When a weapon system is purchased by or gifted to a state, it will then generally enter into service with that state’s military and be put to use either in drills or, if the military is actively engaged in operations, in the field. This would be the “classic” rationale for the sale, that the buyer needs a new capability or aims to preserve an existing one, while the seller hopes to bolster the buyer’s defenses, perhaps against a shared threat. In practice, there are often much more complicated reasons behind what drives customers to purchase and suppliers to sell arms, and nowhere is this clearer than in several recent arms deals wherein supplier countries have transferred military equipment that come with a key string attached – that they are not to actually be used.
There have been plenty of examples around the world where states will purchase a piece of military equipment that they do not themselves intend to employ other than as show pieces. Many of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are characterized as having done this over the years, stocking up on new equipment for various reasons such as prestige, although this trend is likely shifting as those militaries become involved in regional wars. And while suppliers, particularly Western ones, will often attach end-user stipulations to weapons being sold, the Russian delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria and the American sale of Javelin anti-tank systems to Ukraine provide examples of circumstances where the recipient appears to be barred from actually using the system in warfare.
Syrian airspace has long been vulnerable to the Israeli Air Force. This point was made in 2007, when Israeli jets destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor, and has been emphasized repeatedly since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, with Israeli jets carrying out hundreds of strikes targeting suspected arms convoys destined for Hezbollah or key targets linked to that group or its patron, Iran. As such, Damascus pushed for the purchase of the S-300 from Russia, a key arms supplier to the country over the years, and seems to have actually inked a deal in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Moscow dragged its feet on a deal, in large part over concern about the Israeli reaction to the system’s delivery to Syria, and reportedly froze it soon after the civil war in Syria began.
Despite statements from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claiming contract implementation was ongoing in 2013, it was not until 2018 that Russian officials began to more seriously return to the subject of arming Syria with the S-300. In the immediate aftermath of American, British, and French strikes on the Shayrat air base in April 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that while Russia “had a moral obligation” and pledged not to supply the S-300 to Syria a decade prior, in light of the Shayrat strikes, Moscow no longer felt obligated to deny Damascus the system. Even so, Russian officials demurred on the S-300 delivery in the months thereafter, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu even saying that July that Syria had not made a request for the S-300.
That September, Syria accidentally shot down a Russian Il-20M while attempting to engage an Israeli jet that was carrying out strikes on Syria. Moscow blamed Israel for the incident, and later that month, Defense Minister Shoigu stated definitively that the S-300 would be supplied to Syria, to enable it to prevent airspace intrusions and update its air defense network so as to avoid errantly targeting friendly aircraft. Before the end of the month, components for the three battalion sets of S-300PMU-2s began arriving, and in 2019 these were reported to have become operational.
That the S-300 is nominally in Syrian military possession does mean it is actually available for use in guarding the Syrian airspace, however. Ever since the delivery took place, there have been reports of the system being inactive. Noticeably, Israel has continued to carry out air strikes on Syria and there are no indications that any S-300 missiles have been fired in response. Haaretz, an Israeli paper, reported earlier this month that Russian advisers still have “total control” of the systems and do not permit Syrian personnel to operate them.
This situation with the Syrian S-300 is not unlike that of the American delivery of Javelin anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine. Since 2014, the Ukrainian military has been engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against Russian-backed separatist forces. The separatist militias are well-equipped with armored vehicles and tanks, which are suspected of having been supplied directly from Russia, despite the militants’ denials. Either way, the fact that the separatists have large numbers of armored equipment has spurred Ukraine to ramp up production of domestically made anti-tank systems and turn to potential suppliers abroad, namely the United States.
Concern about aggravating an already-tense situation, as well as potential technology leakage, prompted U.S. President Barack Obama to reject approval of the sale to Ukraine of “lethal” military systems, such as the Javelin, in favor of “non-lethal” ones. While any Western support for Ukraine raises the prospect of Russia’s annoyance, the Obama administration gauged the non-lethal supplies as less likely to provoke a Russian escalation in the conflict than the provision of armaments.
