The recent decree signed by President Medvedev canceling the sale of the S-300 surface to air missiles has raised some questions about decision-making in the Russian government about arms exports. Analysts who spend their time looking for tensions in the Russian “tandemocracy” have suggested that this decision is a sign that President Medvedev was able to get his way on this issue against the wishes of Prime Minister Putin. Other interpretations indicated that Iranian behavior in recent years or months led Putin to change his mind on the sale, which he supported since the initial decision was made several years ago. In this interpretation, in signing the decree Medvedev was simply doing what he was told by his “superior.”
I don’t think these are the only two options. I have always been skeptical of interpretations that depend on finding disagreements between Medvedev and Putin. At the same time, I don’t think Medvedev is Putin’s puppet. My interpretation of the Russian top leadership is that decisions are made largely by consensus among the 4-5 top people, with Putin acting as first among equals and in some ways the arbitrator/final decision-maker. This was true when he was president and hasn’t changed much in the current environment. In this light, Putin doesn’t have to have completely changed his mind, nor did he get rolled by Medvedev. Perhaps his view became less strong and the views of enough other players changed that the consensus moved in a different direction. Obviously I don’t have evidence that this is how decisions are made in the Kremlin right now, but there is some reasonable evidence that this is how it was done back in 2007. I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that much has changed.
As far as the specifics of the S-300 decision, I don’t think the Russian leaders were ever all that strongly committed to selling the S-300 to Iran. I think that to some extent, it was always partially a bargaining chip that was used against the U.S. in moments when relations were problematic. So from that point of view, it’s possible that Putin didn’t change his mind at all, but the circumstances changed sufficiently that the balance between Russia’s bilateral relationships with the U.S. and Iran changed sufficiently that it became worthwhile to publicly shift positions on this sale. This would mean that U.S. policies toward Russia were bearing fruit.
This interpretation is supported by the breadth of the presidential decree, which prohibits the sale of virtually all military technology to Iran. Russian analysts estimate the total cost to Russian arms exporters of leaving the Iranian market to be around 11-13 billion dollars, of which the S-300 sale was just 800 million. If Russia just wanted to make a gesture toward the U.S., it would have been sufficient to ban the sale of the missiles while leaving other military cooperation intact. The fact that all military sales were banned implies that this is more than a gesture — it implies that Russian leaders have decided that they need to have much better relations with the United States and also with Israel. One possibility is that they hope that this change in policy will remove any remaining roadblocks to the Russian purchase of sensitive military technologies from the West. The Mistral deal is undoubtedly part of this calculus, but so is the purchase of more advanced UAVs from Israel.