EU member states exported weapons to Russia after the 2014 embargo

Picture of the 27 EU leaders meeting in Versailles, 10 March 2022
The 27 leaders of the EU in front of the Chateau de Versailles, France. © European Union, 2022

“Our destinies are linked. Ukraine is part of the European family. Vladimir Putin’s aggression is an aggression against all the principles we hold dear” said EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Last week’s Versailles summit showed how the European Union is trying to unite after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Yet, just over a year ago, Vladimir Putin and his army were still good customers of the European arms industry. A third of the European Union’s member states exported arms to the Russian Federation, according to data from  the official Working Party of the Council on Conventional Arms Exports (COARM), analysed by Investigate Europe.

This data from all EU-27 official arms exports registers shows that between 2015 and 2020, at least 10 EU member states have exported a total of €346 million worth of arms to Russia.s. France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Finland, Slovakia and Spain – to different extents – have sold “military equipment” to Russia. Our investigation shows that the term “military equipment” is broad and can include missiles, bombs, torpedoes, guns and rockets, land vehicles and ships.

An embargo full of loopholes

This is despite an embargo of the European Union that prohibits arms sales to Russia and which has been in place since 2014:

The direct or indirect 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 therefore, to Russia by nationals of Member States or from the territories of Member States or using their flag vessels or aircraft, shall be prohibited whether originating or not in their territories.

COUNCIL DECISION 2014/512/CFSP of 31 July 2014

This decision followed the annexation of Crimea and the proclamation of the Donbas separatist republics. However, in the EU, the arms trade continued, as official data shows.

Many of the EU countries that exported weapons to Russia used a legal loophole in the EU regulations to continue their ongoing trade. The Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports of the Council answered IE’s questions, explaining that “the EU arms embargo contains the following exemption: contracts concluded before 1 August 2014 or ancillary contracts necessary for the execution of such contracts. The figures you find in the database should fall under this exemption. Member States are responsible to ensure compliance with the arms embargo and the EU Common Position.” That’s why, COARM concludes, “Member States are not arming Russia.”

But the conclusion is not that simple. Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), makes a distinction between the regular economic trade and arms exports. “Weapons are a part of our foreign policy, not of economic policy. Political reasons are the main thing.”

According to the COARM data, after 2014 Member States issued more than a thousand licences (editor’s note: general authorisations for arms deals), while barely a hundred were refused. And at the top of the list of European exporters? France.

France, top exporter of arms to Russia

As reported by Disclose, France has sold €152 million worth of military equipment to Russia. A figure confirmed by Investigate Europe’s analysis, and places France far ahead of its neighbours, exporting 44% of European arms to Russia. 

Our investigation found that since 2015 France has given its authorisation to export military equipment belonging to the category  “bombs, rockets, torpedoes, missiles, explosive charges”, weapons directly lethal but also “imaging equipment, aircraft with their components and ‘lighter-than-air vehicles’”.

According to Disclose, French exports also include “thermal imaging cameras for more than 1,000 Russian tanks, as well as navigation systems and infrared detectors for fighter jets and combat helicopters. The Kremlin bought these from  Safran and Thales, whose main shareholder is the French state. This equipment can now be found on-board the land vehicles, fighters and helicopters operating on the Ukrainian front. 

The number of licences issued by France jumped in 2015,  immediately after the embargo (see data visualisation). In 2014, according to our research, the French authorities were still giving their authorisation to send to Russia “chemical agents”, “biological agents”, “riot control agents”, “radioactive materials, related equipment, components and material”.

Questioned on Friday 4t March by IE, the Ministry of the Armed Forces took 11 days to reply  that France is committed “to apply very strictly” the 2014 embargo. The missiles, rockets, torpedoes and bombs sold to Russia over the past five years are “in a word, a residual flow, resulting from past contracts (…) and which has gradually died out”, assures the French government.

