YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin dismissed criticism of Russian arms sales to Damascus on Tuesday but said Moscow had not yet delivered the S-300 missiles that Western governments say could prolong Syria’s civil war.
Putin defended Russia’s stance on Syria after talks with European Union leaders, criticizing them for not extending an embargo on member states selling weapons to Syrian rebels and warning against any foreign military intervention in Syria.
But he left the door open to diplomacy as Russia and the United States try to bring the warring sides together for an international peace conference, saying the S-300 missiles had not yet been sent to President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
“As for the S-300, it is really one of the best defense systems in the world, if not the best. This is, of course, a serious weapon,” Putin told a news conference with EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg.
But he added: “We do not want to disturb the balance in the region. The contract was signed several years ago. It has not been fulfilled yet.”
Putin gave no indication that Russia would abandon the contract - he said Russian arms deals with Syria were transparent and violated no international laws.
He also gave no indication that Moscow was about to alter its stance on Assad. Although it says it does not tie Syria’s future to the fate of one man, Russia has resisted Western governments’ calls for his removal from power and said his exit must not be a precondition for a peace process.
Some Western diplomats have suggested Moscow might not deliver the S-300s, or delay the shipment, and use them as a bargaining chip as it tries to ensure its voice is heard in efforts to end more than two years of bloodshed in Syria.
The S-300 is designed to shoot down planes and missiles at 125-mile (200-km) ranges. It could significantly enhance Syria’s Russian-supplied defenses, military experts say, and improve Assad’s chances of holding out against the rebel forces.
Russia has suggested the S-300 surface-to-air missiles are needed to discourage the West from arming the rebels. Western governments say the delivery of the advanced systems would undermine faith in Moscow’s commitment to peace moves.
Moscow, which has been Assad’s most powerful protector throughout the conflict, and Washington have been trying to arrange an international conference involving the rival sides in Geneva. But no date has been set and there is no final agreement on the lineup.
Putin reiterated Russian criticism of the EU failure to extend its arms embargo on Syria.
“I will not hide the fact that this disappointed us,” he said. “Any attempts to influence the situation by using force, direct military intervention, are doomed to failure and would unavoidably have serious humanitarian consequences.”
EU leaders say member states have undertaken not to take any decision on delivering arms to Syrian rebels before August, and some diplomats say Moscow appears to have deliberately ignored this agreement in public statements.
Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Angus MacSwan