Russia’s Stealth Invasion of Ukraine

It appears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I have feared since March has now begun in earnest, with the opening of a new front in the vicinity of Mariupol on the shores of the Azov Sea and a major counterattack in Luhansk Oblast leading to the retreat of Ukrainian forces from positions they have occupied (in some cases) since before the June ceasefire. This separatist counteroffensive has generated a lot of discussion among analysts and commentators about whether the forces attacking Novoazovsk and Mariupol belong to regular Russian units or irregular forces, as part of an effort to determine whether or not these new developments amount to a Russian invasion or just a new escalation by separatist forces.

I would argue that the specific provenance of the fighters involved doesn’t actually matter very much in this context. There is no doubt that the forces attacking in the south, near Novoazovsk and Mariupol, came directly from Russia, not from territory already controlled by the separatists farther north. To do so, they had to be allowed through the border by Russian border guards.

Furthermore, there is also no doubt that they are using weapons and equipment supplied by the Russian government, since they are no longer even trying to claim that the equipment they are using was captured from defeated Ukrainian forces.

In these circumstances, why does it matter which specific people are sitting in the tanks? Read more “Russia’s Stealth Invasion of Ukraine”

Russian Warships on Exercise, Not to Prop Up Assad

The Russian navy recently announced that it is sending a number of warships to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean. What’s more, these ships are expected to stop in Tartus, the Russian refueling facility in Syria and several of the ships are carrying naval infantry.

This deployment has obviously raised concern in the West, much as a previous (false) report of Russian marines being sent to Syria did. The New York Times and Forbes‘s Mark Adomanis both provide a lot of useful information without excessive hype but I’m not sure either has the whole context. So let me spell out exactly what the deployment involves and provide some of that context.

This is far from the first time in recent years that Russia has sent ships to the Mediterranean. What’s more, when Russian ships go to the Mediterranean, either for exercises or in transit, they virtually always stop at Tartus. So there’s no cause for alarm there. The Times is right in noting that this current deployment is much larger than previous ones but (as Ilya Kramnik notes) the West is just going to have to get used to the return of Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Read more “Russian Warships on Exercise, Not to Prop Up Assad”

Russia Has Not Sent Troops to Syria

Various sensationalist media accounts yesterday and this morning have been reporting that Russia has sent some sort of anti-terror troops to Syria.

The whole media frenzy seems to go back to an ABC News report, which in turn is based on what is almost certainly a misinterpretation of this report on the RIA-Novosti Arabic website. It seems pretty clear that this is a major exaggeration of what is actually happening in Tartus.

Obviously, I don’t have channel to the Russian Ministry of Defense, so treat the following as well informed speculation, rather than reporting. Nevertheless, what is actually happening seems pretty clear from the available information.

The ship in question, called the Iman, is a tanker that as far as I know has been participating in Russia’s counterpiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Its mission in Tartus is to refill supplies. Given its previous mission off Somalia, it undoubtedly has a contingent of naval infantry on board for the protection of the ship’s crew. In fact, the original RIA-Novosti report seems to state that the troops in question are marines rather than “anti-terror troops,” whatever those may be.

So it seems to me that this whole episode is nothing more than a small contingent of ship protection troops being mislabeled as Russian troops potentially coming to help Bashar al-Assad.

(For a very similar interpretation of events from a Russian source, take a look at Konstantin Bogdanov’s article on the RIA-Novosti website.)

Now, one might argue that the presence of any Russian ship at Tartus at this point in time should be viewed as a show of support for Assad. There is certainly an aspect of that here but one should note that the naval presence is not new. Russian ships have repeatedly docked at Tartus since the uprising began. The Iman in fact replaced the Ivan Bubnov, another tanker that had been docked in Tartus until recently.

It may be that Russia has decided to keep a ship in Tartus in case evacuation of Russian citizens becomes necessary though that seems to be a bit of a waste of resources.

More likely, the ship presence is the result of a combination of factors, including the need to resupply, the desire to show support for Assad and the potential need for evacuation.

The key point is that Russian ship presence at Tartus is not a policy change and the ship protection unit are almost certainly not “anti-terror troops” come to support Assad.

The whole episode will become a “bomb certain to have serious repercussions” (as described by an unnamed United Nations Security Council source in the ABC News report) only if the Western media narrative turns it into something that it’s not.

This story first appeared at Russian Military Reform, March 20, 2012.

Putin Spells Out National Security Strategy

As part of his campaign for the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been publishing a series of articles on various themes. On Tuesday, he turned to national security and specifically the Russian military. Since the full text is available in English, I won’t spend much time describing what is in the article but will just comment on some themes that caught my attention.

