David J. Smith*
Ignoring pleas from America and Israel, Russia says that it will provide Syria with P-800 Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles. Meanwhile, Russian bellyaching induces Washington and Jerusalem—and every other western capital—to maintain a complete arms embargo on Georgia. It is apparently OK to arm a cutthroat dictatorship that arms the terrorist Hezbollah and Hamas. But it is apparently not OK to provide a fellow democracy with the weapons it needs for its legitimate defense in the face of Russian invasion and occupation.
Russia will deliver 72 Yakhont missiles under a 2007 contract worth more than $300 million. Known in the west as SS-N-26, Yakhont is a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile. Its engine propels it toward its target just meters above the sea surface. Low altitude makes it hard to detect and high speed renders most shipboard close-in weapons systems ineffective.
Yakhont’s range is 300 kilometers; however, Syria’s inability to target ships or launch missiles from aircraft will curtail that range. Moreover, advanced electronic countermeasures can be very effective against it.
Nonetheless, Yakhont will somewhat alter the balance between Israel and Syria, which technically remain at war. However, Jerusalem’s main concern is that Syria will supply anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah and Hamas, as it has done with other potent weapons. Indeed, western security experts were stunned in July 2006 when Hezbollah launched several Iranian-produced C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles. The Israeli Navy corvette Hanit was hit and badly damaged; a Cambodian-flagged merchant ship was sunk.
By the way, some experts fear that Yakhont missiles in irresponsible hands could also be hazardous to civilian vessels in the crowded eastern Mediterranean Sea.
There should be little wonder, then, that Israel mounted a diplomatic campaign to dissuade Russia from providing Yakhont missiles to Syria.
On September 6, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak took the message right to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Sochi dacha. The Russians did not budge. But Barak had already signed an unprecedented Israel-Russia military cooperation agreement. Moscow will buy 36 more Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles for $100 million. Joint weapons development and other ties will follow.
Apart from the attraction of lucrative Russian contracts, Jerusalem’s likely main objective is to keep Moscow dissuaded from providing S-300 anti-air missiles to Iran. “A decision was taken not to supply S-300s to Iran,” General Nikolai Makarov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, confirmed on September 22. But the S-300 sale has an on-again-off-again history that will certainly take another turn the next time Moscow wants to get Washington’s attention.
Indeed, after Barak’s Sochi sojourn, the Yakhont saga moved to the “reset” capital of the world.
After a five hour Pentagon meeting with his American counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov publicly dismissed Washington’s concerns about the Yakhont sale to Syria. "The issue of selling the missiles to Syria was raised during the talks with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates," Serdyukov said. "The US and Israel ask us not to supply Syria with Yakhont, but we do not see the concerns expressed by them that these arms will fall into the hands of terrorists…Undoubtedly, [the Syrian contract] will be fulfilled by the Russian side.”
As with Israel, the Russian defense chief had already signed a raft of agreements with the US. He and Gates proceeded to a Potomac River dinner cruise.
Asked by an Interfax reporter about possible future weapons supplies to Georgia, Gates said, “We have been, I think, careful in what we have provided to Georgia.”
It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world!
Israel’s behavior is understandable though short-sighted. Russia’s support for United Nations sanctions on Iran is tepid and tactical. And its disregard for Israel’s security is well illustrated by its backing for Syria and its indifference toward the prospect of its weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas.
In a wider sense, as a tiny, embattled democracy, like Georgia, often chastised for defending itself, Israel should see the strategic imperative of helping Georgia and of not arming its bully neighbor.
America’s behavior is not understandable. Washington has banged on the US-Russia “reset” button so hard and so often that its hard drive has crashed! To reset America’s computations, we need to consider that one reason Jerusalem is hedging its bets in Moscow is that it is unsure whether it can rely upon Washington. Neglecting allies like Israel and Georgia makes other allies wonder whether they can count on America. And that makes would-be aggressors calculate what mischief they can freely wreak.
America has worldwide geopolitical interests, not least in the East-West Corridor through Georgia. Providing Georgia with the tools it needs for its legitimate self-defense—command and control systems, anti-armor and anti-air weapons—is not only the right thing to do, it is also the best deterrence against another attack on an American interest.
Published in Tbilisi 24 Saati September 27, 2010
*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!