Russia's cagey moves toward Iran and the U.S.
Russia's announcement last week that it was calling off the sale of S-300 air defense systems to Iran was a big deal -- but the real story may have been even bigger than that, says Dmitry Gorenburg. Moscow has in fact canceled nearly all arms sales to Iran, which represents more than ten times as much business as the S-300. And he concurs with the consensus that it was Russia's desire to get along better with the U.S. that did it:
As far as the specifics of the S-300 decision, I don’t think the Russian leaders were ever all that strongly committed to selling the S-300 to Iran. I think that to some extent, it was always partially a bargaining chip that was used against the U.S. in moments when relations were problematic. So from that point of view, it’s possible that Putin didn’t change his mind at all, but the circumstances changed sufficiently that the balance between Russia’s bilateral relationships with the U.S. and Iran changed sufficiently that it became worthwhile to publicly shift positions on this sale. This would mean that U.S. policies toward Russia were bearing fruit.
This interpretation is supported by the breadth of the presidential decree, which prohibits the sale of virtually all military technology to Iran. Russian analysts estimate the total cost to Russian arms exporters of leaving the Iranian market to be around 11-13 billion dollars, of which the S-300 sale was just 800 million. If Russia just wanted to make a gesture toward the U.S., it would have been sufficient to ban the sale of the missiles while leaving other military cooperation intact. The fact that all military sales were banned implies that this is more than a gesture — it implies that Russian leaders have decided that they need to have much better relations with the United States and also with Israel. One possibility is that they hope that this change in policy will remove any remaining roadblocks to the Russian purchase of sensitive military technologies from the West. The Mistral deal is undoubtedly part of this calculus, but so is the purchase of more advanced UAVs from Israel.
That is a compelling argument, but Gorenburg's mention of the UAVs and Mistrals also recalls Ariel Cohen's argument last week that the ongoing Russian military reform is oriented towards strengthening its capability to act in the near abroad -- e.g. Georgia and Kyrgyzstan -- while deemphasizing global power projection.
So if Russia's grand strategy now is to pull back from the far abroad in favor of the near abroad, then this S-300 move dovetails nicely with that strategy -- while also gaining them good press in the West.