Russia Sending Missile Systems to Shield Syria
MOSCOW — Russia’s chief arms exporter said Friday that his company was shipping advanced defensive missile systems to Syriathat could be used to shoot down airplanes or sink ships if the United States or other nations try to intervene to halt the country’s spiral of violence.
“I would like to say these mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea,” Anatoly P. Isaykin, the general director of the company, Rosoboronexport, said Friday in an interview. “This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this.”
As the weapons systems are not considered cutting edge, Mr. Isaykin’s disclosures carried greater symbolic import than military significance. They contributed to a cold war chill that has been settling over relations between Washington and Moscow ahead a meeting between President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin, their first, on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting in the Mexican resort of Los Cabos next week.
Mr. Isaykin’s remarks come just days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised diplomatic pressure on Russia, Syria’s patron, by criticizing the Kremlin for sending attack helicopters to Damascus, and amid reports that Moscow was preparing to send an amphibious landing vessel and a small company of marines to the Syrian port of Tartus, to provide security for military installations and infrastructure, if it becomes necessary.
George Little, a Defense Department spokesman, declined to comment on Mr. Isaykin’s remarks.
Aleksander Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow, said the Russians’ discussion of defensive weapons shipments “undoubtedly” serves as a warning to Western countries contemplating an intervention.
“Russia uses these statements as a form of deterrence in Syria,” he said. “They show other countries that they are more likely to suffer losses.”
Throughout the Syrian crisis, Russia has insisted that all its arms sales to the isolated government of President Bashar al-Assad have been defensive in nature, and that the weapons were not being used in the Syrian leader’s violent campaign to suppress the opposition.
Mr. Isaykin underlined the point, but in a way that could also be interpreted as a warning to the West against undertaking military action of the sort that ousted Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power in Libya. Mr. Putin viewed that action as a breach of sovereignty that he does not want repeated.
Yet, as news reports of government massacres emerge almost daily from Syria, the prospect of the United States or NATO acting unilaterally has become a more frequently discussed option, particularly given Russia’s adamant refusal to authorize more aggressive United Nations action.
Mr. Isaykin, a powerful figure in Russia’s military industry, openly discussed the weapons being shipped to Syria: the Pantsyr-S1, a radar-guided missile and artillery system capable of hitting warplanes at altitudes well above those typically flown during bombing sorties, and up to 12 miles away; Buk-M2 antiaircraft missiles, capable of striking airplanes at even higher altitudes, up to 82,000 feet, and at longer ranges; and land-based Bastion anti-ship missiles that can fire at targets 180 miles from the coast.
Military analysts immediately questioned the effectiveness of the air defenses Russia has made available to nations in the Middle East, including Syria, none of which have offered even token resistance to Western forces.
Ruslan Aliyev, an authority on military affairs at the Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, said that statements by Mr. Isaykin and others were issued principally for political effect. Moscow has declined to supply Syria with its most lethal air defense, the S-300 long-range missile system.
“As far as I understand, Syria is not able to defend itself from NATO, just like it failed to defend its nuclear facility from Israel’s September 2007 airstrike,” Mr. Aliyev wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “Russian armaments are unlikely to be significantly helpful, I’m afraid.”
Since Mrs. Clinton’s statement, both sides have sought to play down the helicopters’ significance, saying they were of marginal use militarily. A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said Thursday that the secretary of state was referring to three helicopters that were returned recently to Syria after being refurbished in Russia.
In the interview, Mr. Isaykin said that the contract to overhaul the helicopters was signed in 2008, was never secret and had been reported to international organizations. “It was an absolutely routine contract,” he said.
Syria has spent about $500 million annually in recent years on Russian weaponry, Mr. Isaykin said in the interview, an order book that amounts to about 5 percent of Rosoboronexport’s business.
For nearly a decade, Mr. Isaykin said, Rosoboronexport has had no Syrian orders for rifles, ammunition, ground-to-ground rockets, helicopters and their onboard weapons or armored vehicles — the basic tools of a conflict that is escalating into civil war.
The Middle East, he said, is “flooded” with Soviet-style small arms, often made in knockoff versions by the Chinese or Eastern Europeans, elbowing Russia out of this market.
The Russian arms trade business with Syria has depended in recent years on large and complex antiaircraft systems. They violate no United Nations sanctions, he said, and cannot be used against civilians in a domestic conflict.
“We just send them to Syria,” he said. “Ask the Syrians where they put them.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting.