by Mark N. Katz
Among the many other Saudi-Russian agreements that have been announced during King Salman’s visit to Moscow, Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV declared that Riyadh is buying Russian S-400 air defense missiles. This is a highly significant move because, though a major Saudi-Russian arms deal has reportedly been in the works for many years, it has not yet materialized.
The obstacle to consummating such an agreement in the past, it appears, is that Riyadh has expected its offer to buy Russian weapons to be an inducement to lever Moscow away from Tehran. Putin, though, has been unwilling to do this, and has instead cooperated closely with Iran, including in their joint intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime.
For Saudi Arabia to now agree to buy these sophisticated Russian weapons while Moscow is still cooperating closely with Iran appears to be a significant Saudi climb-down. Long-time Russian Middle East watcher, Irina Suponina of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, implied this when she told Bloomberg News that, “Saudi Arabia is aiming for real cooperation with Russia and understands that you can’t split Russia from Iran.”
But instead of signaling Saudi acquiescence to continued close Russian-Iranian relations, Riyadh’s willingness to buy Russian S-400s now may actually reflect a change in Saudi tactics about how best to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.
Iran has already bought air defense missiles from Russia, but it only has the less sophisticated S-300 version—and Russia’s delivery of it to Tehran was long delayed. Moscow’s selling the S-400 to Saudi Arabia, then, would put Riyadh “ahead” of Tehran in terms of the level of sophistication of Russian weaponry in its inventory. Both Riyadh and Tehran will be keenly aware of this. In this way, even if Riyadh cannot stop Russia from cooperating militarily with Iran, the Saudis can undermine Iranian confidence in Russia. If this is indeed Saudi strategy, it might be a smart one. There have long been differences between Russia and Iran that have not gone away despite their cooperation against common threats to the Assad regime in Syria.
Further, the very success of Moscow and Tehran in helping the Assad regime defeat its opponents (which had been backed by Saudi Arabia, among others) may now turn into something of a Russian-Iranian competition for predominant influence in Damascus. Even if they are not outright opposing each other, Moscow and Tehran each seem to be focusing on supporting their particular Syrian allies. And they seem to have different ones.
Although not Riyadh’s preferred outcome, Russia’s becoming the most influential external power in Syria is much less worse for the kingdom than Iran acquiring this position. Thus, anything Saudi Arabia can do to undermine the Russian-Iranian relationship (such as buying S-400s when Iran only has S-300s) makes sense.
There is no guarantee, however, that such a Saudi strategy would work. Putin, after all, will want to cooperate with both Tehran and Riyadh (as well as other Middle Eastern actors). And if Riyadh sees that Moscow is unwilling, or perhaps even unable, to prevent Iranian influence from growing in Syria or elsewhere, then it would not be surprising if the S-400 deal eventually fell through. Indeed, the Russians may already be concerned about this possibility. As Yuri Barmin of the Russian International Affairs Council wrote in the Moscow Times, “Moscow is visibly confused with the fact that a flurry of meetings with top Saudi officials over the past two years has only resulted in a lot of promises and very little actual cooperation.”
Thus, although the Suadis have announced that they will buy S-400s from Russia, it is still not certain that the deal will actually be completed. If Russian-Iranian competition for influence in Damascus really does heat up, then the deal is more likely to go through. But if Riyadh does not see Moscow as willing or able to counter the growth of Iranian influence in Syria and elsewhere in the region, then this attempt at upgrading Saudi-Russian relations may well fizzle out as previous ones have done.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. Photo: Saudi King Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin.