Russian army. Illustration
Russian army. Illustration Reuters

Russia’s surprise announcement it was reinstating its sale of S-300 missiles to Iran caught many observers off guard. It was not clear what the primary motivation was for the Russians in reinstating a sale that the United States and Israel had lobbied so hard against several years ago, so soon after the negotiated framework agreement with Iran. Was it to humiliate President Barack Obama? Was it to reassert Russian influence in the world? Was it to destabilize the talks entirely?

Is Russia trying to influence the final outcome of the negotiations, perhaps derail them? Does it feel this helps the Iranian position or does Moscow have some reason to make the US demand a harder bargain?

We put some of those questions to Olena Bagno-Moldavsky from the Institute for National Security Studies, who specializes in Russian affairs.

“Russia benefits from the negotiations for several reasons: A) participation in negotiations 'normalizes' Russia’s international position that has been weakened in the aftermath of the events in Ukraine in 2014. B) The Russian economy will benefit from the lifting of international sanctions [on Iran], and the S-300 purchase is the first sign of this. C) If a solution for Iran is not found, Russia will benefit anyways because it will retain its position as one of the major economic partners for Iran.”

The Russians are in a no-lose situation, being perfectly positioned to expand its exclusive influence in Tehran if the negotiations fail, but standing to gain even more economically if sanctions are removed.

“Bottom-line: Russia benefits from these negotiations and from their final outcome. It is only a matter of how much Russia will win at the end.”

It is at this point in her analysis that Bagno-Moldavsky hints to an answer for Moscow’s primary reason to antagonize the world.

“However, it will get less in the long run if sanctions are lifted and Iran opens up for Western businesses.”

Many European (and American) enterprises would see tremendous industrial potential in an open Iran. It would also add competition to a now-limited international market of investors. However, if sanctions remained in place then relatively few countries would still be competing with each other.

Russia and Iran; Israel and Ukraine?

Should Israel consider retaliating in the meantime? When the question was put to Azriel Bermant several days ago, he said it would antagonize the Russians and work against Israeli interests very quickly. Bagno-Moldavsky agreed.

“Israel will potentially lose more than it may gain from selling UAVs [to Ukraine}. Israel did not join the West in condemning Russia's actions in 2014, and it will not gain much economically from selling UAVs to Ukraine because the country (Ukraine) is in a situation near default.”

She refers to a moment where Israel chose to abstain from a vote on Russia’s invasion of Crimea and opted for neutrality instead. While some suggested at the time the United States was furious with Israel for this, others said still that it was quite clear to Western leaders that Israel did not feel it was in a secure enough position to be so outwardly anti-Russian.

It is not only that Ukraine would have little to offer financially to Israel, but also is in danger of suing for peace. As the country struggles to stabilize following its soft revolution last year, the rebel war effort (which is supported by Russia) is hampering the country’s economic prospects. In the long term, Israel will also have to contend with a vengeful Russia. Even if Netanyahu can find ways to undermine Obama’s policies, he should not think he can do the same with Vladimir Putin.

“Putin remains in the Kremlin for the observable future, while the US leadership will soon change. Europe and the United States are interested in cooperation with Russia; they do not need a second Cold War. Their economies will not benefit from it and their electorate does not support it.”

“Taken all these considerations together, Israel should not sell UAVs.”

Bagno-Moldavsky thinks Israel’s best bet is to invest in its soft power, as tempting and satisfying as giving Kiev tools of war might be. Israel can offer extensive amounts of medical aid and non-combatant expertise.

“On the other hand, it can get involved by providing humanitarian aid and experts (that will benefit Israel's position in the long run).

What Israel should understand is that Russia is trying to insert itself wherever it can, particularly with a country which might soon become a boom market for foreign investors. That takes on extra importance in light of intensive European sanctions against Moscow, limiting that country’s own options.

“There is no doubt,” says Bagno-Moldavsky, that “Russia will try to use every opportunity to get as much as possible from this bargain. It is one of few opportunities that Russia currently has [now].”

That being said, the Europeans are still hamstrung on taking Russia to task for announcing this deal when they did, as the desire to keep things open with Russia has European powers more eager to roll back sanctions on Moscow than to advance them ever further.

“The EU differentiates between the Iranian and Russian-Ukrainian [issues].” It is unlikely that Iran will be the source for new European sanctions on the Russians, says Bagno-Moldavsky.

“Sanctions imposed on Russia do not directly depend on the Iranian bargain,” she says. She points to recent events on the ground in Ukraine as providing possible justification for intensified European embargos against the Russian economy. Even if they are not coincidental happening the same week as the S-300 deal, Europe is far more politically invested in Kiev than competing with Tehran.

“Sanctions can be increased if Russia escalates the situation in Ukraine in May, and it looks like there has been an escalation in the last 3-5 days. But, it is too early to predict the EU reaction.”