Commentary from J.L. Granatstein

Dispatches from the Russian fronts

by J. L. Granatstein

National Post
April 14, 2015

It was a week like any other on the Russian fronts. The government of Vladimir Putin announced that it was completing the $800 million sale of S-300 air defence missiles to Iran, a deal that had been on hold for five years as part of the nuclear sanctions against Tehran. But now, with a “deal” on the parameters of a nuclear agreement sealed, Moscow has permitted the deal to go ahead. It’s a defensive system, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said, and a threat to no one. Iran needs to upgrade its defences, given the troubled region in which it lives. The sale “was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in the (nuclear) talks,” Lavrov said.

Good will indeed. The difficulty with this sale is, first, that it blows a huge hole in the sanctions that ought to have been kept in place until Iran agrees to a final deal to slow its nuclear development. Secondly, the S-300 surface-to-air system works all too well and makes air operations by anything other than stealth aircraft (such as the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 or F-22 aircraft) almost impossible. Israeli Air Force F-15 and F-16 aircraft would be unlikely to be able to penetrate Iranian air defences once the S-300s are operating — all of which makes an Israeli strike at Iran’s nuclear installations likely sooner rather than later. There have also been suggestions that the Russians are thinking about selling Iran an even more effective surface-to-air missile system.

For its part, the U.S. warned Iran that the possibility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear development facilities was only temporarily off the table. “We have the capability to shut down, set back and destroy the Iranian nuclear program and I believe the Iranians know that and understand that,” Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said, referring to the USAF’s most powerful ground-penetrating bomb, the massive ordnance penetrator. The 13,600-kilogram MOP — which can explode 60 metres underground and is designed to destroy deeply buried and fortified targets — is ready for use, Carter said. If American aircraft — there are only 20 B-2 bombers able to carry the MOP — can penetrate the Iranian air defence systems, that is. The U.S. apparently has not given MOPs to Israel as yet.

Meanwhile, an USAF RC-135U aircraft, designed to collect technical intelligence on Russian radar emitter systems, likely from Moscow’s Kaliningrad military bases, was flying in international waters north of Poland when it was buzzed by an SU-27 Russian Air Force interceptor. This sparked U.S. protests: “Unprofessional air intercepts have the potential to cause harm to all aircrews involved. More importantly, the careless actions of a single pilot have the potential to escalate tensions between countries,” a Pentagon spokesman said.

And last week a 120-vehicle convoy with 1,400 U.S. troops from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment returned to their bases in Germany after completing an 1,800-km trek through Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and the Czech Republic to show the flag and demonstrate Washington’s support and commitment to its Eastern European NATO allies. Reports from U.S. sources had cheering crowds waving the Stars and Stripes on highway overpasses as the Stryker armoured personnel carriers rolled by. Russian news sources, however, highlighted protests in Prague against the Americans and NATO with a “Tanks? No thanks!’ campaign against the U.S. convoy, calling it “an unnecessary and dangerously provocative military manoeuvre, which (may) only increase international tension.”

And Canada did its bit in this escalating crisis, too. With fighting ramping up once more in eastern Ukraine as spring weather takes hold, Ottawa announced that it would send some 200 army trainers to work alongside British and U.S. soldiers trying to upgrade the Ukrainian army’s skills. The deployment will last into 2017. The trainers would add to the Canadian soldiers already in Europe where an infantry company of the Royal Canadian Regiment has been participating in NATO-sponsored exercises. But it was not all escalation this week. The Royal Canadian Air Force’s 11-month-long deployment of CF-18 fighters to Eastern Europe ended when the last four jets flew back to Canada after service in Romania, Poland and the Baltic states.

What seems clear is that Putin has changed the game. The Russians are pressing hard against their borders, continuing to support the insurgents in the Donbas region of Ukraine and stepping up their pressure on the Baltic republics. They are rebuilding their military quickly and selling advanced weaponry to nations that can pay cash. And NATO and its friends are responding. The temperature is rising in what was just another week in the new Cold War. It might not take more than a spark or two to set off a conflagration.

J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.


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