Russia's Special Opinion on the Arms Trade Treaty

The increase in transparency envisaged by the Arms Trade Treaty does not present a substantial threat to the Russian arms business. The treaty requires information on the amount of arms supplies rather than their cost, which could potentially threaten the commercial interests of Rosoboronexport.

Recently the UN General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), the first international agreement aimed at preventing global multi-billion dollar arms trafficking. It was backed by 154 states and opposed by three, with 23 countries abstaining, including Russia and China.

Today, there are about 300 documents regulating the global arms trade. How does the ATT differ from other documents on this issue?

The efforts against illicit trade in arms began almost simultaneously with the arms trade. The League of Nations set forth a draft convention on the international arms trade in 1925. As for the ATT, it contains elements of different initiatives on regulating arms transfers. The 2008 EU common position on arms exports is the closest to the ATT in spirit. The ATT differs from all previous initiatives in two key aspects:

• It is universal: the treaty has been adopted at the UN level. Before, such initiatives, in particular, state commitments to establish national systems of monitoring arms exports or to exchange information on arms supplies were adopted for the most part at the regional level (for instance, the EU common position or the Wassenaar Arrangement).

• It is oriented to a humanitarian purpose: a commitment of states not to supply arms if it is known that they will be used in violation of international humanitarian legislation, human rights etc.

Do you think it is a mere coincidence that the adoption and ratification of the treaty are taking place against the background of the events in Syria?

It is in large part a coincidence. Chronologically, the draft treaty emerged in the mid-1990s and was put on the UN agenda in 2006, that is, long before the Syrian conflict. It would be more logical to link its adoption to the emergence of conditions for its signing by the United States, the world’s leading arms exporter and the only superpower. During the diplomatic conference in July 2012, the Barack Obama administration refused to support the treaty at the last moment because of its reluctance to lose a voting contingent on the eve of the presidential elections (there is domestic opposition to the treaty). Now that Obama has been reelected and is serving his last term, his administration has decided to back the ATT. The US position was decisive for its adoption by the UN General Assembly.

At the same time, it is obvious that Syria may be the first victim of the treaty when it comes in force, because the actions of Bashar al-Assad’s government fall under Article 6.3 (“A State Party shall not authorize any transfer of conventional arms… if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in… attacks directed against civilian objects…”). Moreover, there has been negative coverage of arms supplies to Syria. That said, it wouldn’t be entirely appropriate to link the treaty’s approval with the events in Syria.

Why Russia has abstained from voting on the treaty? Is it because the ATT requires transparency of deals on all conventional arms, and that this runs counter to the interests of the arms lobby?

Russia (and this is reflected in the statements of its officials at the talks) objects to the treaty’s formulas that allow for dual interpretations and dual standards (what does this mean: “if it has knowledge… that the arms or items would be used in… attacks directed against civilian objects”, etc?) Also, Russia is solidary with a group of countries that haven’t supported the treaty because it does not contain a ban on the supply of arms to non-government actors.

In the last few years Russia’s supplies of arms and military hardware have become much less transparent. It is possible to identify in open sources no more than 60% of the cost of supplies declared by the Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation. However, the increase in transparency envisaged by the treaty does not present a substantial threat to the Russian arms business. The treaty requires information on the amount of arms supplies rather than their cost, which could potentially threaten the commercial interests of Rosoboronexport (the Russian arms export agency). Moreover, the text of the treaty reads, “reports may exclude commercially sensitive… information” (which means that this information will not be quoted at all).

In general, the assumption that some arms lobby is affecting Russia’s position on the ATT is fairly dubious. A study we conducted last year showed that the majority of directors of Russia’s leading defense enterprises do not even know what the ATT is all about. The reason for this is different. We must admit that as a whole this treaty does not benefit Russia. Without giving anything to Russia, the ATT threatens it with the loss of some markets. The ATT can also be used to exert diplomatic pressure and for an information war. Russia will not be able to use the ATT to its advantage as much as Western countries, due to a lack of adequate diplomatic and media resources and competent external secret services.

Representatives of some countries that abstained from voting on the treaty (including Russia) or objected to it believe that the version of it that was adopted requires serious amendments. Do you think it is possible to amend the treaty, taking into account the interests of countries that object to some of its provisions? Will the United States agree to ratify it in this case?

The time and opportunities for amending the treaty are mostly gone. Proceeding from the terms under which it is to enter into effect (signing and ratification by 50 UN members), the treaty will most likely retain its current version, because its advocates will be able to achieve the necessary quorum among the countries prepared to back its text without any amendments. As for its ratification by the United States, this is likely to take a long time. The Obama Administration will have to win the support of two thirds of senators to have it ratified. Considering that even the Democrats (53 out of 100 senators) are not united on this issue, it is unlikely to be ratified quickly.

Is the ATT likely to be signed? Many experts are skeptical about its ratification by 50 countries (including the United States) even in its current version.

On June 3, 2013 the treaty will be only opened for singing by UN members. The countries that have backed it are likely to sign it before the end of this year. However, its ratification by national parliaments of its future signatories may be delayed. The treaty is unlikely to come in force before the end of this year, but this is still possible. The treaty’s supporters may achieve the quorum of 50 countries, which need to ratify it in order for it to enter into force. The arms market and the treaty regulating it are not very significant for the economies or national security of many countries. They may well support it and ratify it based on the following argument: “We don’t care about the treaty but we'll support it since the United States and Europe backed it.”

It is possible to reach the quorum just by counting the countries that have supported the treaty but are not major players on the arms market (there are at least 70 of them). Now it looks like the treaty is bound to become valid. It may enter into force even without being ratified by the United States. Moreover, it may take the United States decades to ratify the treaty, but it will become valid nonetheless.

If the treaty is preserved in its current version, what consequences may it have for Russia’s economic and foreign policy interests?

Obviously, with time Russia will have to quit its most controversial markets, such as Myanmar, Uganda and Zimbabwe. On the whole, these markets are not important for the Russian defense industry. The share of Russian supplies of arms and military equipment to so-called rogue countries (including Iran) has never exceeded 10% (usually it is below 5%) of these exports each year; in monetary terms, this amounts to less than one billion dollars per year (usually less than 500 million dollars). So, direct economic losses are not great. However, after the treaty comes into force, under certain circumstances, Russia may be restricted in its arms supplies to friendly countries, such as Syria, Belarus or Central Asian states. In the foreseeable future (after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan), domestic conflicts (like the current one in Syria) may break out in Central Asian states, and the attempts of their governments to suppress them may be qualified as a “violation of human rights” or “destruction of civilian facilities” and so on. That said, the current text of the treaty still has some legal loopholes to allow the continued supply of arms and military hardware even to Syria (the supply of spare parts for military equipment or arms deliveries free of charge or as military assistance). Moreover, the treaty has no provisions on monitoring compliance or punishing violations. So, if the need of arms supplies is considered to be vital for its national security, Russia may decide to obviate the treaty, considering its dual nature and vague formulas, and also its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

How may the treaty affect the global situation?

The treaty may be used as an instrument of diplomatic or competitive struggle on the arms market. It is no accident that its text has articles allowing for different interpretations and the use of double standards. Under the circumstances, much will depend on the first precedents of using the treaty to limit arms supplies to individual countries. It is difficult to predict its impact on the arms market before these precedents are created. That said, it won’t have a global influence on this market in the mid- and long-term perspective.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.