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Hegemony Lite – Russian Arms Contracts and Putin’s Grand Strategy

Russian arms exports have rapidly increased in recent years and in 2012, Russia exported $15 billion in arms, representing a 46% increase over 2010 levels and a tripling of exports since 2003. This increase reflects the continued expansion of Russian arms contracts to developing countries, and the proliferation of Russian weaponry signifies a new era in Russia’s projection of power on the international stage.

Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has sought to rebuild its economy and enhance its geopolitical influence, which was greatly diminished by the end of the Cold War and the 1990s depression. Russia’s new foreign policy has been based on leveraging its vast energy resources through the nationalization of oil and gas companies, interventions in near-abroad countries like Ukraine and Belarus to ensure the survival of pro-Russian governments and the proliferation of arms contracts across the developing world.

The expansion of Russian arms exports is perhaps the most significant component of Hegemony Lite, which refers to Russia’s aspirations of dominance in its traditional Eurasian sphere of influence and its desire to be a counterweight to the United States. Russia is the world’s largest arms exporter after the United States, and these arms exports serve Russia’s national interest in two important ways. Firstly, they represent the renewal of cooperation with Soviet-era allies and trade partners. In December 2012, Russia signed a $3 billion arms contract to supply combat helicopters and warplanes to India. India imports 70% of its arms from Russia  and the meeting between Putin and Manmohan Singh over the new arms deal also underscored Russia’s ambitions to increase economic cooperation with India, including a pledge to double bilateral trade links between the two countries by 2015.

While India was non-aligned during the Cold War, Nehru’s state-driven development model, 1960s Soviet aid to India, and the 1971 pact during the Bangladesh liberation war demonstrate India’s pro-Soviet inclinations. India, the world’s largest arms importer, maintains much closer defense cooperation with Russia than the United States, despite India’s recent contract with Boeing and tensions over the construction of a Russian aircraft carrier. American aid to Pakistan continues to drive India’s pro-Russian policy stance, and Russia’s alignment with India demonstrates its desire to challenge American interests.

A recent example of Russia’s desire for counterweight status is illustrated by Russia’s $1 billion loan to Bangladesh last month in exchange for Bangladeshi purchases of Russian arms. This deal demonstrates Russia’s increasing competitiveness with China in defense policy, as China is the largest arms supplier to Bangladesh. The loan was followed by the first visit of the Bangladeshi president to Russia in 40 years, illustrating how defense contracts can strengthen diplomatic alliances. Like India, Bangladesh was a non-aligned ally of the Soviet Union, as Mujibur Rahman’s 1972 visit was a show of gratitude for Soviet support for Bangladesh during the liberation war.

Secondly, Russian arms contracts have motivated support for anti-Western rogue regimes, like Syria. These contracts have caused Russian obstructionism in the UN and have severely restricted the international community’s ability to conduct military interventions that run contrary to Russia’s interests. Despite Medvedev’s claims of Russian neutrality in Syria, Russia’s $4 billion arms contracts with the Syrian government undoubtedly motivated Russia’s continued support for Assad. Russia has also assisted Syria in creating a radar system to help Syrians defend themselves against Israeli aggression.


Turkey intercepted a Russian plane bound for Syria in October 2012, on the grounds that the plane contained weapons that would aid Assad in the civil war, an assertion vehemently denied by the Russian government. While Russia suspended new arms contracts to Syria in July 2012, Russia has honored existing arms contracts, partially because succumbing to international pressure in Syria will create a negative precedent for future arms contracts with rogue regimes.

Russia’s objective of achieving Hegemony Lite represents a marked break from Cold War politics, which was characterized by the occupation of satellite states, notions of ideological supremacy and direct military interventions. Hegemony Lite is bereft of ideational goals and is largely reliant on employing indirect means, such as oil pipeline closures and strategic arms contracts, to ensure outcomes that benefit Russia’s interests. Russia’s arms contracts have not been universally successful however, as Nouri Al-Maliki’s decision to suspend Russian contracts to Iraq over corruption concerns demonstrates, but the most significant obstacle to Russia’s revival comes from its overdependence on hard power. Russia’s human rights abuses and its extensive defense contracts with rogue regimes and regimes with authoritarian tendencies, like Iran and Venezuela, are symptomatic of the relative unimportance of normative standards in Putin’s domestic and foreign policy. Russia’s soft power deficit will force it to rely on coercion rather than co-option and trust, an approach that will likely prevent it from regaining its former superpower status.

 – Samuel Ramani


(Featured Image:  AttributionShare Alike  World Economic Forum, Creative Commons, Flickr)

(Photo 1 : Attribution  FreedomHouse, Creative Commons, Flickr)


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