Here’s an early sign of how successful the Obama administration’s plan to get Russia on board vis-à-vis Syria: Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, told the press today that Moscow will send air defense missiles to Syria after all.
Moscow plans to deliver already contracted ground-to-air missile systems to Syria, Russian officials said Friday, pressing ahead with an arms transfer that U.S. officials say could significantly strengthen Damascus’s ability to ward off an attack. [...]
Russian state television, reporting on Mr. Lavrov’s trip, went beyond the official line: “After the S-300s are put into service, a repeat of the Libyan scenario—the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country—would be extremely difficult,” said the Vesti-24 channel.
Mitt Romney was wrong to suggest that Russia is America’s biggest geopolitical enemy, but nobody should confuse it for a friend. Putin has no interest in helping the Obama administration look powerful or successful. On the contrary, the Kremlin believes that undermining American prestige and credibility worldwide is a vital Russian interest.
That does not preclude carefully negotiated bargains on areas of common interest, but that “carefully negotiated” part is a lot harder than it looks — and more desperate you seem to get a deal, the uglier the deal you will get.
Even if Russia and the US can ultimately agree on a course in Syria—and that’s a very big if—Russia will still be strongly inclined to do everything in its power to trip up the US and hand it a diplomatic defeat.
It’s a big mistake to underestimate the anti-American paranoia and deep-seated resentment that animates the Kremlin. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is hungry to avoid the humiliating impasse resulting from a succession of policy mistakes that have gotten it so entangled in Syria, which may make the administration less skeptical than it should be about Russia’s intentions here.
At this point in its history Russia has been reduced to an opportunistic power looking for ways to insert itself into world politics; it would be unrealistic to expect the Kremlin to do anything but try to make the most of what it must see as a rare, heaven-sent chance to gain the upper hand over the US on a high profile issue.
Moscow is likely to read the US response to this provocation very carefully; if the administration swallows the missile sale without response, Russia won’t see this as demonstrating US “friendship” and “sincerity,” it will see this as a clear sign of weakness and desperation and will push harder. Iran will see this too and the mullahs will draw their conclusions. It’s likely that the Gulf Arabs and the Turks have already significantly downgraded their assessments of American focus and will based on this news. In Jerusalem, too, where the missile story first surfaced, they are assessing the reliability of their American ally.
Is alienating our regional allies worth a dubious deal with the Kremlin? We are likely to find out in the not too distant future. But Russia’s goal is not to help us get out of our diplomatic predicament; it is to make us pay the highest possible price for our blunders.
In the end, the lesson isn’t “don’t do business with Russia.” The lesson is “when doing business with Russia you need to understand the rules of the game.” The administration needs to do something sharp and swift that Russia will feel, or it can expect a continuing succession of nasty surprises.
[Image of Sergei Lavrov courtesy of Wikimedia]