Russia: Country overview
The Russian Federation is the world’s largest country in terms of size, spanning northern Asia and much of eastern Europe, with an estimated population of 142 million. A federal semi-presidential republic, Russia has been effectively ruled for the past two decades by one man: Vladimir Putin. Putin became the country’s president in 2000 and, after serving a four-year term as prime minister, resumed to the presidential office in 2012. It has been a period marked by controversy, particularly in recent years. Since 2014, Russia has been internationally condemned for its annexation of the Crimea, where its forces still command a strong military presence. In equal measure, it’s heavy-handed use of force in support of President Assad in Syria has invoked worldwide condemnation.
As of late 2018, Russia had neither ratified nor signed the Arms Trade Treaty.
How many licences for the sale of arms to Russia has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
The number of licences issued to Russia has seen a significant plunge during the past years four years.
From 2008-2012 there were issued between 32 and 75 licences per year, while 2013 saw a spike with 100 licences in one single year. This is despite the fact that this period has been marked by increasing tensions between the UK and Russia over allegations of election meddling, poisoning scandals and the aggressive posture of Russia in eastern Europe and Syria. Since 2014, the number of approved arms licences drastically decreased to less than ten per year.
The total number of licences issued to Russia in the past decade amounts to 401, with 95% of these issued between 2008-2013 alone.
What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
Despite a spike early in the decade with £35.7m worth of exported arms in 2009, the value of UK arms to Russia has generally decreased during the past ten years, reaching zero in 2017. During the Cameron-Clegg government in 2013, it spiked slightly again, reaching a total value of £19m. that year.
In total, the total value of UK arms sales to Russia in the recorded period amounts to £102.9m. However, one third attributes to sales from 2009 alone.
What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain is selling to Russia?
Whilst the data given above is just for military exports (single-use), when you consider both military and dual-use exports (dual-licences are permits to control all the material, software and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid, but also for military goals) the top ten export items requiring licences are as below.
By far the most frequent purchase by Russia has been that equipment relating to the oil and gas industry, equipment that falls under the arms exports category. Such exports must be viewed against Russia’s large deposits of both hydrocarbons.
Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
The Russian Federation’s human rights record is extremely poor, and this report indicates that human rights conditions in Russia deteriorated between 2010 and 2017, even as arms sales grew.
Some of the more egregious violations of basic human rights include: the repression of civil society activity and non-governmental organizations; the targeting of freedom of association; and the repression of freedom of speech, and other human rights. During this period, Russian security services were specifically responsible for a range of human rights violations, including unlawful killings, arbitrary detention and abduction, physical assault and torture and, in particular, the targeting of journalists and human rights defenders. The Russian Federation has also been considered guilty of human rights violations through its involvement in international conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.
Although such violations remain well documented, and the international community has condemned Russian action on multiple occasions, the UK government continues to issue arms export licences to Russia. Before the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the UK and Russia had a close military-industrial relationship. And as late as February 2014, the UK and Russia intended to sign a Military Technical Co-operation Agreement.
Despite sanctions being placed on Russia after the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine, the UK continues to issue export licences to that country. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade, for instance, reports that the UK government approved £1.28 million GBP worth of arms, military equipment and military technology exports to Russia in 2016 alone.
The UK’s explicit lack of willingness to halt arms export to Russia is in line with a wider priority given to the short-term profitability of arms sales, above and beyond considerations of ethics and human rights.
What has the British government said about these concerns?
Despite signing arms export licences with one hand, the British government wags its finger with the other. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has repeatedly and sharply criticised Russia’s human rights records, saying that the human rights environment has deteriorated in recent years. Calls for accountability are frequently issued from the desks of civil servants in Whitehall.
The UK has especially raised concerns regarding Russia’s inconsistent and arbitrarily rule of law; its severe restrictions on freedom of speech; and the purposeful shrinking of civil society by actions from Russia’s Duma.
Concerns have also been raised regarding the Russian-backed conflict in Eastern Ukraine, stating that Russia “continued to violate its commitments under the 2015 Minsk Agreement by supplying personnel and weapons to separatist forces. The UK has called for investigations into reports that Ukrainians opposed to the regimes in separatist-controlled territories risk arrest, physical and sexual violence and summary execution.”
Such words have little effect (and none, it seems on export licence approvals). The FCO acknowledges the lack of progress over key human rights issues, but says it will continue to support human rights in Russia, and perserver in its work holding Russia to account. This, they say, will be done by raising the concerns through multilateral organisations and directly to the Russian authorities.
The UK government has, however, not commented on its arms sales to Russia. Nor has it linked such exports with the widespread human rights violations that have taken place.
