Leone for instance, a la Qaddafi, we must be prepared to confront the Russians at all stages of statecraft and convince the world to reject Putin’s autocratic bent in favor of a more prescient and tangible American path. While at the same time it’s also important to understand that cooperation is possible between the two powers but only by working hand in hand and not pitting one against the other can we make the world a safer place for all of God’s creations.