Russia’s S-400 diplomacy: Moscow deploys air defense system to Crimea

The S-400 deployment should be seen as part of Russia’s military-diplomacy. Russia is selling the S-400 abroad and it has already signed contracts in Turkey, China and India.

November 28, 2018 10:05
3 minute read.
Russia’s S-400 diplomacy: Moscow deploys air defense system to Crimea

The Russian small anti-submarine ship Suzdalets fires a missile during a rehearsal for the Navy Day parade in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Crimea, July 27, 2017. (photo credit: PAVEL REBROV/REUTERS)


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In the wake of the Kerch Straits crises, where Russia detained three Ukrainian navy boats after claiming they entered Russian territorial waters, Moscow now may deploy the S-400 air defense system to Crimea. The S-400 could be operational in the tense area by the end of the year. The deployment is part of a larger Moscow strategy that sees the S-400, and its less advanced cousin the S-300, as a form of military-diplomacy to carve out a sphere of influence from Damascus to the Don.

RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, reported on Wednesday that the latest version of the S-400 would be sent to Crimea by the end of the year. This was according to Vadim Astafyev, the head of the press service of the Southern Military District. The deployment of the defensive system comes in the wake of rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia. On Monday Ukrainian naval vessels tried to enter the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait and came into contact with Russian coast guard. Ukraine borders the Sea of Azov but ships must navigate the Kerch Straits via the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

Navigation of the Kerch straits is controversial because Ukraine asserts that they have a right to sail into the Sea of Azov while Russia says it may stop and check ships entering its territorial waters. Russian jets buzzed the straits this week and Russia stopped the Ukrainian vessels in an unprecedented clash that has caused alarm at NATO, in the EU and at the UN. Ukraine declared martial law in provinces bordering Russia and Crimea. Ukraine and Russia are already at odds over two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas where low level fighting has taken place since 2014.

Increasing Russian military presence in Crimea with the S-400 would be a message to Ukraine and the West. Russia already has its large Black Sea Fleet based at Savastopol in Crimea. Moscow’s Sputnik news claimed on Wednesday morning that a US “spy plane” was spotted off the coast of Crimea.

The S-400 deployment should be seen as part of Russia’s military-diplomacy. Russia is selling the S-400 abroad and it has already signed contracts in Turkey, China and India, according to Russian media. It is also seeking to sell the system to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq and Morocco. Some of these countries are US allies, so Moscow’s deeper message is that the S-400 is a symbol of Russian military power. The more places it can be sent to show off Russia’s power, the more countries will look to Moscow as a guarantor of their security. That is why Russia’s Sputnik runs glowing reports about this “unique” defense system.

For instance Russia has the S-400 system to guard its Khmeimim air base in Syria. It also sent the S-300 to Syria in October in the wake of an Israeli air strikes in northern Syria in which Syrian air defense mistakenly shot down a Russian aircraft. Russian diplomats claimed sending the S-300 to Syria would make the region more “stable.” But Russian media says something else, Sputnik says it is a “message sent to the US and Israel.” Russia is also sending a message to its Syrian regime ally that Moscow will stick by it. In early November Russia warned against “hot heads” provoking Syria, a warning that appeared directed at Jerusalem.

Russia is also increasingly partnering with Turkey. For years during the Syrian civil war the relations between Moscow and Ankara were frigid because Turkey was backing the Syrian opposition against Russia’s ally. But then things began to warm as Turkey, Russia and Iran met numerous times to discuss de-escalation in Syria. Russia saw this as an opportunity to leverage Turkey away from the US and NATO. A report in Moscow’s Tass news agency on November 22 notes that Ankara is “looking forward to getting the first batch of Russia’s air defense systems S-400.”  Turkey appeared to say that it could buy US Patriot missile defense as well. “Turkey never relies on the sole proposal it has,” said Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

So far the S-400 military-diplomacy has worked. It is primarily diplomacy because the system hasn’t been used in a war scenario. It’s designed to deter any such war from happening. For instance, once Turkey has the system that would reduce the chances of Syria and Turkey clashing in northern Syria where Turkey has sent troops into several areas. In Syria Russia also hopes deployment of the S-300 will reduce tensions. In Crimea, in Moscow’s estimate, the system might warn off any thoughts Ukraine might have that the Kerch Strait clashes will lead to something more serious.

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