National Security & Defense

Putin Returns

Russia sends SAMs to Iran.

After his recent absence, President Putin is back in business, now selling Russia’s advanced S-300 air-defense system to Iran. It’s a transaction that will shake up the Middle East.

Previously, Russia had yielded to American pressure not to supply the S-300 surface-to-air system to Iran, but Putin has apparently decided to roll the dice.

Some will say that this isn’t a big deal, pointing out that Russia has already provided this same weapons system to Egypt. But that’s a false comparison. Where Egypt’s defense posture, at least currently, is focused almost entirely on counterterrorism, Iran’s S-300 interest is far more aggressive. That’s because the S-300 affords Iran both a deterrent and a practical confidence that it could defeat a U.S.-Israeli military attack on its nuclear infrastructure.

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But, befitting Clausewitz’s doctrine of war as “the continuation of politics by other means,” the S-300 also serves a direct political agenda for Iran. By increasing the prospective risk and cost of a foreign-military strike, the S-300 empowers Iran’s most hard-line elements to embrace their traditional negotiating intransigence. Sensing Russia’s disinterest in a durable nuclear deal that holds the Iranians to account, the hard-liners have found new motivation to undercut the final June deadline. Don’t believe me? Read what Ayatollah Khamenei is saying about the inspections process.

Whatever one thinks of the negotiating process, Iran’s deception has been longstanding and predicated upon a simple rationale: “If we can manipulate the process, we will.” The S-300 deal is fuel to that strategy.

But this isn’t only about Russia and Iran. For months, multiple reports have suggested that Russia will soon provide S-300s to Syria. What’s going on here is clear: Russia is using the diplomatic cover born of President Obama’s smiling accord for its own unilateral policy. In a single move, Russia has earned some foreign capital while further restricting American policy choices in the Middle East.

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#related#The direct military consequences of this S-300 deal are profound. As missile expert Michael Elleman told Radio Free Europe in 2013, referring to Syria: “I am not convinced that the West, Israel, or Turkey could reliably neutralize the [S-300] system without taking some kind of kinetic action — in other words, going after some of the radar or some of the interceptors [with force]. So, in terms of circumventing, I think it would be very difficult and very risky.”

The same lesson is equally true with regard to Iran. While the S-300 system doesn’t make Iran impenetrable to an attack, it seriously complicates any military option and escalates the risk to American military personnel. Again, it’s important to remember that the S-300 isn’t just some random piece of equipment. Instead, as an Australian defense think-tank briefing notes, the S-300 system has the capacity to threaten short-term Western air superiority.

Putin is back in business, playing America once again.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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