Russia has changed its story, yet again, about its intention to fulfill a 3-year old contract to sell "game-changing" S-300 advanced air defense systems to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Now the answer is "no."
In direct contradiction to what top Russian officials were saying just last week, President Vladimir Putin told European Union leaders at a summit in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg Tuesday that Russia has suspended the $900 million contract to supply six batteries and 144 long range, deadly-accurate surface-to-air missiles, in the interests of preserving stability in the turbulent Middle East.
"The S-300 systems are, really, one of the best air defense systems in the world, probably the best," Mr. Putin told the leaders, who included EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"We do not want to disturb the balance in the region. The contract was signed several years ago. It has not yet been realized," Russian news media quoted Putin as saying.
Just last month Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Putin at his summer residence in Sochi and begged him not to supply the missiles to Syria. Mr. Netanyahu said the S-300s would threaten planes flying in Israeli airspace, though most experts say the real concern is that the missiles would deeply complicate the ability of Israel, and the US, to intervene in Syria's civil war using air power.
In the wake of the EU's decision last week to drop its arms embargo against Syria, opening the door to arms shipments to the rebels by Britain and France, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov insisted the S-300 sale would go ahead – for exactly the same reason Putin now says it has been halted – to preserve "stability" in the region.
"We believe [S-300 sales] are to a great extent restraining some ‘hot heads’ from considering scenarios in which the conflict may assume an international scale with the participation of outside forces," Mr. Rybakov said.
"We understand all the concerns and signals sent to us from various states. We see that this issue worries many of our partners. We have no reasons to reconsider our position in this sphere," he added.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu went further, telling journalists last week that Russia is now prepared to sell Syria not only "defensive" weapons like the S-300, but "offensive" ones like tactical missiles, tanks, and fighter planes as well.
Mr. Assad put in his own misleading two cent's worth, telling a Lebanese TV station that the Russians had firmly promised to supply him with the S-300s and suggesting that the first shipment of them might have already arrived in Damascus.
Experts say it now appears likely that Putin did, in fact, agree at that May meeting with Netanyahu to suspend S-300 deliveries to Syria. That's not unprecedented: His predecessor Dmitry Medvedev negotiated a secret deal with Netanyahu that led to Russia cutting off S-300 and other major weapons' exports to Iran in 2010.
"When will everybody learn that the main thing is to listen to what Putin says? He is the truth of the last instance in this country," says Alexander Sharavin, director of the independent Institute of Military and Political Analysis in Moscow.
"People can say all sorts of things, and maybe they have their sources, but there is only one person in Russia who can actually decide whether to deliver S-300s to Syria or not. We know this person's name. And he seems to have made his decision quite some time ago," even if he's only informing us of it now, he adds.