EU closed loophole for arms sales to Russia only after public disclosure

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High representative for Foreign affairs, in Bucha, where Ukrainian authorities say hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian occupants. On the same day, the EU closed a six-year-old loophole in its arms embargo on Russia. Photo: The European Union

“Contracts or agreements concluded before 1 August 2014.”  This little sentence, in an 11-page EU document forbidding weapon sales to Russia, offered great opportunities. 

It was a loophole that let member states continue to sell arms to Moscow for over six years after Europe’s first major shock over Russian expansionism. Ten countries did so. Not until six weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year did EU governments agree to close the loophole.

“It did not look good, obviously. People are quite sensitive to this now,” says Pieter D. Wezeman, senior researcher and specialist of arms exports and embargoes at SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the EU’s main response was sweeping economic sanctions. On 31 July that year, EU governments decided to forbid — with immediate effect —  the sale, supply, transfer or export of “arms and related materiel of all  types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and  equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts therefor, to Russia”.

But the EU arms trade quietly continued, as Investigate Europe revealed on 17 March, 2022, three weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Between 2015 and 2020,  10 EU member states exported a total of €346 million worth of arms to Russia. The analysis was based on data provided by the member states to COARM (the official Working Party of the Council on Conventional Arms Exports) and to their national parliaments.

Prime exporters: France and Germany

France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Finland, Slovakia and Spain — to different extents — sold “military equipment” to Russia. 

The main exporter was France, as first reported by Disclose on 14 March. French industry sold €152 million worth of military equipment to Russia. Investigate Europe’s analysis shows that this placed France far ahead of its neighbours; it had provided 44% of the total sales of European arms to Russia. 

According to COARM, France has, since 2015, given its authorisation to export military equipment in the category of “bombs, rockets, torpedoes, missiles, explosive charges” — weapons that are directly lethal. But sales of “imaging equipment, aircraft with their components and ‘lighter-than-air vehicles’” have also been authorised.

When asked about the weapon sales by Investigate Europe, the French government said the deliveries were “in a word, a residual flow, resulting from past  contract (…) and which has gradually died out”.

Germany exported €121.8 million worth of military equipment to Russia in the period, according to annual reports provided to the German parliament. This represents 35% of all EU arms exports to Russia. It mainly consisted of icebreaker vessels, but also included rifles and “special protection” vehicles that were sent to Russia. The German government did not respond to questions about this from Investigate Europe. 

Italy, too, continued sending military equipment to Russia. The main deal was signed in 2015 by the government of Matteo Renzi, when current EU Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni was Minister of foreign affairs. It was for €25 million worth of land vehicles, produced by the Italian company Iveco, which were found in Ukraine in March this year by an Italian TV crew.

Missiles, torpedoes, ships

Our investigation showed that the term “military equipment” was broad and could include missiles, bombs, torpedoes, guns and rockets, land vehicles and ships. 

These weapon sales were not illegal. They were carried out thanks to the loophole that the EU governments allowed themselves back in 2014: that the ban on weapon sales did not apply to contracts and agreements concluded before 1 August, 2014. There was also another potential escape clause: export of dual-use items (equipment or technology that can be used for both military and civilian purposes) in contracts signed before 1 August 2014.

Hidden in new sanctions

Three weeks after the publications by Disclose and Investigate Europe, EU governments closed the loopholes. This was probably due to the press reports, says Pieter D. Wezeman from SIPRI, adding, “Also, the Ukrainian government reported that it found Russian military equipment with European components in them. So I would expect it to have come from those two different channels.” He is referring to the claim by Ukrainian Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba on a German television show that aired on 13 March, that Ukraine had found Bosch parts in Russian military vehicles.

The EU Commission did not advertise the closing of the loophole in its communication to the public. “Possibly that was to not attract more attention to it — or it may have just have been standard bureaucratic procedure”, Wezeman says.

The permission for the pre-summer 2014 export contracts to continue was anyway removed by EU governments on 8 April. It was done in a technical sentence as part of a sweeping fifth round of new sanctions following the war on Ukraine. According to Investigate Europe’s diplomatic sources, Poland and Lithuania had demanded the elimination of this provision.

One permission was kept, though: for EU countries to buy “spare parts and services necessary for the maintenance, repair and safety of existing capabilities within the Union” in contracts in progress before 1 August, 2014. This opening remains because some member states have Russian weapons in their arsenals, which sometimes need to be taken to Russia for service or repair. Investigate Europe has learnt that some governments are not comfortable with this and want a complete ban.

What was the significance of the six years of exports through the loophole in the sanctions? That is hard to say, according to Pieter D. Wezeman of SIPRI. “National arms exporting reports do not provide the necessary details about the actual items exported”.

He notes that the value of the exports was not too big, but still significant.

“It may be that some key bits in certain weapons systems in Russia would then not have been exported from Europe, and that these Russian systems would therefore not have been ready to use,” Wezeman says.