The Barack Obama administration has been doing its best to befriend President Vladimir Putin’s regime, but seems to be failing. Despite intensive attempts by Europe, the United States and Israel to prevent Russian shipments of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, President Bashar al-Assad announced on May 30 that the first consignment has arrived and more will follow. According to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, the shipment of S-300 missiles to Syria is intended to prevent a foreign aerial intervention or an imposition of a no-fly zone in an attempt to end the bloody sectarian civil war. Moscow describes the S-300 as a “purely defensive weapon,” but shipments of offensive weapons like the Iskander medium-range ballistic missiles to Syria may follow (Interfax, May 30). In fact, the S-300 weapon system was designed to hit both air and ground targets with precision and to have a capacity to carry nuclear warheads.
The announcement of the arrival of S-300s coincided with the decision by the European Union to let its arms embargo on Syria expire on June 1, allowing willing nations to arm the Syrian rebels. Moscow denounced the EU decision and insisted its own arms shipments were entirely legal (Interfax, May 28). Still, the shipment of S-300s to Syria could not have been a Russian reaction to the EU discontinuing the embargo: it takes weeks to freight the bulky S-300 anti-aircraft complex consisting of many heavy truckloads of equipment and specialized multi-wheel vehicles to a port and send a special delivery ship to Syria. The first reports of the S-300s reaching Syria together with Russian military “advisor” crews, appeared in Moscow two weeks ago (see EDM, May 16).
Russia’s strategic intent is to give al-Assad and his Iranian and Lebanese Shia militant Hezbollah allies more time to defeat the predominantly Sunni rebel forces, while the S-300s hopefully keep US (Western) airpower at bay. This policy is in line with the overwhelming anti-Americanism that presently dominates Russian internal and external political decision-making. At the same time, Russian-Israeli relations have experienced a sharp decline over the S-300 shipment to Syria. Earlier in May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally lobbied Putin during a meeting in Sochi not to send the S-300s to Syria, but failed. And this week, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon apparently threatened a preventive military strike: “If, God forbid, they [S-300s] do reach Syria, we will know what to do.” Russian defense sources reportedly replied in kind: “It would be unwise for any third party to attempt to stop the delivery of the S-300s by destroying them during transport; and if any Russian citizen is harmed, the political consequences will be most grave.” Russian diplomatic sources expressed dismay about Israel hindering the secular al-Assad regime, since the Islamist anti-Assad rebels are the enemies of Israel too (Kommersant, May 30).
The exact origin of the S-300 long-range missiles that are being apparently deployed in Syria is unclear. It was announced in 2011 in Moscow that the production of new S-300s in Russia was terminated and replaced with the new generation S-400 anti-aircraft and ballistic missile defense (BMD) complex. The production cycle of an entire S-300 or S-400 takes at least 24 months from beginning to end. The same production units produce both S-300s and S-400s, and they cannot be made at the same time (RIA Novosti, August 15, 2011). Up to now, the S-400 missiles have been banned for export and delivered only to the Russian military.
The contract to sell Syria S-300 missiles was reportedly signed in 2010 (Kommersant, May 30). In 2010, Moscow annulled the delivery to Iran of some 4–6 batteries (or “divisions” as they are known in the Russian military) of advanced S-300PMY1 missiles worth some $800 million (RIA Novost, June 11, 2010). The shipment to Syria could be worth around $900 million and consist of four or more batteries (Ekho Moskvy, May 9). Al-Assad’s government hardly has a billion or so dollars to pay Russia for the S-300s, so the funding could have come from Tehran. The number of missiles Syria is receiving is close to those Iran did not obtain after United Nations sanctions were imposed in June 2010. It could be that Moscow channeled to al-Assad the S-300s once earmarked for Iran after a possible upgrade and the Iranians shouldered the bill. It is also possible that some of the S-300s officially destined to Syria, may be re-exported to Iran eventually or deployed in Lebanon, in Hezbollah-controlled territory, to cover from Israeli air attack the deployment of Iranian-made long-range ballistic missiles aimed at Israel.
This week, S-300 missiles were in action in Russia, too: A “sudden” military exercise was ordered by the defense ministry to test the Russian ability to defend against a massive enemy air offensive and an attack from space, involving some 9,000 servicemen and 185 aircraft. Strategic bombers, tactical aircraft and jet interceptors were involved, while S-300 crews have been launching their missiles at a shooting range near Astrakhan (RIA Novosti, May 27). These Cold War–style exercises, clearly aimed to defend against a sudden US attack, came after the White House went to great lengths to placate the Kremlin. Last month, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon came to Moscow to meet Russian officials and gave Putin a personal letter from Obama, reportedly offering a number of concessions, including an agreement on the transparency of future BMD development and deployment intended to allay Russian fears (see EDM, April 18). And last week, a prominent US delegation attended a conference on European security in Moscow, only to hear from the Russian top brass that the United States’ BMD plans threatened Russia and that the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty was in effect dead (see EDM, May 28).
The secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev went to Washington last week (May 22) and delivered to Obama a reply letter from Putin. Patrushev told journalists that the US proposal on BMD transparency was a step in the right direction, but not enough; Russia is still demanding a comprehensive treaty that will limit any future US BMD development (Interfax, May 24). Regarding BMD and apparently many other issues, including Syria, Russia is ready to take Obama’s concessions and then demand more—and more again.