Vladimir Putin Knows His Baudelaire

Or maybe just his Keyser Soze. The devil’s greatest trick is convincing the world he doesn’t exist.

While the comments section of the New York Times op-ed page swoons over Putin’s schooling of the bewildered piker marking time in the White House, Russia is getting on with business, which is shoring up Iran as it accelerates toward nuclear capability. 

The Russian daily Kommersant reported yesterday that Russia has agreed to supply Iran with the long-delayed S-300 anti-aircraft missiles Iran ordered six years ago. (S-300s represent some of the most advanced aerial weaponry on earth.) Russia has also decided to build another nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Putin will be in Teheran tomorrow (Friday) to work out the details with high-ranking Iranian officials, including Iran’s cuddly new faux-moderate President Hassan Rohani.

Now, let’s back up a little. It may very well be a good thing that the US will not (or probably will not) strike Syria. Certainly the potential downside for Israel of a US-assisted decisive rebel win, when those rebels contain jihadist elements of off-the-charts savagery, was enough to give one pause. But we should all be clear about what just happened. The Americans were conned by a master of the game.

And when you’re on top, you don’t let up. Thus the Russians are wasting no time laying out — in calm, diplomatic tones — the terms of extortion for a White House that does, admittedly, tend to need things to be spelled out. During a debate yesterday in the Russian parliament concerning a draft resolution on Syria, Alexei Pushkov, the chief of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of parliament, threatened that if the US does decide in the end to conduct a strike against Syria, Russia could increase its arms sales to Iran and “revise the terms of U.S.­ military transit to Afghanistan.” “If the U.S. takes the path of exacerbating the situation and forgoing diplomacy for the sake of a military scenario, such measures would seem absolutely justified to me,” Pushkov said.

So what’s really going on here? Putin is exercising himself quite vigorously on behalf of the Iranians, conducting diplomatic master classes at the expense of the US president and providing an invaluable lifeline for Iran’s Syrian client. A big reason for this — one that tends to get lost in the shuffle amid all the talk about geopolitics and influence and warm water ports and global hegemony — is money. 

This S-300 deal with Teheran had been up in the air for a long time, but Putin only just decided to move the arms. Why? As a quid pro quo. Teheran had sued Rosoboronexport, the Russian state intermediary that oversees defense imports and exports, for $4 billion after Russia canceled an earlier contract for those same missiles. It’s simple, Putin told Teheran. Drop the lawsuit and you get the goods. 

If you’re wondering why Russia canceled the deal in the first place, the answer is another quid pro quo. Israel sold Russia a huge shipment of drones in exchange for stopping the S-300 transfer to Iran, a deal the Russians took presumably for the sake of acquiring the technology. So Israel is now back where she started — worse off, in fact, since Iran will get the missiles and Russia’s got the drones.

This missile deal, which is a footnote to the Syria story in most of the world, looms rather larger in Tel Aviv, and could have its own series of unforeseeable consequences. Netanyahu is concerned enough about these arms to have brought them up with the European foreign ministers in May. “If the missiles are provided and become operational, Israel’s entire airspace will become a no-fly zone,” he said. “The missile transfer is a significant security challenge to Israel and we will not be able to stand idly by.”

That phrase might imply military action, but it might also imply more sub rosa dealmaking with the Kremlin, although such deals will probably become both more unlikely and more dangerous the stronger Putin’s hand becomes. The main thing we need to remember in all this is that Putin is beholden to no one but Putin. If we want this mess to end well, we’re going to need to find ways to make it worth his while.

That’s how it works when you’re on the wrong end of a protection racket.