What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Russian government have committed since 2010?
Events in 2010
President Dmitry Medvedev’s claimed commitments to human rights and the rule of law were not backed up by any concrete efforts this year, and Russia’s citizens continued to see attacks on human rights defenders, assaults carried out with widespread impunity. Journalists and human rights defenders were routinely targeted by law enforcement; reports of torture were counted in large numbers; and physical abuse in police detention were all described as routine. Russian prison conditions were described as so dire as to be ‘life-threatening’.
The conflict in the North Caucasus reportedly add to this list of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch stated that Russian security agencies committed grave human rights violations there including torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and the collective punishment of families of insurgents against local populations. These counterinsurgency tactics were described as unlawful and routine by the international organization.
Events in 2011
In September 2011, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin announced they would essentially switch political posts. Such an announcement acted as a catalyst for widespread protests. In some cases, protestors were detained and attacked by police.
In the face of such a flouting of democratic process, it is unsurprising that Russia’s human rights record remained unchanged. Harassment of human rights defenders continued, while the space for civil society organisations and activists kept shrinking. Impunity for abuses and the murder of activists in the North Caucasus remained widespread.
Reports of torture and other ill-treatment by security officials – often with the purpose of coercing confessions or gaining money – were both constant and endemic. Prison wardens continued to expose detainees to physical abuse that, at times, resulted in death. The Deputy Director of the Federal Penitentiary Service, for instance, stated that 258 detainees had died in Russian jails between January and September of that year.
Little was done to amend this grievance. The judicial institutions were seriously flawed as corruption and collusion between the police, investigators and prosecutors were common practices, undermining the effectiveness of investigations and obstructing prosecutions.
Events in 2012
Putin resumed his role as Russia’s president in May, causing widespread public protests, leading to clashes between police and demonstrators. Russian authorities were reported to have targeted civil society groups, as it were they who had been organising the inaugural demonstrations. In reaction to increased public mobility and mass protests, the government implemented a series of new measures that limited political pluralism. In 2012, the regime passed laws that imposed large fines for unsanctioned meetings, allowing authorities to block websites without a court order, while grave restrictions were imposed on NGOs, especially with regards to receiving foreign funding. These NGO bills were framed as an attempt to clear out “foreign agents” and were used mainly to target human rights organisations, environmental advocates and women’s groups.
The three members of the punk group Pussy Riot were detained after they performed a minute-long stunt protesting the government at a Moscow Cathedral. They were initially sentenced to two years in prison. This was based on the view that the women were motivated by their hatred for Christian Orthodox believers, a crime under Russian law.
Numerous reports accused Russian authorities of conducting unlawful surveillance of the citizens. Changes in the law meant that telecommunications agencies were forced to allow the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation – the principal security agency of Russia known as the FSB – remote access to their client databases, including electronic communication records. Human rights activists alleged that security services were behind attacks on personal phone communication and illegal video recording. Some activists alleged their social media profiles were hacked.
Events in 2013
Enforcement of the newly implemented “foreign agents” law gave rise to an unprecedented, nationwide inspection campaign of hundreds of NGOs. Numerous groups found themselves facing prosecutions.
Meanwhile, the regime continued to violate several fundamental freedoms. For instance, it reportedly continued to prosecute people who participated in protests on the eve of Putin’s May 2012 inauguration. Moreover, numerous credible reports surfaced that claimed Russian law enforcement carried out both unlawful killings, as well as the torture and physical abuse of citizens in this year.
Abuses continued to take place in Northern Caucasus, with the security forces deeply involved. As part of counterinsurgency tactics, eight civilians were abducted and detained by government security services in Dagestan in the first six months of the year. Reportedly, 375 people were killed in the North Caucasus region, including 68 civilians, in the first nine months of 2013.
Events in 2014
In February, Russia announced the overthrow of pro-Russian president Yanukovych in Ukraine as an illegitimate coup, and annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea. Fighting broke out between Russian allied forces in eastern Ukraine and Ukrainian government forces. Since the siege of the Crimea, Russian citizens have been subject to routine human rights violations, particularly those who speak out against the occupation.
Armed insurgents and Ukrainian forces violated laws of war by using mortar, rocket and artillery attacks indiscriminately. Ground-launched Smerch and Uragan cluster munition rockets were recorded in eastern Ukraine during the second half of the year, though it has yet to be determined if government forces or Russian support insurgents used them. Moreover, the insurgents in Ukraine attacked, beat and killed those suspected of supporting Kiev and obstructed the work of journalists in covering the conflict; physically assaulting, abducting them and beating them.
