Obama Opens Middle East Door Wide to Russian Arms, Bases

De-containment is the name of President Barack Obama's strategy for bringing Russia aboard as a necessary partner in his moves for isolating Iran. He is opening the door to Russian trade and military presence in at least one hitherto barred world region, banishing Washington's last Cold War inhibitions.

Already, the US president has given Moscow a prime incentive for withholding S-300 anti-missile missiles from Iran. Sept. 3, the French news agency quoted Paris sources as revealing that the Saudis were bidding for advanced Russian missile systems, proposing to purchase the S-400 air defense, anti-missile weapon which is a cut above the S-300 sought by Iran.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources confirm that a multibillion Russian-Saudi weapons transaction is close to fruition.

Riyadh would not have opened negotiations to buy arms from Moscow – much less the cutting-edge S-400 – without Washington's nod, which would have depended in turn on a French and Israeli go-ahead. This missile is capable of detecting and simultaneously engaging six targets from a distance of 400-3,500 kilometers at a speed of 4.5 kilometers per second.

To bring the sale forward, France was asked to give up some of its weapons trade with Saudi Arabia, including an air-defense shield for the oil kingdom's long coastlines, and Israel was asked to refrain from lobbying against the deal in Washington and Europe, despite its defense chiefs' misgivings over the installation of the last word in Soviet anti-missile hardware not only on Saudi Arabia's eastern shore facing Iran, but also on its western Red Sea coast.

This would bring those missile batteries uncomfortably close (20 kilometers) to Israel's southernmost port of Eilat and the Negev with its air force bases and US military installations within easy range.

Obama promises the Russians a Gulf shopping spree for arms

Both Paris and Jerusalem were persuaded to drop their objections on the grounds that, if nothing else, the Russian-Saudi deal would keep Russian S-300 missile systems out of Iranian and Syrian hands.

In any case, the S-400 missiles will not reach Saudi Arabia any time soon. Deliveries will take years and meanwhile, Riyadh will still have need of French-made munitions.

As for Israel, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's mind was set at rest by the personal pledge to withhold the S-300 missiles from Iran which he received from his opposite number Vladimir Putin during their talks in Moscow on Sept. 7.

Obama has added another twist to the circular arms deal. He has rewarded France by arranging for Russia to purchase a French helicopter-carrier.

That was how Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin came to inform the Echo of Moscow radio on Sept. 19: “We are carrying out negotiations for the purchase of the Mistral naval ship.”

The deal should be in the bag this month, according to sources in Paris. The vessel which can carry 16 heavy helicopters, 470 airborne troops and other gear should net the French treasury 700 million euros ($995 million) and sweep away any objections Paris might have to the Obama administration's ongoing door-opening moves for Moscow at the expense of the French arms industry.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly's strategic analysts stress that opening Saudi Arabia up for Russian arms exporters to compete for arms contracts worth $7-10 billion is just the beginning; the Obama administration plans to open up the entire Gulf market to Moscow. Kuwait and Qatar are already Russia's customers. But if the S-400 deal goes through with Riyadh, the rest of the Persian Gulf will follow suit and go shopping for prime Russian missiles and other weapons.

Exacerbating the Russian-Iranian bone of contention over the Caspian

These transactions would bring thousands of Russian military advisers and instructors flooding into the Gulf region in their wake and pave the way for the establishment of Russian naval bases there too. President Obama appears to be willing to grant Russia its historically-coveted warm water ports, the biggest prize he could offer the Kremlin, beyond even giving up US missile shield bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

This would be meant as a short cut to trust and the speedy melting of obstacles in the way of a close and active strategic understanding over common goals.

The Obama administration's decision to play the odds with Moscow rests on certain assumptions:

1. The Russian arms industry will lose its appetite for markets and influence in Iran after netting much bigger customers in the Gulf, with Washington opening the door to Saudi Arabia. The US president hopes thereby to buy Moscow's active role in spinning a web of isolation around Iran. This tactic has superseded sanctions, a term which has given way in Obamaspeak to “isolation” and “pressure track.”

2. The US administration is developing the Caspian region as its second joint anti-Iran front with Moscow. This too is a radical break with the past. The US and Russia traditionally compete, often bitterly, for footholds in Caspian Sea littoral states, through the leasing of military bases and efforts to control the gas and pipelines crisscrossing the region. Washington now proposes to cool the contest and develop cooperative ties with Moscow on a state-by-state basis, particularly over Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

Russia and Iran are natural rivals in this region, competitors for control of the Caspian Sea and its rich resources. A large Russian naval fleet cruises in the Caspian Sea; Moscow controls 90 percent of all maritime shipping in this strategic inland water and dominates its fishing grounds. Moscow wants to keep it this way and Washington will be glad to lend it a helping hand and further exacerbate Russian-Iranian differences in the Caspian.

Russian special ops raids could ease US burdens in Afghanistan

3. The administration is looking forward to Moscow very soon expanding its support for the US-led international war effort in Afghanistan. Russian ports and airfields are already available for transporting supplies to US forces in Afghanistan and a start has been made on the transmission of Russian intelligence to Washington. Now, the Americans want the Russians to apply direct military pressure on Taliban and al Qaeda forces by sending special operations units based in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on covert cross-border raids against their forces.

Those raids, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources, staged in Northern, Central, and Eastern Afghanistan, would immensely relieve the burden weighing on US and Pakistani commanders and troops by forcing the enemy to fight on a third front.

In late 2001, when the Bush-Putin understanding over the war on Islamist terror was still going strong, Russian and Uzbek armored divisions took part secretly in the US invasion of Afghanistan. Nine years later, the Obama administration aims at reviving this military cooperation between the two powers and bringing it to the same level.

This would make sense were it not for the Obama administration's lack of clear direction on its objectives for Afghanistan. Hopes for NATO partners to contribute more troops proved hollow, partly for that very reason, and Moscow too may hold back on support until Obama comes up with a coherent, practicably strategy for conducting and winding down the conflict. Above all, he needs to stop the war's goals sliding back and forth between keeping America safe from terror and nation-building for the Afghan people.

NATO secretary is all in favor of co-opting Russia

The budding US-Russian alliance surfaced briefly in public last week when the new NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in Washington, remarked that practical cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan, Iran and the broader Middle East was both necessary and possible, a conclusion he shared following a recent visit to Russia. “That view is not rooted in any belief in the angelic intentions of Vladimir Putin, which certainly do not exist,” said Rasmussen, “but in Russia's unavoidable self-interest in working its way out of economic peril and political irrelevance.”

Echoing Margaret Thatcher's assessment of Mikhail Gorbachev, Rasmussen, who is a former prime minister of Denmark, estimated that “the outside world can influence the Russian leadership.” He promised to pursue “a dual track” of firmness on NATO core missions and openness to cooperation on “new threats we all face,” especially transnational terrorism.

The NATO secretary added a comment on the Netanyahu-Putin interview in Moscow of Sept. 7:

“Coupling that move with private but serious understandings between Russian and Israeli leaders on Iran could provide a foundation stone for a new global security architecture,” he said.

4. The early steps the Americans and Russians have made toward working together on Iran and in other global arenas have already rendered Beijing's cooperation in the Middle East extraneous although it is still necessary for dealing with North Korea. Washington can also manage without the help of most European Union countries, the exceptions being Germany and France.

This is the background to the consent of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a close friend and ally of Vladimir Putin, to bringing forward the delivery to Israel of two submarines following an American request.

The submarines, which put in to an Israeli port last week, raised to five the size of the Israeli Navy’s fleet of U212 Dolphin-class submarines, which are capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles having a 1500 km range.

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