Over the past year, Russia has sold numerous SU-57 fighter jets to the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries such as Algeria and Egypt. The sales come after the United States sold its F-16 and F-35 fighter jets to Arab countries such as Morocco. Experts have raised concerns that the influx of fighter jets into the already precarious region could spark an arms race and significantly impact stability in the MENA area.
In November of last year, Algeria and Russia signed a contract enabling the North African country to purchase 14 Russian SU-57 fighter jets for approximately $2 billion. The two nations formalized the deal last year after announcing it earlier in 2019. Algeria’s purchase comes after the United States approved the sale of 25 of its F-16 fighter jets to Morocco last March for $3.8 billion. Both Algeria and Morocco are now locked into an escalating arms race as the two neighboring nations struggle to ensure the strength of their military sector. The United States has also agreed to sell 50 F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The U.S.’ F-16 and F-35 jets are fifth-generation versions of its warplanes. Both planes are in high demand internationally, as they feature advanced technological features. SU-57 warplanes are Russia’s fifth-generation jets. Though there is little public information about the product specifications of the planes, reports indicate it is an appealing purchase for many foreign nations as it is cheaper than the F-35 planes.
In many ways, the sale of Russian and American fighter jets to countries in the MENA region reflects the ongoing global power struggle between Russia and the United States. Over the past decade, both superpowers have worked to undermine the other’s influence and expand their cultural, economic, and military prowess across the globe. Given the strategic geopolitical and security importance the MENA region holds, both powers have expanded their presence in the area. Military sales are a critical segment of these efforts. The U.S. is Morocco’s primary supplier of arms, while Algeria is one of Russia’s largest arms buyers. According to data from the Center for International Policy, Morocco buys 91% of its arms from the United States, more than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa region. Similarly, Algeria purchases 67% of its weapons from Russia.
Military sales are essential to Russia right now, as the country’s economy has been severely undermined by sanctions. As such, foreign funds are integral to achieving the country’s military modernization goals. Since Russia re-entered the MENA region by opening a base in Syria in 2016, the country has attempted to expand its military sales to other nations in the region. Further, experts note that the U.S.’ sale of fighter jets to Morocco could have helped further Washington’s geopolitical agenda in the region. In December 2020, Morocco normalized relations with Israel, an effort shepherded by the United States.
One example of the critical role military sales play in the U.S.-Russia power struggle is the recent dispute with Egypt. On February 25, Egypt purchased five SU-35 fighter jets from Russia, with 19 more expected. The Egyptian government had previously purchased arms from the U.S. but is now aiming to diversify its weapons sources. Shortly before the deal announcement, the U.S. government warned the Egyptian government that it would consider introducing sanctions on Egypt if it continued to purchase the Russian jets. Despite this, the Egyptian government went forth with the deal, wanting to avoid a weapons dependency on Washington.
The rapid influx of U.S. and Russian military artillery into the MENA region has raised significant concerns about the future stability of the area. In particular, there is a fear that advanced Russian and American weaponry could fall into the hands of terror groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, or the Houthis or could be routed to countries such as Iran. Imported arms play a central role in all of the active conflicts in the MENA region. Additional weaponry could further fuel these battles and threaten the U.S.’ strategic position and allies’ positions.
In addition, many U.S. lawmakers have warned that selling fighter jets and other advanced military equipment to Arab nations could undermine Israel’s strategic advantage in the region. Given that Israel and the United States are strong allies, this is a significant concern for U.S. strategists. Some U.S. policymakers have also noted that Israel would need to purchase more arms from Washington to maintain its military advantage, introducing more advanced weaponry into the already fragile region.
The sale of military equipment is becoming an increasingly important component of the battle for economic, military, and political influence between the U.S. and Russia. The Middle East is the new battleground for this struggle. The U.S. and Russia must be more conscious of the role their arms could play in sparking an insatiable arms race that could fuel further instability and terrorism in the region.