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Can Putin's Missiles Perform?


The news that Russia will ferry its “state-of-the-art” S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Butcher Assad in Syria may be claptrap. Israeli military officials were dubious from the get-go about Assad’s claims to have already received the first installments of the Russian weapons package, with the Israeli Defense Minister going so far as to say that the shipment wouldn’t happen until next year, if it happens at all. Vladimir Putin seems to have vindicated that skepticism, saying today that Russia hasn’t yet fulfilled its contract with Assad. The Times of Israel reports:

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]

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  • ljgude

    “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.”

    Now there is a money quote if I ever saw one!

  • Bob_from_Ohio

    ” contract has been signed a few years ago. It hasn’t been fulfilled yet”

    And never will be.

    The missiles have no military benefit to Assad since the rebels have no air power,

    On the other hand, they are an invitation to Israel to smack Syria around again.

    Putin is not stupid. He can send other arms, more useful to Assad, without risk.

  • Icepilot

    System capability is but a third of the equation. Air control tactical support and the training/experience of the operators make up the other two thirds.

  • Thirdsyphon

    Is it possible that he’s not shipping the weapons because the U.S. is leaning on him? After all, just a week ago this page was arguing that the delivery of the missiles would be a dire blow to American prestige. . .imagine my disappointment at reading that their *not* being delivered is even worse for the U.S. and empowers Russia even more.
    Why, it’s as though it almost doesn’t matter whether dictators stay in power or fall from power, whether it happens with America’s involvement or without it, and whether other countries become involved or not. Whatever transpires is invariably the worst thing that could ever have possibly happened, and it’s always the President’s fault.

  • ljgude

    @Thidsyphon I see your point having suffered through the Bush administration where everything was for the worse and it was always the president’s fault. Unfortunately there is a lot of truth to it. Both Bush and Obama have repeatedly demonstrated that unskillful intervention and unskillful non intervention can and do have bad consequences. Still it is important to spot the media trope which I think of as ‘heads I win, tails you lose’. For example, I was listening to CBS news on the radio on the freeway in Oakland with my sister during the early part of the Obama administration and heard them do a story about how increased hiring of Christmas temps was a disaster for the economy. Even those in the press who openly support Obama sometimes can’t resist an opportunity to spread fear and loathing. As to the chess game around the Russian missiles I agree it is entirely possible that the US has leaned on the Russians. It also seems that deploying the missiles is more of a move against Israel than against the Sunni rebels so my best guess is that, for now, it is more a bluff meant to warn Israel off, than a serious threat to deploy.

  • bigfire

    Russia/Soviet have been playing this game of big announcement of weapon purchase followed by years of non-payment and non-delivery. If Iran can’t pay for the weapon that weren’t delivered (because Russian actually want cash before delivery), why would Syria be any different.

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