All About That Brass: The Ukraine-Russia-UAE Weapons Triangle

03/02/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

The Ukraine-Emirates relationship is growing, the Russian-Emirates cooperation is booming. The Russian-Ukrainian standoff is muddling through.

The Ukrainian defense ministry says the country's army has begun to withdraw heavy weaponry from the front line of the conflict in the east in accordance with the Minsk accords. The rebels in the east have been pulling back their heavy weapons for two days. It's long overdue, and a welcome sign that there's hope yet for the end to this civil war.

But outside of Ukraine, the war-mongering continues. Welcome to IDEX 2015, a large arms expo hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week. Total transactions conducted at this biennial exhibition attracting "world's top military brass" run in the billions of dollars, and this year both Russia and Ukraine attached high hopes to the trade show in Abu Dhabi.

The Ukrainian delegation was headed by President Petro Poroshenko, who made the headlines with the announcement that his government would buy "defensive" weapons from the United Arab Emirates to the tune of a hundred million dollars. Unable to persuade Ukraine's Western allies to supply lethal military aid, Mr. Poroshenko's government took to the open market, in the United Arab Emirates. The allies, no doubt, approve of this purchase: both the U.S. and the U.K. have provided nonlethal military equipment to Ukraine, and this week the U.K. defense ministry made a promise to send 75 British troops to conduct training operations in Western Ukraine in mid-March.

Mr. Poroshenko wasn't the only one pleased with the outcome of IDEX 2015. The Russian delegation, spearheaded by the country's official military export outfit Rosoboronexport, was seeking to build a stronger presence in the Middle East, announcing the country's overall weapons sales in 2015 will remain at about 15 billion dollars. Russia's stands at IDEX-2015 showcased more than 700 exhibits, including a full-scale anti-tank system.

Rosoboronexport's deputy director general Sergei Goreslavsky said the group has big plans for the next three to five years, hoping to "supplement considerably our portfolio of orders in the United Arab Emirates and countries of this region." Earlier in February, the state-owned company announced the delivery of the 82-mm 2B24 and 2B25 mortars to the Emirates. Last year, Rosoboronexport even explored the options of importing weapons components from the UAE--due to Russia's inability to purchase the necessary parts from Ukraine or Europe.

We don't know yet what the Ukrainians have purchased in Abu Dhabi. In all likelihood, it was Western-produced weaponry the Emirates had previously bought from Lockheed Martin or some other U.S. defense firm. Buying American weapons is indeed the next best option to receiving it gratis, as advocated by the likes of Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

Yet there's something unsettling about this scenario, in which Ukraine buys weapons from the Emirates and Russia sells to & makes weapons with the Emirates. This thriving, happy triangle boils down to very bad news for the civilians facing a protracted war in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine.