Russian media confirmed the sale of an estimated 73 T-90S and SK tanks to Iraq in a new but previously undisclosed arms deal. It was a Kremlin official named Vladimir Kozhin who acknowledged the transaction to Izvestiya. His statements prove earlier claims that a public report from Uralvagonzavod listed upcoming deliveries to both Vietnam and Iraq.
The sale of the T-90S and its command tank variant, the T-90SK, is a return to form for the Iraqi Army, whose experience with Soviet T-series tanks began in the 1970s. The T-90S is the most advanced MBT for export by Russia and is popular among operators with previous experience driving and fighting with its ancestor, the T-72.
Whether Baghdad already paid for the tanks hasn’t been disclosed though arms sales of this magnitude are often covered by either multi-year deposits or loans. The first Iraqi T-90S’ could arrive by the end of 2017 or even mid-2018. Uralvagonzavod’s production line for its bestselling tank has operated for almost 25 years now so fresh orders by familiar clients are well within its capacity.
The adoption of the T-90S doesn’t bode well for another potential arms deal. In 2014, with the Iraqi Army reeling from the fall of Mosul, the Pentagon readied 175 M1A1 Abrams tanks for their beleaguered ally. This $2.4 billion package coincided with frantic airlifts of surplus vehicles and arms to the Iraqis, who were also receiving material support from Iran at the time.
With Mosul now taken from the clutches of ISIS it’s probable the Iraqis’ old preferences have resurfaced. Despite billions worth of US hardware, infrastructure, and training the past three years have shown these were inadequate in the desperate struggle to crush the Islamic State.
Baghdad ended up paying for arms sourced everywhere, from Eastern Europe to China, and the Syrian civil war next door, where Russian arms have shown their mettle, as well as Russia’s successful marketing to its Soviet-era clientele may have driven the Iraqis back to Moscow’s embrace. This rekindling could have started as early as 2012 when Iraq publicized a $4.2 billion deal for Mi-28N helicopter gunships.
An old report on Iraq’s arms industry by the Rand Corporation sheds light on its military-industrial alliance with Russia. Rachel Schmidt’s Global Arms Exports To Iraq, 1960-1990 traces how a post-colonial petrol state ended up a loyal customer of Soviet and Chinese arms during the difficult war against Iran. Examining the detailed figures on its appendices reveals Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered as many as 2,000 Type 69 tanks from China during the early 1980s–and this was in addition to a thousand T-55’s bought from the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact.
Despite its troubles Iraq remains oil-rich and a magnet for investors. With its armed forces in shambles it seems Russia, and to some extent China, are the perfect suppliers for the volatile Mesopotamian market.