What brought about Russian President Vladimir Putin decision Monday, April 13 to lift the ban on the delivery to Iran of $800m worth of S-300 air defense missiles, and forge ahead with Moscow’s $20bn oil-for-goods barter deal with Tehran?
The Kremlin tried to defend this action by claiming that “the US understanding of the Lausanne framework deal foresees a lifting of sanctions backed by a potential new resolution on conventional and ballistic weapons sales to Iran.”
However, the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the six powers (including Russia) are still in progress and the sanctions imposed by the US, Europe and the UN are still in place – and binding on all six powers. So the use of the tentative Lausanne framework as the pretext to justify Putin’s actions does not hold water. His actions in relation to Iran were manifestly premature.
But he had his reasons, which are discussed here by DEBKA Weekly’s Moscow sources.
His first object was to pre-empt the start of US supplies of lethal weapons to the Ukraine government after becoming convinced that they are imminent.
The Russian leader repeatedly cautioned Washington that arming Kiev with US offensive weapons would bring forth matching Russian steps inimical to US interests in Europe and other parts of the world.
He conveyed this warning in several conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, as well as putting it on the table of meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Now he saw indications that his warning had gone unheeded.
Extensive Western military training programs in Ukraine
On March 19, the BBC reported that 35 British military instructors had started training members of the Ukrainian army fighting pro-Russian insurgents. They were said to be working in the southern city of Mykolaiv for the next two months, and also training forces in eastern Ukraine in “medicine and defensive tactics” as well giving them “non-lethal equipment.”
On March 24, a US training program for 750 Ukrainian troops was supposed to begin. Washington postponed it so as not upset peace negotiations with Russia. But the project was switched back on again, according to a White House statement which followed a conversation between Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko.
Training is due to begin early next month.
About 290 servicemen of the US 173 Airborne Brigade are due to arrive in western Ukraine in late April to train three battalions of the Ukrainian National Guard.
Monday, April 14, Canada announced that 200 military instructors would set out for Ukraine to train soldiers for combat against pro-Russian forces. They are expected to join US and British military instructors in a joint mission for western Ukraine early this summer and remain till March 31, 2017.
In the first week of April, the Yavoriv army training center near the town of Lvov was formally designated NATO’s training center in Ukraine.
Putin acts against Ukraine’s creeping NATO association
Seen from Moscow, these developments are unacceptable on three counts:
1. By annexing the Crimean Peninsula last March and arming the pro-Russian secessionists of eastern Ukraine, Putin hoped to deter Ukraine from joining NATO and prevent Western alliance troops taking up positions up against the Russian border. From his standpoint, Western forces in Ukraine are the first step in the country’s creeping association with NATO.
2. Putin is convinced that these training programs, which are bringing droves of Western military personnel into Ukraine are preparing the way for an influx of lethal weapons for the Ukraine army from the West,
An arms race is becoming unavoidable, with the West arming Kiev and Moscow, the separatists of Donetsk.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said in an interview run on April 8 by the Rossiskaya Gazeta daily: “We know that hundreds of US and NATO servicemen are planning to come to Ukraine to train the National Guard. The training camps are set up not only in western Ukraine but also in other parts of the country. This is a dangerous process. We are pushing for all foreign and illegal military units to be removed from Ukraine, Karasin said.
Congress approves US lethal weapons for Ukraine
Then, in Washington Monday, April 13, the House overwhelmingly approved (348 to 48) a resolution urging President Barack Obama to send lethal weapons to Ukraine “to protect its sovereignty in its fight against Russian-backed rebels.”
According to the State Department, administration officials are waiting to see whether the agreements that led to the February Ukraine ceasefire are being implemented, before deciding on lethal military assistance to Kiev.
The Russian president is reading all these steps as indicating that American arms are already on the way to Ukraine.
3. He is also convinced that Washington will take advantage of this arms route to install advanced American missile batteries and radar stations in Ukraine, as elements of the US missile shield program already in place in Poland, Romania, Hungary and Turkey.
Putin regards the US missile shield in Europe as a casus belli for Russia. Preemptively terminating the S-300 missile embargo for Tehran was just the opening shot of retaliation he has in store for the West’s unfolding involvement in Ukraine.