There were a couple of items that caught my eye over the weekend--developments that will almost certainly have ramifications in political and military circles in the weeks to come.
First, there was the announcement that Russia is selling the advanced S-300P air defense system to its neighbor, Belarus. On the surface, that doesn't seem surprising. Among its former republics, Belarus has maintained the closest military ties to Moscow. Last October, Russian officials announced that the two nations would essentially merge their air defense networks, giving Moscow more defensive depth along its western borders. Under that arrangement, using common missile systems, radars and C2 networks certainly makes sense. The sale of the S-300 was hardly unexpected; there had been talk of such a deal for more than six months.
But there may be more to this transaction than meets the eye. According to some reports, Belarus plans to acquire at least a full brigade of S-300s (NATO designator: SA-20). That's more than sufficient to cover the country's airspace, considering that Russian batterys cover portions of Belorussian territory as well. Then, there's the cost factor. A single S-300 battery costs upwards of $300 million, and the Belarus economy is essentially stagnant. In other words, buying a full brigade would seemingly be beyond Minsk's financial reach, unless the Russians have arranged highly favorable terms (such as an arms-for-debt swap), or someone else is helping to finance the purchase.
And who might that someone be? There are persistent reports that Iran is interested in the S-300, which needs a long-range SAM system to replace its aging SA-5s and Chinese-built CSA-1s. With capabilities similar to the U.S. PATRIOT system, the S-300 would be an ideal fit Iran. However, there is no hard proof that Iran has actually made the purchase, despite recurrent rumors in the global arms community. The U.S. has expressed strong concerns about Russian arms sales to Iran, including a recently-concluded deal to provide the TOR-1M (SA-15) short-range SAM system. Needless to say, both the U.S. and Israel would be deeply concerned about Iran's acquisition of a long-range SAM with excellent capabilities against tactical aircraft, standoff platforms, cruise missiles, and theater ballistic missiles.
That's where the Belarus connection may come in. By using Minsk as a middleman, the Russians could quietly transfer the S-300 to Iran, without incurring some of the international wrath that would accompany a direct sale. In return, the Belorussians get a couple of batterys for their air defense network, the rest go to Iran, and Moscow gains a fig leaf of deniability for the transaction.
Another potential destination for any "extra" S-300s might be Syria, but Damascus would be hard-pressed to pay for the purchase. Unfortunately for Damascus, they still owe Russia for arms purchased in the 1990s, and Moscow is probably unwilling to extend credit for customers who can't pay--unless they're willing to provide certain favors in return, a la Belarus.
The other item of note was Saturday's announcement that Russia and Iran have reached a tentative deal for Tehran to conduct uranium enrichment efforts on Russian soil. With the IAEA report on Tehran's nuclear program due to the UNSC on Friday, both Iran and Russia may use the purported "deal" to head off potential sanctions or military action. At a minimum, the two nations will urge the international community to let diplomatic efforts continue, giving Iran more time to perfect its nuclear weapons technology. Sadly, with the threat of a Russian or Chinese veto in the UNSC, the diplomats may get more time for negotiations.
Tehran has been down this path with the Russians before. Their sudden willingness to agree to enrichment efforts in Russia may suggest that a covert program is in place, and capable of producing bomb-grade material at some point, regardless of what happens in Russia.