Russia admitted today that it had installed a new S-300 air defense system in Syria, a story first reported yesterday, but denied it had any other purpose than Russia’s own defenses. The move comes as diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow near collapse, and appears to be intended as a message from Vladimir Putin to Barack Obama:
The Russian Defence Ministry said on Tuesday it had deployed an S-300 missile system to its Tartus naval base in Syria.
“The missile battery is intended to ensure the safety of the naval base … It is unclear why the deployment of the S-300 caused such alarm among our Western partners,” the ministry said in a statement.
State-owned TASS offered a more detailed apologia for the deployment of the S-300, including a claim that it’s not actually a new move, nor the most advanced system it’s placed:
“Let me remind you that S-300 is an exceptionally defensive system and it poses no threat to anybody. Moreover, a ship-born equivalent of that system – called Fort was present in the region before. The Black Sea Fleet’s guided missile cruiser The Moskva is armed with it,” Konashenkov said.
Russia last year moved to Syria its newest air defense system S-400. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said in the middle of last March, S-400 systems and short-range systems Pantsir would remain on permanent combat duty in Syria.
Well, maybe. Both the S-300 and S-400 systems operate as surface-to-air defenses against traditional air attacks, but perhaps more pointedly both also operate as anti-ballistic missile defense systems. Recall that Russia objected so strenuously to those systems in eastern Europe that the Obama administration backed out of a deal with Poland and Czechia to install our own there as part of a strategy to contain Iran. Adding more components to their existing capability in Syria isn’t just a business-as-usual event, and makes our retreat in 2009 look even more foolish in retrospect.
Moreover, what threat prompted this defense? Ostensibly, the Russians are fighting Syrian rebels, militias without air forces or any ballistic missile capability. Clearly they’re not worried about the rebels achieving air supremacy in the area around Tartus. It’s meant as a message to the US, and it presents a new threat to our aircraft and the anti-ISIS coalition’s aircraft flying sorties in the region. However, the stationary S-300 probably presents less of a threat to the eastern sorties, as its range is generally limited to 200 km less, than the mobile S-400, with a range of 400 km. The introduction of the latter system was more provocative than the fixed-range installation of the S-300 is, all factors considered. Still, the message is clear to the US — stay out of western Syria and don’t mess with Bashar Assad.
So much for Hillary Clinton’s reset button, eh? John Kerry ripped Russia earlier today for its reliance on projections of power rather than diplomacy, and their support of Assad’s criminal regime:
Secretary of State John F. Kerry lashed out at Russia on Tuesday after a breakdown in efforts to restore a cease-fire in Syria, accusing Moscow of favoring war over diplomacy amid widening rifts with Washington.
The condemnation left little hope that talks with the Kremlin on Syria could resume anytime soon — even as Russian and Syrian forces increased bombardment of the besieged city of Aleppo in attempts to crush one of the last major strongholds for rebel forces.
The State Department on Monday broke off months of painstaking U.S.-Russia negotiations over Syria as violence increased in recent weeks after the collapse of a cease-fire deal.
Speaking in Brussels ahead of a donors’ conference for Afghanistan, Kerry ventured no new approaches to resolving the Syrian conflict, voicing mostly bitterness that his efforts to engage Russia have brought no progress on the ground.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton came into office over seven years ago with the argument that the problem with the US-Russia relationship was George W. Bush. That was the point of the reset button, after all — the idea that all Russia really wanted was a friendly partner for the status quo. That belief is what led the US to retreat on its missile-shield program, and what prompted Obama to tell Dmitri Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility to work with Moscow after the 2012 election — after which he ridiculed Mitt Romney for considering Russia the most important geopolitical rival of the US.
Russia didn’t reject diplomacy. They just see it as a means to their own ends, rather than the end in itself which the Obama administration considers it. Kerry’s bitterness is just the harvest of this administration’s incredible naïveté on the world stage.