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Jewish World Review
Jan. 14, 2005
/ 4 Shevat, 5765
Russia's missile sale to Syria gets back at U.S. over Ukraine
Russia is changing the way it behaves internationally. It is moving away from being primarily interested in good economic relations and being willing to sacrifice its geopolitical interests. Instead, it is starting to make geopolitical moves that are more reminiscent of traditional Russian foreign policy than of the "new Russia." We got a taste of this last week.
It broke into the open when Israel condemned an arms deal between Russia and Syria. The Israelis said they were particularly concerned about the Russian decision to supply Syria with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, designated the SA-18, an advanced system. In addition, the Russians were said to have agreed to sell Iskander-E ground-to-ground missiles to Syria. The Iskander-E will put most of Israel in range for Syria.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, "We're against the sale of lethal military equipment to Syria, which is a state sponsor of terrorism. The Russians know about this policy."
That means that 1) the Russians are selling the weapons to Syria; 2) the United States and Israel both oppose the sale; and 3) Russia doesn't much care what Israel or the United States think. The sale of the weapons is important, but not nearly as important as the apparent shift in Russian thinking. Where the Russians were once scrupulously careful not to go beyond U.S.-set strategic limits, they are now deliberately crossing the line. Something important has happened.
What we suspect has happened is Ukraine. The United States said today that it was planning to send substantial aid to Ukraine once civil unrest has subsided. The Russians have charged Israel with having funded the pro-Western movement in Ukraine. It sees the shift of Ukraine into the EU/NATO orbit as a direct threat to Russian national interest. Ukraine is critical to Russian security in the south and bringing NATO to the Ukraine would essentially make Russia indefensible. For the Russians, the stakes in Ukraine are enormous.
For the moment, Russia has few options there. Thus if the United States sees itself as free to intrude, the Russians are prepared to turn the tables. Syria is in many ways the perfect counter. The Americans are still trying to manage Syrian behavior toward Iraq. The Israelis obviously see Syria as a permanent strategic concern.
More to the point, both the United States and Israel regard the SA-18 as a dangerous weapon in the hands of jihadist guerrillas throughout the region. Neither country trusts the Syrians not to deliberately or inadvertently allow those missiles to wind up in the hands of its enemies. Therefore, sending those missiles to Syria strikes at fundamental U.S. and Israeli interests.
Linkage is a long standing Russian diplomatic practice. The Russians have historically sought to compensate for weakness in one area by applying pressure in other areas where they have the advantage. During the Soviet period, linkage was a foundation of Russian policy. Their counter to a U.S. invasion in Cuban was expected to be a move against Berlin. Being unable to deter the U.S. in Cuba, their goal would have been to deter the U.S. by threatening their interests elsewhere.
We really haven't seen this sort of behavior from the Russians for quite a while. But our Ukrainian gambit crossed a fundamental line, as far as they were concerned. They saw our support of pro-Western elements in Ukraine regardless of whether they were the majority as a deliberate threat to their fundamental interests. Western arguments about democracy were seen as simple rationalizations for engineering an intolerable geopolitical shift in its sphere of influence. Unable to respond in Ukraine, they responded in Syria.
Syria is a fundamental interest to the two countries they hold responsible for the Ukraine affair. First-rate man-portable air defense systems in Syrian hands could wind up in the hands of forces fighting both countries. It is a move that cannot be casually ignored. The Russians are not going to do anything as crude as demand a quid pro quo on Ukraine. They are simply letting the United States and Israel know that what goes around comes around. They are also letting the world know that Russia has a new foreign policy that looks very different from the old one.
It is not clear what Washington and Jerusalem are going to do about the Syrian sale. They don't have all that many levers with the Russians at this point. And they certainly don't want the Syrians to get the weapons. There is, however, going to be a graceful period between the agreement and delivery for diplomatic discussions to continue. But the Russian price is going to be high and there should be no mistake but that this sale to Syria was simply a sample of how unpleasant the Russians can make things.
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George Friedman is chairman of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., one of the world's leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor's clients include Fortune 500 companies and major government. His latest book is "America's Secret War." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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