I have to say, of all the articles Putin has published as part of his electoral program, this one is one of the best. It’s not a terribly high standard, given that at least one of them was found to have been plagiarized from other sources, but still.

The first part of the article provides one of the best justifications I have seen for the military reform that the government undertook starting back in the fall of 2008. Had this statement been made this clearly and forcefully back then, I think Putin, defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and company might have had an easier time convincing the expert community that they knew what they were doing. (Back then, the reform was rolled out without a clear plan or explanation, which generated a lot of criticism.) I’ve been a fan of the main ideas behind the reform effort from the start, so I’m glad to see this all spelled out so clearly by Putin (or, more likely, his ghostwriter). Here are the key points justifying the reform:

Previous experience proved that the potential for developing the military system inherited from the Soviet Union had become depleted…

It was not possible to build up the military simply by adding personnel and equipment partly because it didn’t solve the inefficiency problem and partly because the country lacked both the human and financial resources. Most importantly, that system did not meet contemporary and long-term requirements. We could eventually have lost our entire military potential and we could have lost our armed forces as an efficient mechanism.

There was only one way out. We had to build a new army. We had to establish a modern and mobile army which could maintain permanent combat readiness.

This is followed by an equally clear discussion of accomplishments to date. These primarily have to do with changes in organizational structure, including the transition from brigades to divisions and from military districts to unified strategic commands. Read more “Putin Spells Out National Security Strategy”

How Bin Laden’s Death Was Received in Russia

Russian reaction to the news that US special forces killed Osama bin Laden was somewhat muted because of the May Day holiday, which continued into Monday, May 2. The Kremlin limited itself to a brief statement congratulating the United States for its success and noting that Russians unfortunately have firsthand experience in dealing with international terrorism. Russian leaders noted that they were ready to further expand their participation in international cooperative efforts to stop terrorism.

A number of newspapers and bloggers published some reactions as the day went on. There were two main themes to these articles. The first topic of discussion among Russian analysts was the impact of the successful operation to kill bin Laden on American politics. Here, the analysts were pretty much unanimous in declaring that the killing of bin Laden would guarantee President Barack Obama’s reelection. In this, they showed far more certainty than American analysts, many of whom thought the positive effect on Obama’s approval would not be sufficiently long lasting and would in any case be drowned out by the state of the economy in 2012. The parallel drawn by Russian commentators was to the capture of Saddam Hussein a year before President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004.

Second, there was unanimous agreement that bin Laden’s death would have very little impact on the incidence of international terrorism. The argument paralleled that made by many American commentators, noting that in recent years bin Laden had become merely a symbolic figure for the jihadist movement, rather than a planner of terrorist attacks in his own right. Some argued that the death of capture of Ayman al-Zawahiri might have had a greater impact, as he was seen to have a greater role in operational planning and had in fact become Al Qaeda’s de facto leader in recent years. Others pointed to previous Russian experience, noting that the death of prominent Chechen rebel leaders such as Dzhokhar Dudaev and Shamil Basaev did not end the conflict in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

While there was widespread agreement that bin Laden was the symbolic leader of Islamic terrorism, this led to a wide range of conclusions. Some Russian analysts argued that his symbolic role as the founder of international Islamic terrorism would outlast his death and would allow Al Qaeda and other jihadi organizations to continue their terrorist activity with little disruption. One commentator compared bin Laden’s future role for Islamism to Lenin’s role for Communism, quoting the Soviet slogan “Lenin’s ideas live and are winning.” Others argued that because sponsors of radical Islamist activity in various Muslim countries were oriented primarily toward supporting bin Laden personally, his death may lead to a disruption of financing for radical groups and therefore a potential decline in terrorism.

One commentator related the impact of bin Laden’s ideas to public opinion in the Arab world, arguing that young people in the Middle East enter adulthood with a strong sense of unfairness. This comes first from media representations that the world is unfair in its treatment of Arabs. But young Arabs quickly learn that their own society is deeply unfair. The argument is that bin Laden’s success over the last two decades is the result of having a simple answer to the question of what is to be done about this unfairness. The commentator believes that bin Ladenism as an ideology will continue to prosper until some spiritual leader appears who is able to provide a less bloodthirsty answer to this question.

The obvious answer, of course, is that an alternative answer has already been provided — by the organizers of the mass protests that in recent months brought down the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia and are threatening to do the same in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The fact that the Russian analyst does not reach this conclusion, arguing instead that for now bin Ladenism is alive and well in the Middle East, says more about the state of the Russian political system than about the relevance of bin Laden’s ideas for the next generation of Arab and Muslim youth growing up in the Middle East.

