Russia’s new agreement to sell Nigeria arms to combat Boko Haram (BH) is evidence of its desire to expand its global geopolitical influence as well as enhance its reputation for being willing to step in where the West will not. At issue is not simply a common desire on the part of both governments to extinguish extremist movements such as BH, but an interest in finding alternative ways to bypass the conventional arms trade. The arms sale will go some way toward countering Mr. Putin’s current personae as a bad boy in the global arena.
The U.S. has turned down repeated requests from Nigeria to purchase weapons to fight BH, but U.S. law prevents arms sales to countries with poor human rights records. Nigeria is well known for inter-communal and political violence, and according to Human Rights Watch, the Nigerian police have been involved in frequent human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests. The Nigerian army has been accused of committing human rights abuses in combatting BH. That said, the absence of effective military means for the army to combat BH is a national security threat to the region, and by extension, the U.S. - so Russia is actually doing the U.S. a favor by stepping in.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, while the U.S. was the world’s number one arms exporter in 2013 and accounted for more than 36% of global arms exports, China was in second place with about 11%, and Russia in third place with just 5%. Mr. Putin no doubt sees arms exports as a way to generate much needed revenue - particularly given the dramatic fall in the price of oil this quarter, and the sanctions imposed by the West - so this transaction with Nigeria occurs at a particularly opportune time for the Kremlin. Russia will apparently be providing a loan to Nigeria to pay for the sale of helicopter gunships and other significant equipment, but sees the opportunity to derive long-term arms sales from Nigeria and surrounding countries as a result.
Earlier this year, Mr. Putin also inserted Russia in the middle of an arms conflict between the U.S. and Iraq, when the Obama administration refused to sell fighter jets and other arms to the then government of Nouri al-Maliki. In June, Russia agree to sell a dozen Soviet era jets to Baghdad, not only enhancing the Kremlin’s influence in Iraq, but by extension in Syria, because of the potential impact the jets would have in combatting the Islamic State. In other words, a continuation of Russia’s basic posture in the region - a combination of opportunistic muscle flexing and building its commercial interests.
Like it or not, the Kremlin is having success in expanding its military and commercial footprint in areas where the U.S. and the West appear to be having declining influence. So, Russia gets to have its cake and eat it, too - masquerading as a white knight while simultaneously meeting its foreign exchange needs and expanding its global footprint. The Nigeria arms sale will likely be the first of many to come in war-torn regions where extremist groups are rising and U.S. influence is falling. On the grand chess board of global geopolitics, Russia is scoring some real points.
How this will translate into meaningful long-term foreign policy remains to be seen. More than likely, Russia will continue to score ‘singles’ as it expands its global arms sales, but it is unlikely to change its basic foreign policy posture. Given the current state of affairs vis-à-vis the number, veracity, and longevity of extremist movements around the world, the Kremlin will likely find it has a useful role to play as an opportunistic white knight for some time to come. In the process, and despite the odds, its military and geopolitical influence in the world will continue to rise.
This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.