TBILISI, Georgia—As the Kremlin lifts its ban on the delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran, and as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claims the air defense systems “will not put at risk the security of any state in the region, including Israel,” a palpable irony hangs in the air here. For years, Russia has been using S-300 missiles to dominate the skies and to threaten Georgia within her own territory.
In an interview with The Daily Beast on Monday, a senior U.S. Marine Corps aviator said that if Russia delivered the S-300 missile to Iran, it would fundamentally change U.S. war plans. “I find it almost hilarious that the Russians are saying, ‘It’s an entirely defensive system and cannot attack anyone, including Israel,’” the officer said. And the Georgians definitely aren’t laughing.
Russia is now using airspace as another front in its new brand of so-called hybrid warfare. Airspace violations are nothing new, of course. Yet just as the Kremlin is prone to violating the territorial integrity of its neighbors with “little green men,” it has used the S-300 to begin a campaign of violating its neighbors’ “air sovereignty.”
A hint of what that development can mean came last July when Flight MH17 with 298 people aboard was hit by a Russian-made Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile. The main difference between the Buk-M1 and the S-300 surface-to-air missile is that the S-300 is vastly more powerful and more deadly.
This causes particular concern for NATO countries like the Baltics, which do not have their own sophisticated air defenses or fighter jets. Meanwhile, just south of them in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Russian President Vladimir Putin has deployed a more advanced version of the S-300 missile system, the S-400, threatening Poland as well as the Baltics. Putin has sent S-300 missile systems to Crimea and just about every breakaway Russia region on the map. This is not to protect those regions, of course. The point of the S-300 is to project power and achieve armed tactical control over the airspace of those territories.
First deployed by the Soviets in 1979 with land and sea variants, the S-300 missile system (NATO codename SA-10 Grumble) once again is being used by Russia to test NATO for weaknesses and to undermine the resolve of the alliance. The vehicular mobility of the S-300 system—like its Western counterpart, the MIM-104 Patriot—makes the missiles particularly effective and dangerous for aircraft because the systems don’t remain at fixed locations.
For Georgia, which is not a NATO member despite a decade-plus of trying, Russia takes this air sovereignty violation campaign to a whole new level. The Kremlin has positioned—or maintains the ability to position—S-300 missiles at three locations: Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia’s two Russian-occupied breakaway regions, and Russia’s 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia.
As Georgian Journal recently reported, “The Russian aerial defense forces have the potential of inflicting paralyzing damage to Georgia’s territorial integrity.” The result is a kind of “reverse Iron Dome” over Georgia, giving Putin almost absolute control of the country’s airspace. This in itself proves that the S-300 systems are not “defensive” weapons, regardless of Putin’s assurances to Israel. Just because they are “anti-aircraft” weapons does not make them “defensive.” Russia uses these missiles for the outright dominance of its neighbors’ skies, which is why Israel, the Gulf states, and Turkey should be worried about Iran receiving them.
Putin has learned quite a lot from the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine. If Russia can achieve the same airspace domination of a NATO country as it has of Georgia, then not only can Russia attack, but it can also impose an aviation embargo or a no-fly zone. It is these new forms of warfare that Putin is most interested in. The ability to take out a NATO country’s entire airspace without entering its territory—without technically attacking it—is his goal here. This way Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty, which states that an armed attack against one or more NATO members is an attack against them all, is not invoked. But Article 5 doesn’t mention “air sovereignty,” and Putin knows that few NATO members will be ready to go to war over something that ambiguous.
Introducing the S-300 missile system into Iran’s arsenal will affect the entire Middle East. It will shake alliances. Putin views the S-300 system as a means for power projection, and that is exactly what he is selling to Iran.