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S-300: Political Football

Americans looking for coherence in Russia’s on-again, off-again policy on the S-300 sale to Iran should focus on the overall thrust of Russian policy in the Putin era. Putin’s emphasis — with interstitial refinements from Dmitry Medvedev — is on supplanting American leadership with a set of multilateral bodies and rivalries in which Russia can wield increasing influence.

As with many of Putin’s foreign-policy moves, the S-300 sale is a tool for putting Russia at the center of a major decision point about international security. The prospect of the sale has given Europe, Asia, and the U.S. a reason to seek Russian cooperation. It has also given Russia an influence over Iran that no other nation has had in the past half-decade. This is related, in turn, to the trigger the sale has put in Russia’s hands: from any objective military analysis, the delivery of the S-300 to Iran would set the clock ticking on Israel’s window of feasibility for attacking the Iranian nuclear sites.

Russia wouldn’t let this valuable bargaining chip go for light and transient reasons. Everything in his history must tell us that Putin is letting go of this uniquely privileged position because he has what he wants: he doesn’t feel he needs the power of that particular position for the time being. If he wants it back, he can probably get it (unless China steps into the breach and sells its version of the S-300 to Iran instead). Meanwhile, cancelling the sale is a signal that Putin is satisfied with the benefits his policies have realized, to date, from Russian influence with Iran.

What benefits has he realized? In brief, he has succeeded in getting America’s closest allies to seek accommodation with Russia as a means of improving their position vis-à-vis Iran. I’ve written here and here, for example, about the Netanyahu government’s pragmatic outreach to Moscow, which recently produced a defense-cooperation agreement that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

Equally significant is the September announcement by NATO’s political chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that NATO’s future lies in structured cooperation with Russia on security issues, including missile defense. In the wake of that proclamation, France and Germany will hold a summit with Russia in October in preparation for the next G-20 conference. Their main topic will reportedly be “joint security issues.”

It cannot be reiterated too often that incorporating Russia in Europe’s missile defenses will give Russia an effective veto over anything it doesn’t like about those defenses. It will also give Moscow a means of dividing Europe from North America over the nature and purpose of our common defense arrangements. Assuming these incipient efforts move forward as proposed — all while Russia keeps missiles trained on Eastern Europe — it’s not too much to say that we will be witnessing the death throes of the NATO alliance.

These are heady achievements for Putin’s policies, but they’re not the only ones. Russia has succeeded in ingratiating itself with India to a much greater extent in the last 18 months, increasing arms cooperation dramatically and establishing itself as a partner in containing the Taliban. In all of these cases, a narrowly-focused and expedient passivity on the part of the U.S has smoothed Russia’s path. President Obama himself created the conditions for Russia to act as a spoiler in NATO missile defenses, by abandoning the installations planned for Eastern Europe and rushing into the ill-considered New START treaty. And his dilatory approach to Iran has been a key factor in driving the nations of the Eastern hemisphere to look to Russia for help, rather than counting on the U.S. to avert the security catastrophe of a nuclear-armed Iran.

It would actually be a better sign, at this point, if Putin still thought the S-300 sale was an indispensable bargaining chip. It would mean he still considered it necessary to leverage such a chip against U.S. power. But he no longer does — and that doesn’t mean he has changed. It means we have.


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