This story first appeared on Russian Military Reform, May 2, 2011.

Russia’s Conflicts in Libya

Earlier this month, the Russian government surprised many observers by going along with UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized international enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya. Russia was initially expected to veto the resolution. Instead, Russia chose to abstain in order to ensure the protection of civilians, while its ambassador to the United Nations made statements expressing concern about how the resolution would be implemented.

In recent years, Russia has had close trade relations with the Libyan government. In particular it has signed billions of dollars worth of arms contracts with the regime of Muammar Gaddhafi. This is the context that partially explains the removal of Vladimir Chamov, Russia’s ambassador to Libya, after he sent a telegram to Moscow arguing that allowing the UN resolution to pass would represent a betrayal of Russia’s state interests. Chamov has since returned to Moscow where he has publicly spoken out against the implementation of the no-fly zone.

In the last week, Russia’s attitude toward the no-fly zone has unexpectedly become a factor in Russian domestic politics. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s statement on March 21 criticized the UN resolution for getting involved in an internal conflict. In the most controversial part of his remarks, Putin argued that the resolution allowed international forces to take virtually any measures against a sovereign state, and in this he said it resembled medieval calls to crusades, “when someone called on others to go to a certain place and liberate it.”

The response from President Dmitri Medvedev was almost immediate. He argued that Russia’s abstention on the resolution vote was the proper position. Furthermore, he dressed down Putin (though not by name) by saying:

Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions that essentially lead to a clash of civilizations, such as ‘crusades’ and so on. It is unacceptable. Otherwise, everything may end up much worse than what is going on now. Everyone should remember that.

And he removed Chamov from his position, essentially for public insubordination. Putin came out the next day with a statement indicating that the president is responsible for foreign policy in Russia and that he backed his president’s policies. A spokesman indicated that Putin’s previous statement was simply an indication of his own personal views rather than an official policy statement.

It may be that this conflict was yet another example of the good cop-bad cop show that the Russian leadership tandem have been putting on for the last three years. Or it may be that this is the first serious indication that Medvedev and Putin are engaged in a serious behind the scenes tussle for the right to run for president in 2012. I am still slightly on the side of the former, though a second public disagreement of this level of seriousness would be enough to convince me that this is a genuine conflict.

Rather than focus on the domestic conflict, I want to examine why Russian politicians see this conflict the way they do. I would argue that Russian leaders’ inconsistent position on Libya is essentially a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

I believe that Russian leaders decided not to veto Resolution 1973 for two reasons. First, they did not want to alienate Western leaders who were pushing for the intervention. While the rapprochement with the United States is important to them and certainly played a role here, we should also remember the importance of Russian political and economic ties with European states and especially France and Italy, both of whom were strongly in favor of a no-fly zone because of the potential for a humanitarian and refugee disaster in the event of an attack by Gaddhafi’s forces on Benghazi. Second, Russian leaders did not want to be blamed for blocking the intervention if the result was a large-scale massacre of civilians.

On the other hand, Russian leaders also did not want to create a new norm of international intervention in internal conflicts, particularly when these conflicts were the result of a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler. They genuinely dislike what they see as a Western predilection for imposing their values and forms of government on other parts of the world. They remember the color revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia, in which friendly regimes were replaced by ones that were to a greater or lesser extent anti-Russian.

Furthermore, they believe that these popular protest movements were organized and funded by Western governments, particularly the United States. This creates a certain amount of suspicion of similar protests leading to the removal of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, even when the deposed rulers do not have particularly close ties to Russia.

So Russian leaders are understandably nervous about the coalition’s rather expansive interpretation of Resolution 1973. They were willing to allow for the establishment of a no-fly zone in order to avert a likely massacre of civilians and to help their European partners avoid a flood of refugees on their soil. They are much less willing to see NATO forces provide military assistance to a popular uprising against an authoritarian ruler that it has traditionally supported.

I suspect that Russian leaders will increasingly begin to speak out against the military campaign if this conflict drags on. They will be especially concerned if it becomes increasingly clear that NATO airstrikes are targeting Gaddhafi’s ground forces rather than limiting themselves to preventing Libyan air forces from targeting civilian areas.

Russia’s Black Sea Threat?

In the latest issue of Proceedings magazine, Lieutenant Colonel John A. Mowchan of the US Army articulates a vision of Russia that is in many ways at odds with reality. For this reason, it deserves a commentary that will also act as a rebuttal.

