Speaking after a Russia-European Union summit in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, Putin defended the S-300 deal, saying it complies with the international law, but added that Russia hasn’t yet fulfilled it.“It’s perhaps the best such weapon in the world,” Putin said at a news conference. “It’s indeed a serious weapon. We don’t want to throw the region off balance.”“The contract has been signed a few years ago. It hasn’t been fulfilled yet,” Putin said.
What’s interesting here is not the apparent calling of Assad’s bluff but rather Putin’s eagerness to defend the quality of the S-300 system even as he casts doubt on Russia’s commitment to deploying it in Syria.As Moshe Arens notes in Haaretz, the reason may be that Moscow is worried about Israel’s record of engagement with Russian-built defense systems. What if Russia delivers its fancy new weapons to Syria and the Israelis demolish them with relative ease?In the past, Israel’s success in taking apart Soviet-equipped military systems on the battlefield (often thanks in part to US weaponry) had a crushing effect on Soviet prestige—and correspondingly boosted America’s allure around the world. More countries wanted close relations with the US so they, too, could get the good arms.A similar outcome in Syria would have repercussions around the world. (Of course, if the Russian missiles perform well, Russia will get a big boost.) As the piece in Haaretz notes, Russia may in the end think better of shipping the missiles if it’s worried they will be on the receiving end of a display of superior Israeli airpower. In such case, Russia would try to persuade Western diplomats that its decision to hold back on the weapons delivery is a sign of peaceable intentions and political maturity—and it will ask for political concessions in return.This more or less appears to be what Putin tried to do at the Russia-EU summit today: We haven’t delivered the weapons yet because we’re deeply concerned about the stability of this delicate and important region…but rest assured these missiles can obliterate anything that moves.Capitalizing on Western incompetence in order to turn the reality of military weakness into an illusion of political strength is Russia’s chief stock-in-trade these days. So far, Washington’s Syria policy has played beautifully into its hands. As long as this approach is paying off for the Kremlin, we should not expect anything to change.[Putin photo courtesy of Getty Images]