Russia will complete the delivery of anti-ship missiles to Syria this year and may sell more arms to the Mideast nation after assessing the impact on the regional balance of power, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said.
“All weapons within the earlier contract will be delivered by year end,” Serdyukov said in an interview in Moscow. Syria has made new requests “that are being considered at present,” he said. “Pre-contract work can last a few months to a few years. There is no guarantee a contract will be signed in the end.”
The U.S. said this week it shares Israel’s concern that the proliferation of “advanced weapons” may destabilize the Middle East. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the same point to Serdyukov during meetings last week in Washington, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said Sept. 20.
Serdyukov’s comments on Syria came as he said Russia and the U.S. are trying to build a “new format of relations” on defense issues, including cooperation in Afghanistan. Russia earlier this year scrapped the delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Iran in compliance with international sanctions against the country.
“The president of Russia has taken a decision not to deliver S-300s,” said Serdyukov, 48. “This is dictated by a complicated military and political situation in the region and support of the United Nations sanctions against Iran.”
Serdyukov declined to discuss details of the new requests from Syria.
“We are conducting a serious assessment of how it may affect the existing balance of forces in the region,” Serdyukov said. “We understand that it would not be right to upset it. Therefore all these nuances and analyses are being thoroughly assessed.”
Under an existing contract, Russia will supply Yakhont cruise missiles worth more than $300 million to Syria, the Moscow-based Interfax news service reported Sept. 19. The agreement contains safeguards to prevent weapons from being transferred to other parties, Serdyukov said.
“The Israelis and perhaps to some extent the Americans voice apprehension that these weapons can somehow fall into the hands of terrorists,” he said. “The contract has provisions for a series of controlling measures that will not allow for this to happen.”
Serdyukov held talks with Gates on Sept. 15 in Washington, their first meeting since 2008, when relations soured after Russia routed Georgia’s U.S-trained army in a five-day war over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.
The defense chiefs agreed to set up working groups on the issues of greatest concern and use a three-tier decision-making process in which issues are reviewed first by local experts, then military chiefs of staff and finally at the ministerial level. Serdyukov said he invited Gates to Moscow and hopes he will visit in the first half of 2011.
“Within a month I will prepare a letter to Gates addressing what interests us and where we would like to cooperate,” Serdyukov said. “It will be a serious breakthrough,” complete with practical steps in areas such as equipment and training.
The most contentious issue for Russia, the U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense system, wasn’t discussed in detail last week. Instead, the talks focused on how the topic should be addressed and in what time period, Serdyukov said.
“All our proposals made in 2007 remain in force,” he said. “It is quite likely new proposals will emerge.”
U.S. President Barack Obama last September said he was scrapping former President George W. Bush’s proposal to deploy a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic in the face of Russian opposition. He promised a more flexible system to protect against threats to the U.S. and its European allies, providing an opportunity to revisit earlier Russian proposals.
Russia’s 2007 plan would put the radar warning and control system for the missiles in Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that shares a border with Iran, using existing equipment installed by the Soviet Union. The facility would be under the joint control of the U.S. and Russian militaries.
Serdyukov said Russia also wants improved relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose eastward expansion tops the list of external dangers in a military doctrine approved by President Dmitry Medvedev in February.
“We consider it a certain danger that NATO is expanding and advancing to our borders,” Serdyukov said. “The military doctrine, nevertheless, does not limit our aspiration to develop constructive and good neighborly relations with the U.S. and other NATO member countries in the long-term.”
The main threat to Russia is terrorism, which is why the armed forces are being overhauled to respond to local conflicts, Serdyukov said.
Russia is facing an increasing wave of terrorist attacks mainly originating in the North Caucasus region. The region is plagued by an Islamist insurgency, the country’s highest unemployment rates and rampant corruption.
Russia has supported the U.S. fight against terrorism by letting the American military ship cargoes across its territory to Afghanistan, and the government is considering increased cooperation, Serdyukov said.
While Russia won’t send troops, it is ready to train specialists and deliver military equipment, the defense minister said. Talks are underway to deliver 20 Mi-17 helicopters to Afghanistan, he said.
Serdyukov said Gates assured him that the U.S. will use the Manas air base in neighboring Kyrgyzstan only as long as operations in Afghanistan continue.
“They do not consider it a fundamental or a permanent installation,” Serdyukov said.