Early on, the author refers to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) as Russia’s Sword of Damocles hanging over Southeast Europe and the Caucasus. If so, it’s a rusty sword indeed. Mowchan himself notes in the conclusion of that section of the article that,

Currently, the BSF’s only viable warship is the Slava class guided-missile cruiser Moskva. […] If current modernization and manning trends persist, the BSF will be unable to effectively accomplish any of its assigned missions in the next five years.

So how can a fleet comprised of ancient, barely seaworthy ships serve as an existential threat to the entire region?

According to Mowchan, the threat lies in the fleet’s coming resurrection. The Russian government has announced grand plans to modernize the fleet by sending up to fifteen new combatants to the fleet by 2020. Yet in the current Russian military, such plans are rarely accomplished.

Nevertheless, I am sure that the fleet will be substantially more capable in 2020 than it is now. It will at a minimum have the two Neustrashimy class frigates (transfered from the Baltic Fleet), three new updated Krivak class frigates, and perhaps one or two new Admiral Gorshkov class frigates. A Mistral and one or two new Ivan Gren amphibious landing ships are also likely. Add in a couple of new diesel submarines and a minimum of ten new combatants seems highly likely. So in 2020 the BSF will undoubtedly be much more powerful than it is now, though it will probably still be outclassed by the Turkish Navy.

But what will Russia do with these forces? Lieutenant Colonel Mowchan believes that the fleet “will become a tool by which Moscow exerts greater influence over other Black Sea nations.” Well, of course, one of the main reasons countries build military forces is to increase their political power, so that statement seems fine on its face. The problem comes with the author’s assumption that security in the region (and perhaps in the world as a whole) is a zero-sum game where any gain for Russia is automatically a loss for the United States. He sees the BSF’s modernization as leading to “an increase in the possibility of conflict between Russia and those Black Sea states seeking greater integration with the West” and positioning Russia “to threaten American vital interests in the region.”

This is perhaps the core of my disagreement with this article, as I see the potential for regional security to be a positive-sum game (or, if things go badly, a negative-sum game) where improvements in regional security can help secure the interests of both sides. In my view, improvements in Russian naval capabilities will lead, inter alia, to greater and more effective cooperation with NATO and other states’ warships in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Mowchan explicitly rejects this view and that’s fine.

But I wonder, does he really think that Russia might go to war with NATO in the foreseeable future? He argues that France’s decision to sell the Mistral to Russia “sets a dangerous precedent that could result in such capabilities being used against NATO or other American allies.” He believes that Russia bought the Mistral ships in order to “create inter-alliance frictions that could undermine NATO’s cohesion and decisionmaking in a crisis — especially if Russia is an active participant in such a conflict.”

Actually, I think Russia bought the ships because its leaders realized that a joint construction program was the best possible way for them to modernize their shipbuilding capacity. And besides, quoting one French source, “the Mistral is just a ferry painted grey.” It is not some dreadnought.

Again, I question the possibility of Russia and any NATO state going to war any time in the foreseeable future. But perhaps I am naive in this. If so, I would welcome those who disagree to comment with plausible scenarios that lead to military conflict between Russia and NATO — especially given the deplorable weakness of Russia’s conventional forces and the sad state of their conscripts.

Finally, there is the question of whether Russian activity in the Black Sea can “threaten American vital interests in the region.” According to the author, these include democratization, regional stability, and access to energy supplies. I would argue that the Black Sea is a fairly marginal territory for the United States. Europe may care about access to energy supplies (i.e., natural gas) from this region, but America does not get any of its natural gas and very little of its oil supplies from this area. (In fact, America gets twice as much oil from Russia as it does from all the other post-Soviet states combined.) So energy is an American interest only indirectly, via its effect on Europe. And Europe has recently focused on developing alternatives such as LNG and shale gas to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies.

Most new Caspian and Central Asian energy resources developed in the coming decade will be going to China, not Europe. Turkey gets gas from Russia through the Blue Stream pipeline that traverses the Black Sea, and may participate in the coming South Stream project across the Black Sea, neither of which the Russians are likely to cut off — they need the money.

Regional stability is important, but as I already argued, this is something that can best be achieved by working with Russia, not against it. Because of simple geographic proximity, the Black Sea will always be more important for Russia than it is for the United States, much as the Caribbean is more important for the United States than it is for Russia.

Russia will have more interest in regional politics and greater staying power in the event of political conflicts, so the only way to truly achieve regional stability is to engage in a partnership with Russia that integrates it into regional political institutions, including those in Europe, for which the Black Sea is quite peripheral.

