Iran’s Defense Minister Visits Moscow, Russian Bombers Visit The UK’s Coast

February 17, 2016
A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 heavy strategic bomber, like the two which were intercepted off the coast of the UK today

LIVE UPDATES: Iran’s Defense Minister has made an unannounced visit to Moscow, and Russian bombers have made an unannounced approach off the UK’s coast

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

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S-300s in Fact Not Shipping to Iran Yet, Says Russian Defense Ministry Source

Following a visit by Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan yesterday, Russian media claimed once again that the S-300 anti-aircraft systems are imminently being delivered to Tehran — only to have the Defense Ministry issue a rebuttal.

Reports today from RIA Novosti, and other state outlets sourced in the Iranian general staff indicated that tomorrow, February 18, the first batch of the S0300PMU-2s, known as Favorits in Russian were heading from “a port in Astrakhan to Iran,” and that the Iranian defense minister himself would even take part in a closed send-off ceremony.

But in a statement to the press, a Russian Defense Ministry source told TASS:

“The start of the delivery to Iran of the first batch of the Favorits cannot take place for the simple reason that as of February 16, Iran had not paid for the cost of them fixed in the contract.

Therefore there can be no talk of any attendance of any defense minister of Iran in Astrakhan at a ceremony to send of the first Favorits to Tehran.”

The contract was concluded in 2007, but in 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev halted them due to UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.  

But it’s not just the Russian media today; it’s been Russian officials for the last 6 months who keep implying that the S-300s are already shipped — starting with Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of the military and space programs, and various state defense contractors.

Rogozin said last year that Iran had dropped its $4 billion dollar lawsuit against Russia as a result of “long, difficult and subtle” negotiations, a TASS reported, which paved the way for the delivery; President Vladimir Putin then said he was lifting the embargo since the nuclear deal had been made.

But then the specifics became vague, and in recent months, Rogozin and others have made either vague or misleading statements about the S-300s delivery, which then have been picked up by the Western press. Here’s the stories we have run since November:

The latest version of the story, as we reported earlier today, is that sometime in late 2016 or early 2017, the first batch will be shipped.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Clashes Between Center and Governors Likely to Worsen, Says Petrov

Nikolai Petrov of the Center for Geographical and Political Research commented today in an op-ed piece that the clash between the center and the governors exemplified by the dismissal and reprimand, respectively of the leaders of Karelia and TransBaikal as we reported will only worsen.

The situation is typical of other cities where there are “wars of verticals,” i.e. clashes between the governors, in some cases appointed by the Kremlin, or elected in rigged elections where the Kremlin’s United Russia party predominates, and local mayors, each of which maintains an authoritarian top-down line of command.

The outsized role of a region’s police is best known from the Chechen model, where Interior Ministry troops are seen as Ramzan Kadyrov’s “personal army.” But the issue of excessive and abusive powers of police and security plays out in many places in Russia, as was demonstrated by the Karelian police exacting a retraction out of a critical journalist.

Says Petrov (translation by The Interpreter): 

Relations between federal and regional elites has seriously fallen out in the last year, as Moscow made demonstrative arrests of governors as the main corrupt officials. In this election year of 2016, the conflict between the federals and the regionals will inevitably grow worse, especially as the regional elites are more actively speaking out against Moscow pressure. This will be in part a reaction on the attempt to place the responsibility for the worsening of the social-economic situation on them, and in part an initiative political game and wish to get their people into the new Duma.

Petrov notes that since the 1990s, when regions became more autonomous (Yeltsin once famously said “take as much sovereignty as you can handle” to republics with non-Russian populations), Moscow has often paid out advances to secure “good results” in the elections. Now, the Kremlin has less to offer and are less interested than they were even five years ago in democratic legitimacy, says Petrov.

The Kremlin is trying to ease the possible disturbance of the fall’s election by ensuring there will only be five gubernatorial elections and campaigns for local legislatures, as distinct from the Duma, in only 38 or about half Russia’s regions.

Another problem Petrov highlights is that in the past, governors were more used to competitive elections but more of them are appointed by the center now and they have grown unused to competition.

