Putin, an Iran Ally, Says the Saudis Should Buy Russian Air Defense Systems After Drone Attack

By Dimitri Simes | September 18, 2019 | 2:12am EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ankara on Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo: The Kremlin)

Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Playing both sides of one of the Mideast’s most bitter rivalries, President Vladimir Putin offered this week to supply Saudi Arabia with Russia’s most advanced air defense systems following a drone attack on Saudi oil infrastructure which the U.S. is blaming on Iran.

Putin was in Ankara on Monday for Syria-focused talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. During a joint press conference, Putin was asked about the September 14 drone strike.

He responded by suggesting that Saudi Arabia should purchase Russian S-300 or S-400 air defense systems – as the governments of the two men he sat alongside have done.

“In order to protect them and the country, we are ready to provide the necessary assistance to Saudi Arabia,” he said through a translator. “All the political leaders of Saudi Arabia have to do is take a wise decision, as Iran did by buying the S-300 missile system, and as President Erdogan did when he bought Russia’s latest S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft system.”

“They would offer reliable protection for any Saudi infrastructure facilities,” Putin added.

Apparently enjoying the moment, Rouhani asked with a laugh, “So do they need to buy the S-300 or the S-400?”

“It’s up to them to decide,” Putin replied.

Although lighthearted in tone, the comments raised eyebrows, as Russia is viewed as an ally of Iran, yet the U.S. administration is accusing Iran of being behind the Saudi drone attack – a charge Tehran denies. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility for the incident.

Putin was also likely taking a veiled dig at the U.S., which has long supplied Saudi Arabia with Patriot and other missile defense systems.

The S-400 is a surface-to air-missile system capable of targeting aircraft, drones, and missiles within a 400 kilometer (250 mile) range and at an altitude of up to 30 kilometers (18 miles). The U.S. geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor recently described it as “one of the best all-around” missile defense systems.

Over the past several years, Moscow has supplied the system to U.S. adversaries and allies alike, with recent customers including China, Turkey, and India. Russia also operates its own S-400 systems in Syria, in support of the Assad regime.

Tehran notably does not have the S-400, although Russia in 2016 controversially provided Iran with its predecessor, the S-300. Bloomberg reported last May that Russia turned down an Iranian request for S-400s over concerns the move could further destabilize the region. Russia denied the report, stating it has never received a request from Iran for S-400s.

While Putin sales pitch to Saudi Arabia was visibly lighthearted, the Kremlin’s interest in selling Riyadh the S-400 is serious. The two governments have been discussing a possible S-400 purchase for years.

When King Salman’s visited Moscow in October 2017 the two countries were said to have reached a deal on the purchase, but nearly two years later they have yet to sign a formal contract.

Last February, Russian state news agency TASS reported that Russia and Saudi Arabia were “holding additional consultations” about a potential S-400 contract.

Putin’s remarks in Ankara come at time when Moscow is striving to maintain friendly ties with both Riyadh and Tehran, bitter regional rivals.

Although Russia has worked closely with Iran to prop up the Assad regime and has condemned the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, it has also strengthened economic ties with Saudi Arabia.

Over the past four years, Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in Russia, which is eager to attract non-Western sources of foreign investment amid tense relations with the West.

Saudi Arabia announced in 2015 that it would invest $10 billion on projects in Russia. Last October Riyadh provided $500 million to a joint Russia-China investment fund and $5 billion to a Russian LNG project in the Arctic.

Since 2016 Russia and Saudi Arabia have also coordinated their energy production to keep oil prices high. In June, the two countries reached a deal to extend a cut in oil production for another nine months.

Tehran was one of the most vocal critics of Moscow and Riyadh’s oil agreement. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh expressed concern the deal-making would undermine OPEC, even warning that the oil production group “might die” if the two countries continued to strengthen their leverage over global energy production.

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