Finally, there is democratization. As recent events in the Middle East have shown only too clearly, this is an interest for the United States primarily when nothing else gets in the way. Stability, alliances, access to resources all trump democratization. Furthermore, the governments brought in by “color revolutions” in the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) have all (in different ways) failed at building democracies in their countries. Ukraine’s leaders failed by engaging in internecine squabbling that prevented them from institutionalizing their gains and led to the return of Viktor Yanukovich as president. Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia made some early moves against corruption but has since been gradually building a populist demagogic regime that has shut down opposition media outlets and used violence against protesters. Both states are more democratic than they were prior to their revolutions, but they have certainly failed to meet the expectations with which the new regimes came to power.

This is not to say that the United States do not have one vital interest in the Black Sea. It plays an important role in transporting goods and people to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and overflights of former Soviet states. This is a network in which Russia plays a critical role and has proven quite helpful in reducing American dependence on supplying its troops through Pakistan. In other words, the most important reason for maintaining American access to the Black Sea is an area in which Russia and the United States act as partners.

Given this reality, I would recommend that the United States work to improve relations with Russia in the region by engaging it in bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities, including greater military to military contacts. Military cooperation can, over time, build trust (consider the role of military contacts with the United States in the Egyptian army’s response to the recent protests in that country). Working with the Russian navy will gradually reduce suspicions of the other’s intent on both sides. And (again gradually) this will in turn lead to greater security in the Black Sea region.

The Pros and Cons of WikiLeaks Disclosures

In a post on The Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker invites colleagues to debate the pros and cons of using the classified documents posted on WikiLeaks in their research. For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue over the last few days, as well as in the aftermath of previous releases of documents over the last few months.

While I was initially torn about the extent to which the first two sets of leaks (the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs) actually harmed American national security, I firmly believe that the leaking of the diplomatic cables is a horrible act that will damage not just American policy but will actually harm international relations and increase the likelihood of conflict in the world in the future.

There are two obvious harms:

  1. American diplomats will fear that their cables will be leaked in the future and will be less forthright in their assessments.
  2. Leaders and diplomats around the world will fear future leaks and will be less candid in their private conversations — preventing potential future diplomatic breakthroughs. Read more “The Pros and Cons of WikiLeaks Disclosures”

Radical Islamism on the Rise in Tatarstan?

Even if youngsters in Tatarstan are becoming islamic, the authorities in this Russian republic have little reason to fear a surge in religious extremism. Persecution of pious Muslims would in fact only spur violence, not prevent it.

I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago, I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the former Soviet Union. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a Wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were five to ten years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “Wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “Wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria five, six years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against the very people who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian Interior Ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against nonviolent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.

Why Was the S-300 Canceled?

The recent decree signed by President Dmitri Medvedev canceling the sale of the S-300 surface to air missiles has raised some questions about decisionmaking in the Russian government about arms exports. Analysts who spend their time looking for tensions in the Russian “tandemocracy” have suggested that this decision is a sign that President Medvedev was able to get his way on this issue against the wishes of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Other interpretations indicated that Iranian behavior in recent years or months led Putin to change his mind on the sale, which he supported since the initial decision was made several years ago. In this interpretation, in signing the decree Medvedev was simply doing what he was told by his “superior.”

I don’t think these are the only two options. I have always been skeptical of interpretations that depend on finding disagreements between Medvedev and Putin. At the same time, I don’t think Medvedev is Putin’s puppet. My interpretation of the Russian top leadership is that decisions are made largely by consensus among the four or five top people, with Putin acting as first among equals and in some ways the arbitrator or final decisionmaker. This was true when he was president and hasn’t changed much in the current environment. In this light, Putin doesn’t have to have completely changed his mind, nor did he get rolled by Medvedev. Perhaps his view became less strong and the views of enough other players changed that the consensus moved in a different direction. Obviously I don’t have evidence that this is how decisions are made in the Kremlin right now, but there is some reasonable evidence that this is how it was done back in 2007. I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that much has changed.

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 United States in moments when relations were problematic. So from that point of view, it’s possible that Putin didn’t change his mind at all, rather the balance between Russia’s bilateral relationships with the United States and its relations with Iran changed sufficiently for it became worthwhile to publicly shift positions on this sale. This would mean that American 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 US, 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 with France is undoubtedly part of this calculus, but so is the purchase of more advanced UAVs from Israel.

This story first appeared on Russian Military Reform, September 27, 2010.