The real crisis is that local leaders simply have less money to take care of regional needs, even as the demands will be greater as people have lost over a third of their savings and salaries and face many other hardships due to sanctions and the self-inflicted economic crisis. 
Ultimately, says Petrov, the silovoki — the force ministries of the army, police, intelligence — will decide things “they are more influential today, hungry, and less restrained by Moscow.”

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Karelian Governor Reprimanded Over Failed Housing Program; Karelian Newspaper Forced to Retract Story
In a hangover from the Soviet era, President Vladimir Putin has issued a public “reprimand” to Aleksandr Kudilaynen, head of the Karelia Republic, which borders Finland, for failing to move citizens from emergency housing into state apartments, Russian media reported.

Kommersant reported that at a government meeting on February 10, Mikhail Men, Minister of Construction, said both Karelia and the TransBaikal had shown poor figures on resettling people from emergency housing after fires and other calamities and were “sabotaging” the federal program. Last week, Konstantin Ilkovsky, governor of the TransBaikal Territory, was dismissed, although it was said he left his post of his own volition.
The Kremlin published the text of the “reprimand” today, February 17, which will be considered a black mark on his record.
In the spirit of self-criticism instilled in the communist era, Khudilaynen believes that the scolding was deserved — and he even got off lightly, he told LifeNews in an interview (translation by The Interpreter):

“Undoubtedly, the criticism was absolutely fair, the reprimand deserved. We have to be more strict in dealing with sub-contractors and ask more hard questions,” said Khudilaynen, explaining that a number of personnel decisions had been made. “In Karelia, there are a whole complex of problems. Vladimir Putin heard everything out, and accepted our argumentation. Therefore only a reprimand was announced.”

At the meeting, Putin had asked if funds were transferred in time, and Men had said they were, although Ilkovsky said they were late — and insufficient anyway.
Galina Shershina, former opposition mayor of Petrozavodsk said the governor’s complaints about “bad contractors” were not sufficient, as they should be monitored in a timely manner and the contract broken if necessary, Kommersant reported.
She said that her city could have coped with the program on its own but the governor wanted to control it all, and use his one selected contractor.
Men said that Karelia simply couldn’t administer the program, which required them to build 117,000 square meters of housing by 2014; so far they had only completed 13,000 or 11% of the total.
Karelia has been plagued with a number of political problems as Paul Goble has recounted in Windows on Eurasia, partly because of the tensions typical of over-bearing Moscow bureaucrats and provinces and partly because some Karelians still having a living memory — or recent tourist trips to Finland — of what their region was like before it fell under Soviet rule. A separatist movement has been persecuted.
Shershina, who was popularly elected, was forced out of office by her city council because she was linked to opponents to the governor.

Today the Supreme Court of Karelia ordered a local newspaper, Severnye Berega, to run a retraction of a piece in which they used two common Russian proverbs to describe the Interior Ministry.

The newspaper had criticized police in the town of Kalevala who interrogated a juvenile suspect without his parents present, which is required under Russian law.

“The law is a bridle, you can turn it any which way,” and “The laws are sacred and the legalists hard adversaries,” the journalist wrote, citing proverbs that illustrate both the lawlessness of Russia and the legalistic ways in which officials can exploit the law to oppress people.

Police complained both that the article was factually incorrect and that it damaged their professional reputation. The journalist’s lawyer plans file a complaint against the judge.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Iran’s Defense Minister Meets with Putin on Weapons Shopping Trip to Moscow

Iran’s Defense Minister visited Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Russian media reported. He was on a shopping trip to get the latest weapons from Moscow, but the trip did not get much coverage in the US media except by conservative outlets — the relationship between Iran and Russia clashes with a Washington narrative promoting detente with Iran.

The Russian business daily Kommersant reported at length on February 15 that Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan was visiting Moscow and would meet with President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The Washington Post ran only a brief AP story mentioning the visit; the New York Times ran the same AP dispatch with only a cursory description of plans to by weapons:

Russia and Iran both have backed Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout Syria’s civil war.

Dehghan said in an interview with Russian state television that Tehran wants to expand military and technical ties with Russia.

Russia has a contract with Iran to deliver long-range S-300 air defense missiles, and Tehran also has expressed interest in other Russian weapons.
Dehghan said earlier this month that Iran plans to sign a deal with Russia for the purchase of Su-30 fighter jets.

