* Wikileaks cables show Russia said it would not sell S-300
* Russia similarly "froze" S-300 sale to Iran
* But linked Iran sale to progress on missile defence in
By Tom Miles
GENEVA, June 3 Russia's pledge to deliver
anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus at a time when world powers
are trying to end Syria's civil war is consistent with a pattern
of using the weapons system as a bargaining chip in its power
struggle with the West.
Russia has said it is committed to sell the S-300
surface-to-air missiles as a deterrent against foreign military
intervention, under a contract struck in 2010 with President
But Western powers who are trying, along with Russia, to
organise an international conference to end the 26-month-old
conflict say such a delivery would be hugely counter-productive.
"No one knows if this conference will become a success, but
it is the wrong message which has been sent by Russia to the
world and to the region by delivering S-300 or other weapons,"
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Friday.
Secret WikiLeaks cables show that Russia has played this
game before, in particular with the long-range S-300 that
Israel, for one, sees as a "red line" threat to its airspace.
Russia's determination to supply Syria mirrors an earlier
commitment to Iran, though it long assured diplomats it had no
intention of sending S-300s to either country, the cables show.
Russia was well aware of the "destabilising" effect of
supplying weapons like the S-300 to the Middle East, one
September 2008 cable quoted Viktor Simakov, Counselor for Israel
and Palestine in Russia's Foreign Ministry, as saying.
"Simakov reiterated that Russia understood very well
Israel's concern about either Syria or Iran obtaining the
Iskander or S-300 missile systems," the cable said.
Syria had upset Russia by allowing an earlier delivery of
anti-tank missiles to fall into the hands of militant Islamist
group Hezbollah, and Russia promised tighter "end user controls"
Syria tried to obtain missiles in 2008 by offering to host
Russia's own missile defences on its territory, matching U.S.
missile defences in Europe that Russia objects to. Although
Russia did sign a contract in 2010, it did not then agree;
Israel's promise not to sell arms to Georgia during the
Georgia-Russia war that August may have outweighed Syria's
Speculation was mounting in late 2008 that Russia was
planning to honour its 2005 contract to supply S-300s to Iran.
But Russian officials assured the U.S. charge d'affaires in
Moscow that the transfer would not be completed until Iran
complied with its nuclear obligations, according to one cable.
But by early 2009, the sale looked like it was going to take
place, and Washington asked six allied Middle Eastern countries
to raise the issue immediately with Russia.
The move appeared to pay off, although then-U.S. Ambassador
to Moscow John Beyrle expected Russia to keep pressing the
issue, for financial, political and foreign policy reasons.
The Iran sale was merely "frozen", Deputy Foreign Minister
Sergei Ryabkov told U.S. Senator Carl Levin in 2009, and hinted
that Russia did not want to be challenged again.
"The less we hear from Washington about this, the better,"
an April 2009 cable quoted Ryabkov as saying.
Russian officials told Amos Gilad, at that time head of the
political-military bureau in Israel's Ministry of Defence, that
the missiles to Iran would not be delivered for political
"However, Gilad said the Russians would reassess this
political calculation should the United States continue to
pursue missile defense plans in Poland and the Czech Republic,"
said a cable dated July 30, 2009.
In the end, Russia scrapped the sale in 2010, and in what
may have been a quid pro quo, the Israelis agreed to sell Russia
surveillance drones that would narrow its technological military
gap with Georgia.
"For better or for worse, the delivery of S-300's have
become a barometer of our bilateral relations," Ambassador
Beyrle wrote in 2009.