German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s surprise visit to the White House on Feb. 9 was more than it seemed. The official word was that she came to brief US President Barack Obama on the Ukraine peace proposal, which she had drafted with the French, Russian and Ukrainian presidents and which evolved later into the ”Minsk accord.” But more urgently, she carried a warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Obama of the “heavy price” tag he would attach to Washington’s approval of arms for Ukraine.
In a word, Moscow would supply Iran, Syria and Egypt with high-class weaponry.
But the scrap between the two leaders was casting a shadow over all of Europe, as Merkel was well aware
Although Putin had signed off onto the Minks accord, he emphasized that he would keep up Russian military operations in eastern Ukraine so long as Ukrainian reinforcements continued to flow into the disputed regions.
The comments Obama made at his joint news conference with Merkel were clearly influenced by her message from Moscow.
He said he hadn’t decided yet whether to send arms to Ukrainian forces “defending their country against Russian-backed separatists” and he hadn’t yet set a deadline for when he will. He insisted it’s an option that should be considered if diplomacy fails, but “Any weapons the US sends would not be meant to help Ukraine defeat the Russian army in all-out battle,” Obama noted. “Our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry out offensive operations, but to simply defend itself.”
The German chancellor expanded on this point” “I’ve always said I don’t see a military solution to this conflict. “We have to put all our efforts into bringing about a diplomatic solution,” she said.
Putin fired up over Ukraine
Obama’s comments were obviously meant to pour oil on the troubled waters with Putin, equivocating on arms to Ukraine and noting they would be purely defensive.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources, the Russian leader and his advisers were not appeased or convinced of Obama’s good faith, especially after they received intelligence reports that the US had started sending small quantities of arms to the Ukrainian army, and forwarded bigger quantities to American bases in Europe, mainly Bulgaria and Romania, ready for Obama’s nod to send them on to Kiev.
Putin countered by setting preparations in train for supplying Iran, Syria and Egypt with advanced S-300 air defense missile systems capable of intercepting cruise missiles within an operational radius of 400 km.
In his warning to the White House, the Russian leader made it clear that the more sophisticated were the weapons the US gave Ukraine, the more Moscow would be inclined to attach military advisers to the nations receiving Russian arms, for guidance on methods for beating US American warplanes’ avionics and shooting them down.
The published Kremlin warning omitted these specifics: “American planes will encounter difficulties in operating in Middle East air space,” said a statement.
Russian S-300 systems for Iran, Egypt, Syria as payback for Obama
But meanwhile, in mid-January, as soon as Moscow received word of US preparations to arm Ukraine, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was dispatched to Tehran to sign a military cooperation pact with his hosts. In early February, sources in Moscow were directed by the president’s office to tell the media that “a step was taken in the direction of cooperation [with Iran] on the economy and arms technology, at least for such defense systems as the S-300 and S-400.”
On Feb. 15, at Moscow’s request, Iran’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan announced: “We seek formation of a kind of interaction with the Russian Federation in the new atmosphere.”
He was answering reporters’ questions about the long row over the S-300 air defense system, which Russian had long withheld from Tehran, in breach of a contract they signed in 2007.
Putin knew perfectly well that none of the prospective Middle East customers for advanced Russian weapons – Iran, Egypt and Syria – have cash to spare to cover the multi-billion dollar bills for their purchase.
Egypt was covered until recently by a Saudi pledge of funding for a large-scale arms transaction with Russia. But the pledge came from the late King Abdullah and the new monarch Salman has put it on hold until further notice.
The Kremlin demonstrates it is not without potency
But according to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, the Russian leader is so determined to punish Barack Obama that he may be willing to transfer these high grade and costly weapons systems into Middle East arsenals – even without financial arrangements – and in spite of the added burden to an economy already severely strained by Western sanctions.
He is telling the West that Russia may no longer be a superpower on a par with America, but it is not without potent resources of its own.
Putin also has it in for Europe – not just the Obama administration, and here he is in a position to scare his opponents by raising nuclear tensions.
One of Moscow’s options is to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) under which the US and former Soviet Union pulled back the land-based nuclear and conventional ballistic and cruise missiles deployed around Europe with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers.
Anyhow, the US accuses Russia of violating the INF pact. Ten Russian nuclear-capable Iskander missiles with a range of 400 kilometers have been moved to Kaliningrad, without informing Lithuania in advance.
If it withdrew from the INF pact, the next Russian step might be to announce the deployment in the strategic peninsula of nuclear missiles capable of reaching every part of Europe.
Moscow also charges Washington with INF violations, pointing to the American Aegis Ashore system to be deployed in Romania this year in place of the ballistic missile defense system previously planned by former President George W. Bush, which too the Russian leader strenuously opposed.
The Ukraine may be the hottest battlefield between Washington and Moscow, but the game rules of post-Cold War politics are changing fast and the damage is edging into much larger world arenas. Europe’s leaders are beginning to fear their continent might be caught up in the blows flying between the two world powers.