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Russia’s S-300 missiles: Let the games begin

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By Maria Dubovikova

Russia’s recently declared decision to lift the embargo on S-300 deliveries to Iran has a particular meaning and puts Moscow in the face of hard decisions to be made.

The term “S-300” – referring to long-range surface-to-air missile systems that have been in service since 1978 – has already become an international term of discord that appears regularly enough on the world agenda. .

The system has a next generation version, S-400, and an absolutely new version – S-500 – will reportedly soon be seen. Russia had signed a contract to deliver it to Iran in 2007. Then the delivery was cancelled. The official reason for this step was the sanctions imposed by a U.N. Security Council resolution. But several experts suggested that the true reason of the delay was Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow at that same time and his promise not to deliver arms to Georgia, as well as remarkable pressure from the U.S. Five years later and Russia has lifted the embargo, met with a controversial international reaction.

Whatever the final decision will be of the Kremlin on the matter of the S-300 missiles, it will have inevitable consequences, inevitable geopolitical losses and relative geopolitical gains

Maria Dubovikova

S-300, even being a rather old system and having an absolutely defensive design, could be a game changer in the geopolitical battles in the Middle East and over it. The possibility of Russia’s S-300 delivery to Syria was a matter of deep concern to the international community.

And even there is no proof of the S-300 delivery to the Syrian regime; a significant number of experts believe it is being delivered. Thus this uncertainty, besides other factors, has prevented the international community from the repetition of the Libyan scenario in Syria.

The main player that opposes any S-300 delivery – is Israel, which believes that S-300 shipments will break the relative balance of forces existing in the region and will make it more vulnerable in the face of the Iranian threat. Saudi Arabia does not approve of the Russia’s decision as well. Russia’s support of Iran and condemnation of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen strains the country and aggravates the relations between the two powers. S-300 delivery causes strong debates in Europe and in the U.S., however the reaction coming from the White House was surprisingly calm, as Obama was “frankly surprised that it [the ban] held this long.”

U.S. ‘betrayal’

And thus the U.S. have “betrayed” Russia with S-300 as now it would hardly have any excuses not to meet its engagements in accordance with the clauses of the agreement signed with Iran in 2007. Iran praised the ban lift on the S-300 delivery, expecting it to come soon. But in vain, as Russia’s senior officials have recently, relatively unexpectedly, declared that the S-300 won’t be delivered in the near future.

According to the Russia’s president the decision to lift the ban is a response to the situation in Yemen, pointing a finger at Saudi Arabia, coalition forces and their operation there, to which Russia was and stays still in a strong opposition. According to him, the S-300 should help contain the situation in the region. But beyond this demonstration of military muscle, most likely the move with the lifting of the ban was first of all to check the reaction of the international community and to calculate the consequences, possible gains and losses on the geopolitical strategic front.

First of all, the reaction that was needed the most, is the one of Netanyahu. And the reaction was expectedly harsh and clear. Netanyahu called Russia to halt the sale of the S-300. Its leverage of influence on Kremlin is practically the same as that one in 2010 –the choice between annulation of delivery or weaponry shipments to the Russia’s neighbor with a government hostile to Kremlin.

That time it was Tbilisi (the annulation of the delivery was wrangled), now it is Kiev (so delivery is wrangled). Now the question is whether this leverage will be enough to make the Kremlin change its mind over the delivery. But one thing is clear – Iran would not excuse one more delay or halt of the contract.

It has other options and one of them is China, which is apparently far less depended on the geopolitical games in the region, as being less involved in them. And it is ready to deliver it any weaponry it needs, having analogues. Moreover, reportedly Iran has constructed S-300 analogue itself. And thus, Israel would hardly secure itself through blackmailing or any kind of pressure on Russia.

Vague situation

So what will come next after this “ban lifting” check? The situation of vagueness can stay for a long time, but not forever.

Iran is Russia’s strategic neighbor. And what is more – it’s a strong neighbor with strong capabilities of growth and influence, and after the nuclear deal will open the doors to the West for Iran, what is desired by the country and its people, tired from the sanctions. This disturbs Russia and it tries to keep strong ties with it, not to lose it once and completely. Russia needs Israel, however it is an absolute and irreconcilable enemy of Iran, and sees it as a key threat. Israel is tightly linked with Russia through the Russia’s (Soviet Union) expats who strongly influence the course of the country in this direction, determining the friendly and warm relations between the two countries.

Whatever Russia’s criticism and complaints against Saudi are, it absolutely needs the kingdom as a stable partner, as it is a growing and strengthening great power of the Middle East and of the Arab world. And taking into account the recent changes under King Salman’s rule it will become even stronger and more powerful.

Whatever will be the final decision of Kremlin on the S-300 matter, it will have inevitable consequences, inevitable geopolitical losses and relative geopolitical gains. The S-300 issue reveals the deep problems of Russia’s controversial foreign policy in the region, its attempts to be friends with everybody, but these problems are virtually unsolvable and really hard to be managed. They become even harder to be dealt with, when the friendship with the friends-antagonists in the most unstable region of the world is secured through the weaponry delivery, especially under the pretext to contain the other your “friend.”

There is no longer any space for a “having friends with all” policy in the region. Russia has brought itself to the moment of making hard choices. The time has come to finally make them.