The Russian Ministry of Defense did not wait long to deliver its promised S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria. On the night of October 3, a huge An-124 Ruslan transport plane unloaded four mobile launchers, radars and command vehicles at Russia’s local Khmeimim airbase. This demonstrative step was taken in response to the downing of a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft by a Syrian missile on September 17, which—as Moscow claims—was triggered by the Israeli air strike on a target close to the Russian base. While presented as a “gift” to the al-Assad regime, this deployment amounts to a significant surge in the three-year-old Russian military intervention in Syria. The more advanced S-400 missiles are already protecting Khmeimin, and a battery of S-300s provides cover for the Russian naval facility in Tartus, so the arrival of new launchers makes little difference in and of itself. However, Moscow now seeks to build an integrated air/missile-defense system covering most of Western Syria, which is a tall strategic order (RBC, September 24; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 3).
This surge goes clearly against President Vladimir Putin’s desire to minimize the Russian military presence and exposure to risks in Syria, while maximizing Moscow’s influence. He has several times declared “victory” in the Syrian war and repeatedly announced reductions in the Russian military grouping. This time, he also initially tried to explain away the Il-20 calamity as precipitated by a “chain of tragic circumstances” (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 18). The top brass, however, insisted upon and prevailed with putting the blame squarely on Israel, partly in order to cover up their own blunders in that tactical situation, but mostly to try to regain the strategic initiative in executing the stalled intervention (Novaya Gazeta, September 28).
Putin seeks to dispel the impression that he has given in to pressure from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his generals by keeping his conversation with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu going (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 26). Yet, the high-level dialogue cannot eliminate the real driver of the conflict, in which neither Russia nor Israel is interested (Russiancouncil.ru, September 26).