Washington’s dilemma with S-400 sales

Russia’s offering has been judged to be more compelling considering the fewer strings attached and added technology benefits for which it is open to negotiate.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Hot under the collar. US soldiers stand next to the Patriot long-range defence system during  a defence exercise at the military airfield near Siauliai in Lithuania. (Reuters)
Hot under the collar. US soldiers stand next to the Patriot long-range defence system during a defence exercise at the military airfield near Siauliai in Lithuania. (Reuters)

DUBAI - As US foreign policy in the Middle East lurches from contradiction to contradiction, from unwavering support of Israel to an off-again, on-again withdrawal from Syria, Russia has adroitly pursued a consistent policy of keeping its diplomatic lines open to all parties.

Moscow’s flexibility provides a sympathetic common-ground forum for even such existential enemies as Israel and Iran. In complete contrast to Washington’s policy of regime change, from Iran to Syria, Moscow has deployed support for existing governments.

Solidifying this policy has seen Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criss-crossing the Middle East and North Africa. In January, Lavrov travelled to the Maghreb, visiting Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. From March 4-7, he toured Arab Gulf countries, stopping in the capitals of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

All the countries on Lavrov’s tour are allied to some degree with the United States. Qatar, for example, is the site of the massive Al Udeid Airbase, which houses thousands of US military personnel under a 1991 bilateral defence cooperation agreement that was expanded in 2013. Lavrov was warmly received in all four capitals.

His cultivating a perception of Russia as a relatively honest broker even extends to regional pariahs and existential enemies Israel and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin February 27 in Moscow. Netanyahu’s office reported him saying: “President Putin and I agreed on a joint goal — the withdrawal of foreign forces that were deployed to Syria after the start of the civil war.”

Russian analysts concluded that Russia and Israel achieved a quid pro quo under which Israeli strikes would not threaten Syrian President Bashar Assad while Russia promised to curb Iranian influence near the Israeli border.

Four days after Netanyahu’s visit, Lavrov began his 4-day working trip to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Lavrov’s agenda, highlighted at news conferences in each capital, included trade discussions, joint projects, bilateral visits and major issues of regional concern, including Iran’s isolation, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Contrasting Russian diplomatic support for regional stability, Lavrov in his Arab Gulf news conferences highlighted unilateral US actions and their negative effects on the Middle East peace process.

Lavrov recalled that, although US President Donald Trump had promised to do his utmost to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, his administration had effectively abandoned the process while Russia supported resuming the Palestinian-Israeli peace process based on international legitimacy, with direct negotiations between the two parties.

Lavrov stressed the importance of consolidating trust and security in the Gulf, where discord ranges from disagreements between Iran and several Gulf Cooperation Council members to the crisis between Qatar and its neighbours, which started in 2017.

Lavrov said military cooperation with Kuwait is an important joint venture. During the news conference in Kuwait City, he said: “Kuwait takes part in the annual ‘Army’ military and technical forum and participates in ‘Tank biathlon’ organised by Russia’s Defence Ministry. It helps to establish contacts between people when they take part in these ‘sports battles.’”

Above and beyond “sports battles,” the most startling development of Russia’s MENA diplomatic offensive for Washington has been its emergence in the lucrative Middle East arms market, with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar mulling purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

Saudi Arabia already has US-manufactured Patriot missiles defending it against Iran-supplied missile threats from Yemen. For those with a sense of irony, the US military assets at Al Udeid Airbase could soon be defended by the Russian S-400.

Worse for the US military-industrial complex, Russia concluded a deal with NATO member Turkey to purchase the S-400 system, with delivery scheduled for this year. This is a major challenge to NATO and the United States because Turkey is also to receive F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from the United States, a deal the Trump administration is threatening to cancel if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400.

Of course, the crown jewel in Russian Middle East foreign policy would be to advance peace between Israelis and the Palestinians beyond decades of seemingly interminable vapid discussions.

While a comprehensive peace agreement has eluded diplomats for 71 years, the United States under Trump has effectively abrogated its role as “honest broker,” a mantle that Russia appears willing to accept, having invited both Israeli and Palestinian politicians to Moscow for negotiations.

In such a volatile region, Russia’s non-judgmental support for stability provides consistency that Washington’s policies lack. In an area persistently wracked by violence, it would seem Lavrov’s Middle Eastern sojourns can only accrue increased Russian regional influence at Washington’s expense.