On Wednesday, September 2, the State Department released its list of recently sanctioned entities. The name that stands out the most on the list is Rosoboronexport, the massive Russian state-owned arms exporter that accounts for 85 percent of Russia’s exports of arms.
The United States has an on-again, off-again history with Rosoboronexport, and while sanctions are frequently useful, this is not the case with Rosoboronexport. Sanctions against Rosoboronexport have been shown to be fragmentary and ineffective. Furthermore, Russia’s attitude toward adversarial countries is unlikely to change and thus the United States should be leery of pursuing a strategy of ephemeral sanctions.
The State Department is sanctioning Rosoboronexport on the grounds that they have violated INKSNA, the “Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-proliferation Act of 2000.” This is, by no means, a revelation.
In 2006, the United States first barred transactions with Rosoboronexport because of INKSNA violations. These violations, while not completely known, are believed to have been, in part, the contract signed between Rosoboronexport and Iran for the Russian arms exporter to repair and upgrade 30 Iranian Su-24 “fencer” long-range aircraft. The “fencer” is a variant of the F-111, a plane used by U.S. Strategic Command as a nuclear strike platform; hence, Rosoboronexport was in violation of U.S. law which limits the:
“Transfer to Iran […] of equipment and technology controlled under multilateral export control lists […] or otherwise having the potential to make a material contribution to the development of weapons of mass destruction.”
Unfortunately, these sanctions were rather empty: The United States continued to purchase Mi-17 helicopters via intermediaries from Rosoboronexport for the Afghan Armed Forces regardless of the sanctions.
In 2010, the United States lifted the sanctions on Rosoboronexport in response to Russian support for a U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran for violating U.N. demands to halt its uranium enrichment program. The United States defended the lifting of sanctions by saying “Over time, Russia’s approach to Iran has evolved. Russia’s ability to work with us on non-proliferation has given us confidence we can take this step while protecting our non-proliferation interests.”
Meanwhile, some lawmakers were furious that the Department of Defense continued to do business with Rosoboronexport, an organization that has funneled arms into Syria’s oppressive Bashar al-Assad regime and whose country used its geopolitical strength for a land-grab in eastern Ukraine.
With the most recent announcement of renewed sanctions against Rosoboronexport, some members of Congress are now rejoicing. However, while sanctions are a step in the right direction, our history with Rosoboronexport hints that these sanctions will likely be inadequate. Furthermore, the announcement of Rosoboronexport’s violation of the “Iran, North Korea, and Syria Non-proliferation Act” came at a very interesting time: right before the vote for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
With the opening of the Iranian economy, skeptics of the JCPOA are speculating that countries such as Russia will take a large interest in flooding Iran with arms. The sanctions against Rosoboronexport could be seen as a method of mitigating this strategy, while at the same time reassuring opponents of the deal, or members who are on the fence, of the United States’ continued enforcement of INKSNA and other international agreements.
We should recognize the limitations of the use of sanctions on Rosoboronexport and attempt to evolve a strategy towards Russia that is not on-again, off-again. Instead, we should have more enduring, effective sanctions, or we should turn our focus to building stronger international cooperation for interdicting illegal arms shipments.