A great deal of ink has been spilled recently about how terrible it is that a number of European NATO members are considering selling arms and military equipment to Russia. Many commentators vehemently argue against such arms sales. The reasons for the opposition are rarely stated openly, but when they are they tend to focus on the fear that such deals would tie West European states more closely to Russia, preventing them from standing firm against Russian policies that the commentators oppose. A secondary reason is that these deals would improve Russian military capabilities.
Both of these reasons are fundamentally misguided. First of all, countless studies have shown that greater ties between states reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or Germany sell military equipment to Russia, they not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but they also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO military equipment. Cold warriors seem to think that the dependency argument only runs in one direction — Western states who sell to Russia wouldn’t want to lose sales, so they’ll do whatever Russia wants. But the road of mutual dependence is a two way street. If Russia starts buying certain categories of military equipment from abroad, its domestic defense industry will likely lose whatever capability it still has to produce that category of equipment. Russia will then depend on NATO states for the procurement (and perhaps maintenance) of its military equipment. In that situation, Russian leaders will have to think twice before undertaking any actions towards NATO that are sufficiently hostile as to result in it being cut off from access to such equipment. This form of dependence is much more serious. After all, if Russia gets upset with France and stops buying its military equipment, French arms manufacturers will lose some money and perhaps some French people will lose their jobs. But if France cuts off military sales to Russia in a situation where Russia is dependent on France for certain types of equipment, Russian security will suffer.
Some analysts fear that Russia could use equipment purchased from NATO, such as the Mistral ships, to attack its neighbors. The 2008 Georgia war showed that even without NATO equipment the Russian military is plenty strong enough to defeat a small and weak army of the kind that just about all of its immediate neighbors possess. Western arms sales are not necessary for Russia to be able to successfully undertake hostile action against a country like Georgia. But again, if NATO arms sales to Russia become ubiquitous, Russia may well become more hesitant to undertake actions that could potentially result in the cut-off of such arms sales. In other words, Western leverage over Russian actions will actually increase.
Second, if Russia starts using NATO equipment, this will improve interoperability between Russian and NATO military forces, making their efforts at military cooperation more effective. Since the two sides are much more likely to work together on potential issues such piracy, smuggling and counter-terrorism than they are to actually fight each other, it seems to me that selling NATO equipment to Russia can only lead to improvements in security for NATO states.
Russian leaders have recently contemplated a large number of potential arms purchases from abroad, including both basic equipment, such as uniforms, weaponry, such as sniper rifles, and major platforms, such as amphibious assault ships and armored vehicles. This shows that these leaders no longer trust the capabilities of Russia’s domestic defense industry to rebuild the Russian army, which is equipped almost entirely with aging Soviet-era technology. They have come to understand that foreign ties are only way to rebuild their military capabilities in a reasonable time frame.
Western leaders should encourage this trend, because it will only enhance regional and global security. Rather than “eroding the effectiveness of NATO policies toward Russia and in NATO’s own eastern neighborhood,” extensive arms sales by NATO states to Russia will increase Russian dependence on the West, decreasing the likelihood that Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests, while enhancing regional security by improving the ability of Russian forces to cooperate with NATO forces against threats to their mutual security.