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Russian S-400 diplomacy and the future of the US alliance network

Russia is testing American alliances through sales of its military equipment.

August 6, 2019 - Cyrille Bret - Articles and Commentary

A S-400 Triumf during a Victory Day Anniversary Parade Rehearsal on May 9, 2009 in Moscow. Photo: UMNICK (cc) wikimedia.org

Since Donald Trump criticised NATO and cast doubt on US solidarity in the event of aggression against an ally, Russia has continuously tested the strength of transatlantic bonds as well as the determination of the European countries. Russia’s latest test on NATO is the sale to Turkey of S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missiles produced by the Russian state-owned Almaz-Antey company. The contract and the delivery have sparked ire and concern in the United States.

Why such a stir? The amount of weapons at stake are limited to four batteries. Moreover, those systems are defensive weapons aimed at defending against airstrikes. Yet, the geopolitical issue goes far beyond the industrial, financial and tactical framework of the recent Turkish-Russian contract. What is at stake is much more than market shares to be divided between Almaz-Antey and the US company Raytheon that produces PATRIOT batteries.

Over the last decade, Vladimir Putin has implemented a formidable S-400 diplomacy. This high-tech equipment is meant not only to redesign Russia’s national borders in Crimea and to rejuvenate traditional alliances with Belarus, China and Syria; most importantly, it used to distress the United States and to disrupt its alliances’ networks. In the field of anti-aircraft defence, the rivalry between the Russian S-400 Triumph and the American PATRIOT MIM-104 provides a good opportunity to strengthen its own alliance and to install division in the other side. Turkey is indeed not the only US ally to express interest in the S-400 systems. In 2018, Saudi Arabia and India officially considered the acquisition of batteries. This S-400 Diplomacy puts the US alliances at risk.

(Re)designing the national borders

The S-400 anti-aircraft defence system is a point of pride for the Russian military-industrial complex. Uniting high-performance radars and dozens of missiles that target different altitudes in one single easily deployable system, the S-400 batteries can intercept military aircraft (fighters, drones, helicopters) and missiles (ballistic and cruise) within 400 kilometres. The S-400 system makes an area largely impregnable by air. It embodies the Russia expertise in air defence.

Russia uses this system to protect its major cities and to reassert its sovereignty on remote strategic regions such as the Arctic in Murmansk and the Far East at Vladivostok. The deployment of such batteries in the Kaliningrad enclave shapes Russian policy in the Baltic: used as a wedge between two NATO States, the enclave is protected by the S-400 batteries

And beyond the internationally recognised borders of the Federation, Russia has installed S-400 batteries in Crimea to highlight its control of the Peninsula. It has been widely publicised by the Russian media, inside and outside the country.

On its own territory and on annexed Crimea, Russia uses S-400 batteries in order to redesign its borders, to reassert its control over several zones and to raise its level of protection against other air powers.

Rejuvenating traditional alliances

The S-400 trade is aimed at reassuring the Russian traditional allies against potential NATO interventions and US air power. For Russia’s friends, having these missile defence systems means benefiting from technology and being awarded a mark of trust. Belarus has obtained two batteries for free. When assessing the bonds between Russia and Belarus, it is of the utmost importance to keep in mind the dependence of the country on Russia air defence.

Similarly, China acquired several units in 2014 at the top of the diplomatic honeymoon between Beijing and Moscow. The priority was to deploy them around Central Asia and the Taiwan Strait to deter US strikes and to reduce US dominance in the air.

Russia’s Syrian ally indirectly benefited from these systems without having to buy them; in the wake of the Russian intervention in support of the Assad regime, Russian troops deployed two batteries in the country. The presence (or absence) of S-400 batteries is always a sign of the Russian interest in a region.

The positioning of such missiles on military theatres outside of Russia can significantly alter the geopolitical balance of power in a country and in a region. It helps to increase Russia’s weight in international relations. And it is designed to counter the US patriots’ export policy to allies such as Romania, Poland, Morocco, Japan and South Korea.

Divide and rule: in Europe and in India

Almaz-Antey’s highly competitive trade policy can shake up U.S. alliances. Especially at times when the US presidential administration publicly criticises its own allies.

It is not surprising that Iran or Algeria, Russia’s historical allies, are interested in the S-400. But, the fact that historic U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia, India and Iraq have announced their willingness to acquire S-400s has the potential to change the American position in the world. Saudi Arabia has been a major customer of Raytheon’s PATRIOT since the first Gulf War. And the prospect of US sanctions against India or Turkey is only a sign of weakness. In addition to that, it could even spur national pride and make these countries stick to their choice.

For the United States, the S-400 is a military, technological and strategic challenge. From an operational point of view, the S-400 can reduce the global US air supremacy. In Syria, as in Iran, they could prevent strikes, including by Tomahawk cruise missiles. From a technological point of view, the S-400 is perceived worldwide as a better anti-aircraft life insurance than patriot batteries, which are seen as too expensive; if Saudi Arabia and Iraq are interested, it is because they want to limit, at a lower cost, their dependence on technology from the United States. Finally, the commercial success of the S-400 raises a real geopolitical problem: American alliance networks are built on purchases of American defence equipment such as F35 fighters.

Today, the S-400 is gaining momentum everywhere: in the Russian network as well as with US alliances.

Cyrille Bret, PhD: current Associate Professor at the Higher Institute for Political Studies (Paris, France) and Director for Development of the Naval Group. Alumnus of Sorbonne University, the National Defence Academy of France, Moscow State University, and the National School of Government of France. He has worked in various positions, both in the public and the private sector. He is the creator of the site EurAsia Prospective, which contributes to the European geopolitical debates.

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