Germany: 122 million for guns and vessels

According to information collected by Investigate Europe, Germany exported €121.8 million worth of military equipment to Russia. This represents 35% of all EU arms exports to Russia. It mainly consisted of icebreaker vessels, but also included   rifles, and “special protection” vehicles which were sent to Russia. The German government has not responded to questions about this from Investigate Europe.

The German exports are labelled “dual use”. This is why even German politicians critical of the weapons exports and pacifist NGOs contacted by Investigate Europe don’t consider the exports a legal breach of the embargo.

Hannah Neumann, member of the European Parliament of the German Green Party, and member of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence, is upset by the situation. “Each country exports according to its own will, we need a common policy on arms exports, based on law and transparency with the involvement of the European Parliament (…)”, she told us “I am tired of backdoor deals to the benefit of only the arms industry and at the detriment of joint EU foreign policy – and peace.

Italy: Land vehicles on the Ukrainian frontline

In third place on the list of exporters COARM data shows Italy, which has sold €22.5 million worth of military equipment to Russia between 2015 and 2020. According to our investigation, the first big contract signed with the Federation happened in 2015, when the government of Matteo Renzi authorised the Italian company Iveco to sell €25 million worth of land vehicles to Russia. Investigate Europe was able to read the “final authorisation” delivered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the minister at that time was Paolo Gentiloni, now European Commissioner). In the end, our research shows that only €22.5 million worth of equipment went to Russia. But the war vehicles – the Lynce model, produced by IVECO – were clearly spotted by a journalist on the TV channel La 7 on the Ukrainian frontline, in the beginning of March. These vehicles were assembled in one of the three factories that Iveco has in Russia, but assembled from Italian parts.

War vehicle produced by the Italian firm IVECO in Russia, spotted by the TV channel “La 7” on the Ukrainian frontline in March 2022

Giorgio Beretta, Analyst at the Permanent Observatory on Light Weapons (OPAL), told IE:

“In arms export it’s mainly a political decision, the Italian government could have refused, then go into a legitimate trial with the arms company, and a judge would have taken into account the political situation and the need to respect a European agreement.”

After 2015, the flow of weapons and ammunition exported to Russia from Italy decreased, only to rise again in 2021.r. According to the Italian statistical office, Istat, data for foreign trade, between January and November 2021 Italy delivered €21.9 million worth of ‘arms and ammunition to Russia. This included ‘common arms’ such as rifles, pistols, ammunition and accessories.

How is it possible that six years after the embargo went into force, that the Italian government could still licence so many arms? These weapons – semi-automatic rifles and ammunition – were sold to the Russian civilian market, which includes private security, para-military and special State bodies. 

Small exporters, big weapons

Looking at what other Member States were exporting to Russia in this period, some of them also had a constant flow of exports, albeit on a much smaller scale than the big suppliers. The Czech Republic exported “aircraft, lighter than air vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, aero-engines and aircraft equipment” every year between 2015 and 2019.

Austria also continued to export military equipment to Russia every year, “smooth-bore weapons with a calibre of less than 20mm, other arms and automatic weapons with a calibre of 12,7mm” and “ammunition and fuse setting devices, and specially designed components”.

Bulgaria had two deals, in 2016 and 2018, exporting “vessels of war, (surface or underwater) special naval equipment, accessories, components and other surface vessels” and “technology” for the “development”, “production” or “use” of items controlled in the EU Common Military List”, worth €16.5 million. Finland, Spain, Slovakia and Croatia each had one export to Russia, of a much smaller amount, in the previous years.

But Europe is not alone in having to deal with contradictions regarding their exports. According to SIPRI’s data on arms exports, there’s an even stranger fact: it was not just the EU selling arms to Russia after the annexation of Crimea – Russia also remained the second biggest market for weapons exports from Ukraine.

Edited by Paulo Pena and Juliet Ferguson

A version of this article was published by our media partners in France (Mediapart), Italy (Il Fatto Quotidiano), Portugal (Publico), Spain (InfoLibre), Poland (, Germany (Tagesspiegel) and Greece (Efsyntakon).