In late February, Russian media reported that the country signed an agreement to sell a number of Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and help the Gulf state develop a next-generation fighter that could enter service in seven or eight years.
News of the deal between the Kremlin and the UAE came amid murmurs that Moscow is close to capping off a similar deal to send 10 Flanker-E jets to Indonesia and that Russia is slated to send a second batch of the same warplanes to China.
These deals — and similar ones across the globe – highlight the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing use of the Eurasian nation’s defense industry as a diplomatic tool on the world stage and one that appears bent on currying favor among countries with longstanding ties to the United States.
“One of Russia’s majors goals is to reassert itself as a major global power,” Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Hudson Institute, told Fox News. “That means returning back to what it used to do during the days of the Soviet Union and doing things like this.”
Besides being one of the country’s largest employers and huge economic driver – Putin claims that Russia exported $4.6 billion in weapons and military equipment in 2016 and has a contract portfolio worth more than $50 billion – experts argue that the defense industry has played a crucial role in Kremlin polices in regions less hospitable to U.S. influence.
With the exception of Ukraine and the Baltic states, there is no region in the world that Russia in recent years has asserted more influence over than the Middle East.
Given U.S. reticence under former President Barack Obama to become involved in the conflict, Russia’s influence has been most strongly felt in Syria, where it maintains roughly 36 fighter jets and helicopter gunships to aid President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the nation’s ongoing civil war. The lack of U.S. action in the war-torn nation — and its diminishing troop presence in places like Iraq — appears to have emboldened Russia to begin reaching out to the region’s more U.S.-friendly governments.
“When the U.S. didn’t do anything in Syria, it let Russia take the lead and now Russia is pursuing relations with other nations in the region,” Thoburn said.
This isn’t the first time the UAE has shown an interest in Russian weaponry. Its army uses the Russian BMP-3 armored fighting vehicle and the country looked into buying Sukhoi Su-27M jets during the mid-1990s. But coming at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Moscow, the agreement to send the warplanes to the Arab nation is seen as a particularly bold move given that the Emirati have been one of the U.S.’ closest allies since the country’s 1971 founding.