14.03.23 Review

The Geography of Weapons: the war in Ukraine has significantly altered the structure of the global arms trade, with Russia on the way to losing its position as the world’s second-largest arms exporter

The decades-old structure of the global arms industry has been significantly disrupted by the war in Ukraine. According to the latest findings by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Ukraine is now the third-largest importer of weapons, while Russia's share in the global arms market is decreasing. This suggests that Russia may lose the position it has traditionally held as the second-largest arms exporter in the future. Between 2018 and 2022, the global arms market experienced a 5.1% reduction in volume compared to 2013-2017, as military imports to African and American countries fell. At the same time, however, weapon imports have significantly increased across Europe, as well as to certain countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It is here that potential new hotspots of instability and conflict are emerging.

According to SIPRI’s report ‘Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2022,’ over the last thirty years, the global arms market has developed a fairly stable structure consisting of certain dominant players and their counteragents. The US and Russia have historically been the top two global arms exporters, with each country having its own zones of influence within the global arms market. In recent years, however, the gap between the two has grown wider. From 2018 to 2022, US arms exports increased by 14% on figures from 2013 and 2017, meaning the US now accounts for 40% of the global arms market. In contrast, exports from Russia declined by 31% over the same period, resulting in Russia's share of the global market falling from 22% to 16%. France, the third largest arms supplier, has been catching up to Russia over the past few years, having increased its market share from 7.1% to 11%.

Changes in the top 10 largest arms exporters’ export volumes of major weapons from 2018 to 2022 compared to the period 2013-2017, (%)

Over the past few years, Russia has experienced a rapid decline in its position in the global arms market. Over the past decade its main partners have been India, China, and Egypt. However, from 2018 to 2022, India (the world's largest arms importer, with a market share of 11%), reduced its volume of Russian shipments by 37%. In contrast, Russian exports to China and Egypt increased by 39% and 44% respectively during the same period. Nonetheless, China began to reduce its arms imports in 2021-2022, opting to increase its own domestic production of modern weapons. Further, under pressure from the US, Egypt cancelled a large Russian order of combat aircraft in 2022, suspending the shipment of weapons from Russia altogether. The remaining seven of the top ten importers of Russian arms, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Australia, South Korea, Pakistan, Japan, and the United States, have reduced their supply of Russian weapons by an average of 59% in recent years. While Russia has managed to strengthen its position as the primary arms supplier to sub-Saharan Africa, countries in this region are much poorer and can only afford to purchase older or less advanced weaponry. Consequently, there has been a degradation in the structure of Russian arms exports.

According to the experts from SIPRI, the ongoing war in Ukraine is expected to further restrict Russian arms exports. First, Russia’s priority will be to supply its own armed forces with weapons. To add to this, demand for Russian-made weapons will decline as a result of increasing pressure on Russia’s potential trading partners from the US and the EU, economic sanctions and the degradation of the Russian weapons industry.

As a result of the war in Ukraine and increasing tensions between Russia and European countries, arms imports to Europe have surged. In 2022, NATO’s European members increased their shipments by 65%. To add to this, Ukraine has become the world’s third largest arms importer after Qatar and India due to the military support it has received from Western countries. However, the equipment supplied to Ukraine is generally outdated or has already been in use, while the United States has been supplying other countries such as Japan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia with advanced, high-tech weapons such as air defence systems and aircraft.

The patterns and locations of arms deliveries clearly demonstrate hotspots of international tension. According to the SIPRI study, weapon imports to East Asian countries rose by 21% between 2018 and 2022, with South Korea (+61%) and Japan (+171%) recording the largest increases. Australia, another key US ally in the Asia-Pacific region, also increased its arms imports by 23% over the same period. In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has become the world's second largest arms importer, increasing its market share to 9.6%. Qatar increased its arms purchases by 311%, making it the world’s third-largest arms importer.

Armament is a multilateral process, that is, as countries arm themselves, their buildup of military power often results in a reciprocal increase in weapons among their neighbours, especially if the country in question has ambitions of becoming a regional leader. China's increasing power has forced a response from India, while heightened tensions around Taiwan and continuing threats from North Korea have encouraged other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to arm themselves as well. Moreover, China and Russia's desire to expand their presence in Africa has intensified the struggle for influence across the continent. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also leading to significant changes within European arms markets, as the EU intends to conduct centralised weapons purchases to reimburse individual member states for supplying weapons to Ukraine. The most important issue, however, is the fact that the invasion has created a new perception of risk around the world, reducing the dividends of peace and benefiting weapons suppliers. However, one indisputable loser in this new arms race has already been identified — Russia.