Monday, December 08, 2014

Putin Ups the Ante

Ever wonder how Vladimir Putin might respond to western economic sanctions against Ukraine?

Some of his option are readily apparent.  Analysts have long believed the Russian leader might limit (or even turn off) energy supplies to customers in Western Europe.  But with the recent plunge in oil prices--and his own economy heavily dependent on crude and natural gas exports--that ploy might not be as feasible as first thought.  

But Mr. Putin has plenty of fall-back plans.  And one was exposed in Syria over the weekend, when Israeli warplanes reportedly bombed a "warehouse" containing surface-to-air missiles.

More from the Jerusalem Post:

Syrian opposition sources told Arab media on Monday that the airstrikes destroyed a storage facility housing anti-aircraft missiles and drones belonging to Hezbollah, and cut off the power supply from Damascus International Airport.

While the Lebanese Shi’ite group has yet to officially comment on the attack, Channel 2 is citing a report in the Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper Al-Akhbar which said that “the Israeli action was intended to preserve the rules of the game.”

The newspaper claimed that the IAF struck weapons caches “that belonged to Hezbollah.” These arms are considered to be “capable of tilting the strategic balance,” namely threaten Israel’s ability to act freely in the skies above Lebanon.

In this case, "tilting the strategic balance" is thought to be a reference to the S-300 air defense system, which is capable of engaging aircraft, cruise missile and ballistic missile targets at long range.  From bases in Syria or Lebanon, S-300 batteries could target airborne assets deep inside Israeli territory, challenging the IAF's aerial dominance. 

As noted in this McClatchy report, Sunday's attacks are consistent with Israel's long-standing pledge to prevent Syria--or Hizballah fighters in Lebanon--from operating the S-300.  On at least three occasions over the last two years, the IAF has launched air strikes aimed at preventing the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hizballah, both in Lebanon and Syria. 

In August, Russian media sources claimed that Moscow would halt future deliveries of S-300 components to Syria, breaking an export deal that was approved in 2007.  Both Russia and Syria's Assad government acknowledge that some elements of the SAM system were delivered prior to the August decision.  Yesterday's raid suggests that Israel only recently became aware of the location of previously-delivered items, or Mr. Putin has resumed S-300 deliveries to the Syrians and/or Hizballah. 

Our money is on the latter option.  The Israelis have shown no hesitation in attacking S-300 components in the past, and their intelligence in both Syria and Lebanon is very good.  Obviously, it's much easier to take out an advanced SAM system before it goes operational, even if that means tracking down and destroying individual components, such as radars, launchers, and of course, the actual missiles. 

The reported presence of additional S-300 hardware in Syria also raises questions about the air defense system and Iran.  Moscow's plans to supply the S-300 to Tehran collapsed under international pressure in 2010, but the Iranians remain very interested in the system, as a hedge against a potential IAF strike against their nuclear facilities.  

Resuming deliveries of advanced SAMs to Iran and Syria is a relatively easy way for Mr. Putin to put a little pressure on the west (read: the United States).  He knows the S-300 in Iran would accelerate an Israeli attack against Tehran's nuclear capabilities, a scenario that could wreak havoc in the Middle East.  His offer to Washington would be rather simple: roll back sanctions resulting from the Ukraine crisis, or be prepared to deal with S-300s in Syrian and Iran, and the prospect of near-term Israeli action, with all the associated consequences.  And did we mention it might trigger a sudden spike in oil prices?

Besides, Mr. Putin pegged President Obama as a weakling long ago.  So, he's more than willing to stoke the fires in places like Syria and Iran, knowing that the U.S. would likely ease sanctions against Russia, if Moscow agrees to stop future S-300 shipments to Damascus and Tehran.  

Chalk up another one for the Russian president.  He may get a lot of mileage out of some blown-up missiles or SAM radars. 



1 comment:

HC said...

Israel doesn't confirm strikes against Syria, in hopes of preventing escalation to armed conflict. In the past, the Obama Administration has been quick to distance itself from such strikes, by outing them through anonymous leaks. The silence this time probably means that the strike served U.S. interests as much as Israel's.