Despite no official links, Moscow supports the armed insurgents in eastern Ukraine, and clearly wields influence over them. Mounting evidence points to that Russia provided support to the armed groups, including weapons and training, which leaves very little doubt that Russian forces took place in the hostilities.
Following the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine, both the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia, noting both human rights violations in Ukraine and the deterioration of human rights situation within the country.
Events in 2015
2015 saw further crackdowns on civil society, media groups, and the Internet, with the Russian government intensifying harassment and persecution of independent critics. For instance, authorities prosecuted those who voiced criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The consumer protection group Public Control faced a criminal investigation after publishing a document that described the Crimea as occupied territory.
In Syria, Russia began air strikes in support of the Assad regime in September 2015. At the UN Security Council, Russia continued to block resolutions aimed at curbing human rights violations by the Syrian government, including the use of barrel and other high explosives in populated areas. Russia reported these airstrikes were aimed at fighting the extremist Islamic group, ISIS, but reports from 2015 show the air strikes targeting anti-Assad forces. The result was a very high level of civilian casualties.
In Ukraine, a UN investigation found credible evidence that Russian-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine had committed reports of human rights abuses against civilians. This included torture, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances by Russian-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine. Reports from 2015 indicated increased fighting between eastern forces and Ukrainian government forces, bolstered by an influx of Russian weaponry fighters to support the separatist groups.
Events in 2016
2016 saw no improvements in Russia’s human rights record. In June, the government passed a new legislation demanding cellular and internet carriers to save all collected metadata for three years and all communications data for six months so that it could be made available to the FSB upon request. This was worrying for a number of reasons – the main being that Russian authorities could gain access to this data without need of a court order.
Russia’s continued occupation the Crimea persisted, and the human rights situation there and beyond worsened significantly. The Russian regime continued to train and support the pro-Russian forces in eastern parts of Ukraine, and Russian soldiers were reportedly sent in support of such. Thousands of civilian casualties and widespread abuses were attributed, by credible sources, to pro-Russian forces. Government agents were also accused of carrying out politically motivated arrests, detentions and trials of Ukrainians in Russia. Also, there were several reports of the use of torture against political prisoners.
A high concentration of weapons in eastern Ukraine was also reported to have made the region a centre of the illicit arms trade, causing higher rates of gun-related violent crime in the country and increasing the flow of illegal arms into other parts of Europe. It is argued by some that Russia should be held to account for these crimes as it is responsible for arming insurgencies, hence increasing access to, and misuse of, the arms.
Russia remained heavily involved in Syria in 2016, supporting the Assad regime with close air support, artillery support, support forces, intelligence, electronic warfare and mine clearance – and they continued to offer such assistance despite human rights violations by the Syrian regime. Russia was complicit in many of these violations during 2016. For instance, Russian and Syrian government forces allegedly deliberately targeted hospitals, schools and markets in 2016 in attacks despite high civilian casualties. During a bombing campaign of Aleppo in the autumn of 2016, Russian-Syrian forces reportedly committed war crimes, conducting air strikes and using cluster munitions and incendiary weapons indiscriminately against civilian populations.
Events in 2017
Freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly continued to be restricted in this period, and harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and independent NGOs likewise continued. In March, peaceful anti-corruption demonstrations took place around the country; in many cases the police were accused of exercising unnecessary and excessive force. More than 1,600 people were reported to have been arrested, including at least 14 journalists covering the protests. In the aftermath of the arrests, the majority of the detained faced unfair trials on politically motivated charges. Hundreds were reportedly detained solely on grounds for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. Moreover, torture, other ill-treatment was continuously said to have taken place.
In Ukraine, Russian backed separatist armed forces continued to violate ceasefire and rely on tactics such as torture, arbitrary abduction and enforced disappearances to control local populations. In the first half of the year, UN investigators documented 193 conflict-related civilian casualties, including 36 deaths.
“The majority of these casualties resulted from shelling, explosive devices and remnants of war,” said the UN Human Rights Council. As of 2017, 10,000 people have been killed over four years in the Crimea. Russia reportedly did its utmost in preventing international monitoring mechanisms from reporting the true situation on the ground.
In Syria, Russia’s focus shifted to fighting the Islamic State, given the fact that the Assad regime had by then regained control of around 50% of the country from the opposition. Russian culpability for civilian casualties has, however, remained the same. A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights indicated that 90% of attacks carried out by the Russian-Syrian alliance were directed at civilian populations. Russian forces killed 641 civilians in the first half of 2017.
Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Russia.
Human rights abuses continue.
For more from this investigation please go here.
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