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Europe is the main focus for weapons exporters

March 14, 2022

Even before the Ukraine war broke out, European weapons imports saw a marked increase, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute SIPRI. And the figures for 2021 were a sign of things to come.

Russian and Belarusian tanks on snow
According to SIPRI, the past five years in weapons sales give an idea of things to comeImage: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Figures on global arms sales take on a special significance against the backdrop of a war in Europe. The Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) compared weapons trade figures from 2017 to 2021 with the previous five-year period and found an indication of an enormous increase in tension across Europe before the current escalation.

While global trade in major arms declined by 4.6%, European countries increased their arms purchases by 19%, which amounts to the biggest increase of all world regions. Pieter Wezeman, one of the authors of the SIPRI study, called this a "worrying arms build-up".

Ian Anthony, SIPRI program director for European Security, told DW that the latest figures reflect Europe's response to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Russia's aggression in the Donbas region: NATO allies then committed themselves to "reverse the trend of declining defense budgets."

"What you see reflected in the numbers now is largely a consequence of implementing that decision," Anthony said.

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Russia's weapons exports drop

Arms sales by Russia, the world's No. 2 exporter, after the United States, fell by 26%. This can, however, be explained by a drop in orders from just two countries: India and Vietnam. The SIPRI researchers expect India to resume substantial arms purchases from Russia in the coming years.

Germany is the world's fifth-largest exporter, but its arms exports went down by 19% in the five-year period under investigation. US  arms exports increased by 14% in the same time period, and those of France, ranked third in the world, increased by as much as 59%.

Russia's neighbors buy US fighter jets

Even though the SIPRI figures only cover the period through the end of last year, the escalating Russia-Ukraine conflict was already casting its shadow. "The marked deterioration in relations between most European states and Russia was an important driver of growth in European arms imports," Wezeman writes, "especially among states that cannot fully meet their needs through their own defense industries."

Arms deals also played an important role "in transatlantic security relations." The United States was by far the main supplier to the Europeans, especially of combat aircraft. The United Kingdom, Norway, and the Netherlands together ordered 71 US F-35 fighters. In 2020/21, more orders were added by countries that feel particularly threatened by Russia: Finland and Poland put in orders for 64 and 32 F-35 aircraft respectively. Germany, meanwhile, ordered five P-8A anti-submarine aircraft from the United States.

F-35 Lightning II performs in the Fort Lauderdale Air Show on November 22, 2020
Several European countries have put in orders for US F-35 fightersImage: SMG/Zum/picture alliance

Few exports to Ukraine

Ukraine's arms imports from 2017 to 2021 were very limited. The low level of arms transfers to Ukraine, according to SIPRI is partly explained by the country's limited financial resources. But also by the fact that it has its own arms-production capabilities and a large existing arsenal of major arms, predominantly from the Soviet times.

Deliveries of arms to Ukraine generally had more of a political than military significance, the SIPRI report points out, and "by February 2022, several of the major arms exporters had restricted their sales to Ukraine out of concern that they would fuel the conflict."

What Ukraine did purchase was 12 combat drones from Turkey, 540 anti-tank missiles from the US, 87 armored vehicles and 56 pieces of artillery from the Czech Republic.

Those Turkish Bayraktar drones are in operation in the current conflict, as are the US-made Javelin anti-tank missiles, which account for several of the images of destroyed Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.

"There is no single weapons system that will determine the outcome of the current war," Anthony said. "Russia's focus on siege warfare, the use of heavy artillery, and inaccurate bombardment from the air is a reminder that any talk of new technologies being decisive on a battlefield must be treated with caution."

Bayraktar TB2 flies
Turkey has sold Bayraktar military drones to UkraineImage: Emrah Yorulmaz/AA/picture alliance

Anthony expects the conflict to have consequences beyond the trade in weapons for the coming years. "The war in Ukraine has already fundamentally changed the political-military geography of Europe," he said. "There are no longer any illusions about cooperating with Russia in a comprehensive security concept, as was agreed in the 1990s. Russia cannot be a partner for an indefinite future."

Russia's attack on Ukraine also entitles NATO to abandon its previous deference to Russia in its eastern member states, Anthony said: "NATO is now absolved of the commitments it made to Russia to permanently deploy major combat units in those countries."

"The outcome of the war in Ukraine will determine where the line of contact between NATO and Russia is redrawn," Anthony said. "But NATO is now released from the promises it gave Russia on the permanent stationing of significant combat forces in central Europe and the promises on the configuration of nuclear forces to support extended deterrence."

This article was originally written in German.

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