President Donald Trump, President Obama’s successor, changed course, opting in December 2017 to approve the sale of sniper rifles and other small arms to Ukraine. That deal in and of itself was small, but indicative of the shift in policy. Several months later, in March 2018, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of a few hundred Javelin missiles, as well as dozens of launchers, to Ukraine. In a statement, the U.S. government said these “will help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to meet its national defense requirements.”
Kiev evidently moved swiftly to conclude an agreement after that approval, as the U.S. confirmed by the end of the following month that the first deliveries had already reached Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has continued to press for more systems. In the infamous July 2019 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Zelensky requested additional supplies of the weapons systems “for defense purposes,” according to a White House read-out of the call. Soon after that call, the Trump administration temporarily froze military assistance to Ukraine, in a move that eventually spawned the opposition Democratic Party’s impeachment proceedings, but, after reversing the freeze, the administration ultimately approved Ukraine’s follow-on request for more Javelins.
Besides the fact that the quantities of Javelin missiles supplied to Ukraine are small and would be depleted quickly if used against the separatists, the missiles, according to Foreign Policy, are “as part of the agreement of the sale” stored far away from the front lines, meaning they are not accessible for fighting against the separatists. The Ukrainian military has drilled on operating the systems, but will not be using them to engage separatist armor or other targets.
In both of these circumstances, the S-300 transfer to Syria and the Javelin transfer to Ukraine, it is the supplier countries, Russia and the U.S., respectively, that have stipulated the weapons are not to be used on the battlefield. As a matter of apparent distinction, Syria received the S-300 as a donation, or so a military-diplomatic source told Russian state-owned media outlet TASS in October 2018. There is some uncertainty on this given that, under the original terms, Syria would be charged up to $1 billion for the system and had reportedly already made payments before the deal was frozen. In any case, Ukraine certainly paid for its Javelins, which would raise the question of why a country might actually seek to buy a military system that is designated from the start for dormancy.
It is straight forward enough from the supplier’s viewpoint. Selling a weapon but forbidding its use is an attempt by the arms supplier to have it both ways – to signal a commitment to the recipient in the present and make a statement about willingness to continue that support in the future without actually aggravating the military situation. If some income can be generated in the process, even better. The buyer country, even where prevented from deploying a weapon system, relies on the political signaling attached to the deal, which demonstrates a measure of political backing from the supplier country.
Setting aside the tremendous differences between Kiev and Damascus and boiling them down to a similarity, both view themselves as beset by larger and more powerful foes (in Syria’s case, multiple larger and more powerful foes), and thus appreciate any material indication of external support. Moreover, as these are political restraints, the terms presumably could change in the future to enable the employment of these weapons, either in limited fashion or without any restrictions, the latter being the ideal from the recipient’s perspective.
There are noteworthy pitfalls to these sorts of arrangements, however. For the recipient, it might prove awkward to explain why state resources are being spent on something that is not allowed to be utilized. As far as deterrents go, these appear to be remarkably weak, given that the military situations in Syria and Ukraine have not noticeably changed since the delivery of the S-300 and Javelin, respectively.
Additionally, while Moscow has gleefully claimed flaws in American missile systems in order to plug its own weapons as superior, the dormancy of its missile systems delivered to Syria have generated questions about whether the Russian missile batteries actually could solve the problem they are nominally there to fix, securing Syria’s airspace, were they activated. Haaretz claims in its report that one of the reasons Russia, in particular, does not want Syria to use its S-300s is fear of them missing their targets and thus counterproductively producing embarrassing headlines about their ineffectiveness.
These two deals, in particular, are not the only instances of arms being delivered but restricted from use. There is some suspicion that this might be the case with Russia’s delivery of Iskander-E ballistic missiles to Armenia, for example, although Armenian officials have made a point to specifically declare that the Iskanders are under Armenian control. What these sorts of arms deals say about the trade more generally is that, sometimes, the most important point is the signal that comes attached with the deal, rather than the actual effect of the weapon on the battlefield.