Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, Tuesday for a meeting that focused on the escalating crisis in Syria, and particularly the threat that Russia might be about to sell "game-changing" S-300 antiaircraft missiles to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
The meeting was overshadowed by news reports cited in the Israeli media that the first S-300 deliveries may already have been made to Syria, though they are still under control of Russian handlers and not the Syrian military.
"The area around us is very noisy, turbulent, unstable and volatile. So I am glad for the opportunity to explore together ways to stabilize the region and bring security and stability," Mr. Netanyahu told Mr. Putin as the meeting at the Russian president's Black Sea residence began. "It's important to us because we live there, but we know the region is important to you as well," he added.
Putin appeared to give in to Netanyahu's request to abstain from introducing the S-300 into Syria, at least for now.
"In this crucial period it is extremely important to avoid any actions that could aggravate the situation," Russian press reports quoted him as saying at the meeting's close.
The Putin-Netanyahu meeting had been planned since March, but it has acquired an "urgent" status over the past couple of weeks, after Israel reportedly launched devastating airstrikes against Syrian government weapons depots and then publicly alleged last week that Russia is preparing to deliver on a 2010 contract to supply long-range S-300 air-defense systems to Syria.
Over the past 10 days, Putin has met with US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron for mainly Syria-themed talks designed to forge a fresh peace push for Syria on the part of Russia and Western powers. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to meet Putin later this week. Syria's civil war, now in its third year, has killed more than 80,000 people, according to the UN.
A weapon that raises the stakes?
The key word used by both Israeli and US diplomats to describe the S-300 missile system is "destabilizing."
But Russian experts say what they really mean is that the powerful and deadly accurate weapons would dramatically raise the stakes for both countries if they decided to intervene in Syria's conflict by giving rebels the sort of Western air support that was successfully deployed by NATO two years ago to drive Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi from power.
The S-300 reputedly has a range of 125 miles, can engage 12 targets simultaneously, and strike incoming aircraft or missiles at altitudes of up to 20 miles. Generally considered to be comparable to the US Patriot system, it was the front-line Soviet air-defense weapon, but has been regularly upgraded ever since. Russian forces will soon start receiving the even more advanced S-400 Triumph system, but experts say the S-300 is likely to be increasingly available for export.
"The S-300 is one of the most effective antiaircraft and antimissile systems, because it has sufficiently long range to protect a wide area. It basically makes it prohibitively costly to use air power against that territory," says Vadim Kozyulin, a senior expert at the PIR Center in Moscow, which specializes in security issues.
"The S-300 can be used to effectively defend certain strategic objects or, in its mobile version, to protect armed forces in the field.... If Russia decides to supply Syria with the S-300 then it might cause a small 'Cuban missile crisis' situation in the region, because the interests of big and small nations will collide," he says.
This is not the first time the Uniteid States and Israel have put on a diplomatic full-court press over projected Russian sales of the S-300 to a country both nations want to be able to threaten with air power.
Netanyahu repeatedly asked Moscow to forgo a longstanding contract to sell S-300 air defense complexes to Iran, an effort that was eventually crowned with success when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to halt the deal.
But Russian officials have been reluctant to curtail the estimated $5 billion in arms contracts with Syria, which have amounted to about 10 percent of Russian arms exports over the past decade. They complain that Russia lost $13 billion by complying with a UN arms embargo against Iran, and almost $5 billion in broken weapons contracts with Libya, and received no comparable benefits from the West in return.
"Only the UN Security Council can introduce a binding arms embargo against Syria, and there is no such decision," says Mr. Kozyulin.
"There can be diplomatic arrangement, a kind of understanding between powers," and Putin may make such a deal with the West over projected S-300 sales to Syria, he adds. "But it has no formal, legal force. Even if Russia decides to supply S-300's to Syria, it would be completely within the law."