Vladimir Putin, President of Russia may have finally blundered in his latest move supplying Antey 2500s, an upgraded version of the air and missile defense S-300 system to Iran.
The Antey is a capable, mobile air defense missile system and can fire two types of missiles known respectively as the SA-12A Gladiator and the SA-12B Giant (NATO terminology).
Iran obviously wants the Antey system to protect its nuclear weapons program, especially its large underground facilities including Fordow and Parchin. Fordow is one of Iran’s underground uranium enrichment facilities; Parchin is a military complex that produces conventional weapons and is used for testing implosion devices for nuclear weapons.
Iran will also need to protect its long range missile bases because it is likely that Iran is moving in the direction of mounting nuclear warheads on missiles.
Clearly neither Putin nor the Iranians have any expectation that the Iran nuclear deal will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, leading to the obvious conclusion that Iran will need to protect its nuclear assets from an attack either from Israel, Saudi Arabia or the United States.
Many thought that Israel and Russia had reached a tacit agreement a few years ago whereby Russia would not supply any advanced air defense system to Iran. In turn Israel would not supply weapons to Ukraine. It is, therefore, far from surprising that in Putin’s comments on the missile deal he went out of his way to warn Israel not to supply weapons to Ukraine.
This is not the first time that the Russians have played roulette with Israel. On a number of occasions the Russians supplied missiles to Syria (some destined for Hezbollah) and these shipments were destroyed by Israel. The Russians never openly complained about the Israeli countermeasures.
Putin’s decision to send missiles to Iran is not a cost-free exercise for Russia. While Putin has been energetically exploiting the vacuum in US leadership and the weakness of NATO, he should know that this is a finite problem. The infamous American “sleeping Giant” will awaken, and the Russians will pay a price for their adventurism.
In the short term, Russian credibility as an arbiter in any brokered deal with Iran on nuclear weapons has now gone from positive to strongly negative. Taken in measure with Russian military operations in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, threats to former Russian Republics such as Latvia and extreme nervousness in Poland, the Russian “forward” posture could expose rather quickly the limited capability of Russia’s armed forces. Even in the Ukraine the Russian “separatists” and the Russian army behind them has not been nearly as successful as Putin must have hoped. Somehow the Ukrainians have rallied and at least are holding their own against a much better equipped opposition supported by a logistics chain and intelligence gathering system far more sophisticated than anything in the hands of Ukraine.
So far neither Europe or America has provided military equipment to Ukraine. Israel too has been hands off. But if the Saudis, for example, understand that Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine isn’t much different than Russia’s support of aggression from Iran in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, the Saudis may put the Ukraine on their “must help” list. There is virtually nothing the Russians could do about Saudi support to Ukraine and it would confer on Saudi Arabia substantial leverage over the Russians vis a vis Iran. The under-the-table relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel could assure the right pipeline, the right planning and the right intelligence support to bolster the Ukrainians.
In short, Russia has stuck its nose out pretty far, and backtracking won’t be either easy or pleasant.
There are already signs of rebellion inside Russia. The erosion of the economy and the loss of life of Russian soldiers seconded to the “separatists” in Ukraine does not sit well with the majority of Russians. Are er at the start of a repeat of Afghanistan in Ukraine? It is foolish to believe that the Russian people are really behind Putin’s aggression: in fact, all the signs point in the reverse direction. The murder of Putin’s top political challenger Boris Nemtsov, the crackdown on journalists, and other repressive actions inside Russia are signs of a frightened leadership, not a confident one. Everything suggests Putin is in increasing trouble. His recent disappearance for reasons still unexplained suggest that he is living on borrowed time.
Most of all, there is very little concrete reason for Putin to support the radical regime in Iran, anymore than there is any reason for Obama to do so. One of the modern mysteries is how two world leaders could bet so much on such a repressive and dangerous regime. It is especially tragic for the United States that could have easily and purposefully supported the Iranian opposition that could have led to a pro-Western government.
In strategic terms, Russian supply of missiles to Iran and Russian support for Syria and the parallel Iranian military intervention in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq (with a new one developing in Yemen) does not make Iran safe for Russia. In fact it is a pit that will suck up Russian resources with no discernible return on investment. If the only purpose of Russia’s game is to give the United States a black eye and damage America’s prestige in the Middle East, the Russians need not have bothered. Washington is doing a more than competent job of it all by itself.
While Russia is desperate for money and will do almost anything to get it, supplying missiles to Iran combined with her other aggressive activities in the end will bleed Russia’s economy even more and set back any progress to the normalization of Russia in the world community. Once again the Russians will have squandered their wealth and resources in unprofitable and dangerous ventures. Finally Putin has stumbled and his missile deal is the capstone of a series of blunders that in the end will chase him from office.
CLIMBING DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN
Twenty four hours after the above article was written Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper, carried the following headline: “Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says ‘a political and legal decision’ needs to be reached before the missiles can be shipped.” He added that the missiles would not be shipped “anytime soon.”
So the Putin has found out that he went too far and has intelligently backed away with an appropriate face saving gesture.