AOAV: all our reportsUK arms exports to countries of concern

UK arms exports to Russia (2012-2022)

Russia: Country overview

Russia is the largest country in the world, in terms of land area. It has a population of 144 million people, spreading across the Russian Federation, covering northern Asia and eastern Europe. Putin has controlled Russia, a federal semi-presidential republic, for two decades. After four years as prime minister, Putin became president again in 2012. 

The country’s economy is heavily reliant on natural resources including oil and gas. Further it has a strong industrial sector, particularly in the military industry.

Recent years have been controversial. Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea, where its forces still have a heavy military presence, posed a major threat to European security. The Ukrainian issue, caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is now the world’s top priority. Russia had not signed or ratified the Arms Trade Treaty.

How many licenses for the sale of arms to Russia did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2021?

130 limited, 7 unlimited

Russia has received fewer permits in the past five years. From 2012 to 2016, the UK provided 130 limited and 7 unlimited military arms export licenses to Russia. Despite rising tensions between the UK and Russia over election manipulation, poisoning scandals, and Russian aggression in eastern Europe and Syria, 2013 saw 63 licenses. 

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

Despite a rise in 2013 during the Cameron-Clegg government, when £19m worth of guns were exported to Russia, UK arms exports to Russia have steadily declined. Unfortunately, statistics for recent years are incomplete, however, the few existing numbers suggest that export licenses have decreased after 2014 with 2015, 2016 and 2018 listing no arms exports for the respective year. Yet, values of up to £1.3m have been charged during these years.

2013 accounted for half of the sales. Despite the arms embargo, eleven EU member states shipped €346 million in missiles, aircraft, rockets, torpedoes, and bombs to Russia until at least 2020. Between 2015 and 2020, at least 10 EU member states (France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Finland, Slovakia, and Spain) supplied armaments to Russia to varying degrees, according to COARM statistics analyzed by Investigate Europe. CAAT data showed that the UK awarded a substantial number of military arms export licenses until 2016, but none after that.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2022

What are the top 10 types of arms export licenses Britain is selling to Russia?

Top 10 military items exported from the UK to Russia between 2012-2022Total number of licenses
weapon sights40
sporting guns20
small arms ammunition13
sporting guns10
components for sniper rifles7
body armour7
body armour5
gun mountings5
gun mountings5
components for military helicopters4
Top 3 military export items from the UK to Russia between 2012-2022 by valueValue in GBP
components for military helicopters£23m
ML3 ‒ Ammunition£4.5m
ML9 ‒ Warships£2.9m

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

The data above is for single-use military exports, but when including dual-use exports (dual-licenses are permits to control all material, software, and technology that can be used for civil purposes like humanitarian aid and military goals), the top ten export items requiring licenses are as follows:

Russia has bought oil and gas industry weaponry exports the most. Russia’s huge hydrocarbon deposits must be considered while exporting. Information security and inertial equipment were second and third most imported. Controlling citizens and limiting their information access are national security priorities. In his paper “Understanding the Russian Approach to Information Security,” Pasha Sharikov wrote that “While Western countries understand sovereignty in the information era as encouraging global information exchange through safe technological infrastructure, the Russian government understands information sovereignty as “nonproliferation” of foreign information among Russian citizens, and sharing the “proper information about Russia with foreign partners”.

 Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

As NATO commented, “Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not only a manifestation of a huge security danger that has shattered peace in Europe. More structurally, it has broken the entire security architecture built patiently on the continent over many decades, including international commitments agreed in the last 30 years.” It has broken the continent’s whole security framework, including international agreements made in the last 30 years. “Although Russian weaponry is full of western-manufactured components, it is not certain that the corporations making them recognized that the Russian military was the end-user,” the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) reported in April 2022. Dual-use components are also common. Russian weapons systems retrieved from the battlefield indicated a “consistent pattern” of dependence on foreign-made components, including British ones, according to Ukrainian military research.

Recently, Human Rights Watch has documented Russian armed forces violating rules of war against civilians in seized Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions of Ukraine. “The examples we documented amount to terrible, premeditated brutality and violence against Ukrainian civilians,” said Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia director Hugh Williamson.

What has the British government said about these concerns?

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has harshly condemned Russia’s human rights record, saying it has deteriorated in recent years. Whitehall bureaucrats routinely demand responsibility. Russia’s inconsistent and capricious rule of law, harsh limitations on free speech, and Duma moves to diminish civil society have particularly concerned the UK. The FCO acknowledges the lack of progress on critical human rights concerns but says it will support human rights in Russia and hold Russia accountable. They want to express concerns to multilateral bodies and the Russian government.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson banned all dual-use exports to Russia. After the invasion of Ukraine, the UK restricted the direct supply of dual-use components, which can be used for civilian or military purposes, to Russia. Government spokesperson: “We have introduced the largest and most severe economic sanctions Russia has ever faced, to help cripple Putin’s war machine, including by sanctioning key defense sector organizations, and banning the export of critical technologies. The UK has one of the most robust and transparent export-control regimes in the world. We take all credible allegations of breaches of export control seriously and we will take further action if appropriate.”

