Why was the S-300 canceled?

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.

6 thoughts on “Why was the S-300 canceled?

  1. Russia doesn’t need ‘much better’ relations with Israel. No sane leader would trade billions of dollars in contracts for drones. Russia’s national security doesn’t depend on drones. It is a minor part of re-armament program.

  2. “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”

    I completely agree (although time will change the relative balance of decision-making). In my opinion Russia has been run by the same team since 2000; the team may have been put together by Putin (but we don’t really know) but I see a consistency with program and execution since 2000.
    And, I recommend that the Kommentariat take a look at the Anatoliy Sobchak connection. We now have two Russian presidents in a row who have said that Sobchak “formed them”.
    See http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2010/02/russian-federation-weekly-sitrep-1.html#more
    Maybe Sobchak put the Team together.
    It’s a possibility that should be examined.

    We do know that the Team has a very long-term plan. See Charles Heberle’s account of some of that plan

  3. Excellent analysis. I agree that decisions are made in a larger context than simply one man issuing orders to his puppet as many believe. President Medvedev at the same time has grown in the position and is much more independent in his thinking, yet the tandem seems to remain united in focus and vision for the future of Russia. That being said, it appears for now that they’ll enter the next election cycle in the same roles for another term.

  4. Two slight issues, first in that military technical cooperation between Iran and Russia is still there to some degree according to Ryabkov, just within the limits laid out by the UN (which were not exhaustive). So that rather than gestures or desires S-300 may be an obligation for Russia after the US stopped pushing missile defence in Europe.

    Secondly the cleared sale of Yakhont to Syria and the reaction to Isreali concerns says little for good Russian-Isreali relations or drones being a nessecity.

  5. Losing S-300 as “bargaining chip” was huge error!
    Russia has lost much more in her prestige world-wide(let alone financially) than that will ever gain from the West in gratitude.
    Just another failed foreign policy move from president Medvedev to try to distinct himself from PM Putin and please the West…

    West is now supporting Medvedev fully in his actions, be cause those actions at the moment defend more Western than Russian interests.
    Yet despite all that Western support PM Putin will be next President.
    After elections in 2012 all the errors will be corrected.
    And I don’t see Medvedev playing any significant role in Russian politics in the future except honorary ones.

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