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Russian government has committed since 2012?

In May 2012, Putin resumed his presidency, sparking rallies and police-protester violence. Russia targeted civil society organizations and curtailed political pluralism in response to rising public mobility and huge protests. The same year, the administration implemented laws imposing huge fines for unsanctioned meetings, permitting officials to ban websites without a court order, and severely restricting NGOs, notably their foreign funding. This NGO legislation targeted human rights, environmental, and women’s groups as “foreign agents” to be expelled. The new “foreign agents” rule prompted an extraordinary statewide inspection blitz of hundreds of NGOs. Groups were prosecuted. Meanwhile, the dictatorship violated other fundamental freedoms. It reportedly prosecuted protesters on Putin’s May 2012 inauguration eve. Numerous credible reports alleged that Russian law enforcement killed, tortured, and abused civilians this year. Northern Caucasus security forces continued to abuse. In Dagestan’s first six months, government security forces kidnapped and arrested eight individuals as part of counterinsurgency. The first nine months of 2013 had 375 North Caucasus deaths, including 68 civilians.

The following year, Russia annexed Crimea and declared the fall of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Yanukovych a coup in February. Russian-allied forces in eastern Ukraine fought Ukrainian government forces. Since the Crimean siege, Russian residents, especially those who oppose the occupation, have been routinely violated. Insurgents and Ukrainian forces used mortar, rocket, and artillery assaults indiscriminately, violating war regulations. Whether government forces or Russian-backed insurgents employed ground-launched Smerch and Uragan cluster munition rockets in eastern Ukraine during the second part of the year is unknown. In addition, Ukrainian separatists assaulted, abducted, and killed Kiev supporters and journalists reporting the fight.On 6 March 2014, the Heads of State or Government of the European Union strongly condemned the unprovoked violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by the Russian Federation and called for its armed forces to immediately withdraw to their permanent stationing in accordance with relevant agreements.

Simultaneous to it’s operations in Ukraine, Russia resumed air operations in support of Assad in September 2015. Russia blocked UN Security Council resolutions to stop the Syrian government from using barrels and other heavy explosives in inhabited areas. Russia claimed these attacks targeted ISIS, but 2015 reports proved they targeted anti-Assad groups. Many civilians died. A UN investigation found solid evidence that Russian-backed armed groups in eastern Ukraine had perpetrated civilian rights abuses. Russian-backed armed organizations in eastern Ukraine tortured, detained, and disappeared people.

Russian-backed separatist troops in Ukraine violated the truce in 2017 and used torture, abduction, and enforced disappearances to subjugate local communities. UN investigators recorded 193 conflict-related civilian casualties, including 36 deaths, in the first half of the year. The UN Human Rights Council reported that artillery, explosive devices, and war debris caused most casualties. 

In January 2018, supporters of opposition politician Alexei Navalny coordinated nationwide rallies that resulted in over 370 arrests. Police raided Navalny’s campaign offices and visited social media users who said they would attend demonstrations. Peaceful protests against Putin’s inauguration resulted in 1,600 arrests, including 158 children, in 27 towns in May. Police sometimes overreacted. Peaceful rallies against pension age increases in 39 locations in September resulted in 1,195 arrests, including 60 children. Three protest journalists were beaten by police.

Human rights abuses abroad continued as well, as the Russian-Syrian military action illegally attacked northwest Syrian civilians using forbidden and indiscriminate weaponry. The UN reported 3 million civilians in the area in 2019, at least half of them were displaced from Syria. Since April 26, 2019, the Syrian-Russian military coalition has launched hundreds of attacks daily in anti-government-held parts of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates, killing an estimated 200 civilians, including 20 children. According to first responders, witnesses, and open-source information, the alliance employed banned cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and huge air-dropped explosive weapons with wide-area effects, including “barrel bombs,” in residential areas.

The November 2020 legislative crackdown increased before the September 2021 general elections. New regulations allowed authorities to target a wide range of independent voices. These laws and others were used to defame, harass, and punish human rights campaigners, journalists, independent groups, political opponents, and academics. Many left Russia for safety or were banished. Authorities targeted independent journalists. In a historic event in Vladimir Putin’s campaign on independent thought, Russia’s supreme court ordered Memorial International, the oldest human rights group, closed. A UN expert cautioned that the imminent dissolution of two important Russian human rights organizations could herald a move by the authorities to ban all human rights defenders. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, noted that the Memorials’ dissolution would be symbolic. “Just as its creation signaled the beginning of openness in Russia, its closing might indicate an end to this time,” said Lawlor.

Since February 24, 2022 the city of Mariupol in Ukraine has been shelled and struck by Russian forces. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 4,266 civilian deaths and 5,178 civilian injuries in Ukraine between February 24 and June 7, most likely an undercount. Most were caused by explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as heavy artillery and multi-barrel rocket launchers, missiles, and airstrikes. 

Despite this catalog of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Russia.

Human rights abuses continue.