The AP story did not mention Iran’s figure of $8 billion — the amount Iran says it will spend on new Russian weapons; the Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo did:

Iranian officials announced Monday that Iran would spend another $8 billion on the purchase of Russian-made arms. The sale comes as Moscow gears up to deliver to Iran an advanced missile air defense system as part of a deal that has been in the works for years.

Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan is on a two-day tour of Moscow to meet with his counterparts about the signing of a new $8 billion arms contract, according to Iran’s state-controlled media.

Iranian leaders are said to have provided Russia with what they call a “shopping list” of various arms and military hardware. The visit by Dehghan is expected to “speed up a number of key arms deal” between the countries, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency.

The “shopping list” according to an unnamed Russian source who spoke to the media about the trip, included Russia’s S-400 Triumph anti-aircraft missile system; its new Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet; its Bastion mobile coastal defense missile system equipped with Yakhont anti-ship missiles, Mi-8/17 helicopters and other arms. It’s also looking to buy civilian aircraft.

The Free Beacon also said Russia “intends to ship Iran its S-300 air defense system.”

The Russian media regularly portrays the S-300s as virtually already delivered, but as we have pointed out, there are issues of manufacture and payment, even though Iran has reportedly withdrawn its suit against Russia for non-delivery of the S-300s while it was adhering to the UN-imposed embargo. Kommersant cited sources that told them Iran had already made an advance toward the nearly $1 billion payment for the S-300s, and would receive the first division “within a few months.”

That would mean that statements from Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin that they were “already” delivered were premature. The sources said the contract “plans to be fulfilled by the end of 2016/early 2017.”

The US-negotiated end to sanctions on Iran made the “shopping trip” possible, but there are some catches, as the Free Beacon noted:

“Due to the lifting of sanctions, there are no formal restrictions on supplies, but since a number of components for aircraft are American-made, we must receive permission,” Vladislav Masalov, vice president of the United Aircraft Corporation, was quoted as saying by Fars.

This was cause for complaint by Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and terrorism analyst who told Free Beacon that Secretary of State John Kerry had “frontloaded Iran’s payday for all the wrong reasons” when the nuclear agreement was reached:

“But, because Kerry didn’t want any successor holding Iran’s feet to the fire on compliance with the deal, he gave Iran its payday up front,” Rubin explained. “It was wholly predictable—and indeed, it was predicated early and often—that Iran would invest that money disproportionately in its military and not actually help its own people.”

The conservative Fox News was more blunt about Iran’s “shopping trip” in a story headlined “Defiant Iran Ignores UN Ban, Hits up Putin for High-tech Tanks, Fighter Jets”; Fox also mentioned Iran’s recent test of missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads, for which 11 entities and individuals were sanctioned.

Kommersant went further than AP and even Free Beacon to point out two restraining factors on Tehran’s shopping, one of which Fox had noted:

The realism of these plans, however, can be hindered by two factors: Tehran’s lack of money and last year’s UN Security Council Resolution No. 2231, imposing restrictions on the delivery of weapons to Iran.

That indicates that at least this Russian business daily — not as independent as it once was — wants to emphasize that Resolution No. 2231 is not undone by the nuclear deal.
As the International Business Times (IBT) reported in January restrictions will still remain on weapons.
As IBT recalls, US sanctions were imposed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 when not only 60 Americans were taken hostage but 241 Americans were massacred in the combing of a Marine compound in Beirut by Hezbollah — the same terrorist group with now a civilian government that is fighting alongside Russia and Iran ostensibly against ISIS in Syria — but actually propping up the Assad regime. 
As the BBC reported, despite the nuclear deal, the conventional arms embargo on Iran will remain in place for five years — with the embargo on missiles for 8 years. This is the fine print often overlooked in enthusiastic coverage of the nuclear deal reach with Iran by the Obama Administration.
In addition to the weapons systems covered by Free Beacon, Kommersant mentioned the Iranians were looking to buy combat training Yak-130s, frigate ships and electric diesel submarines.
Another interesting tid-bit from Kommersant not mentioned by Western media was that in fact Iran has kept its interest in purchasing T-90 tanks — which are already visible in the war in Syria. Quoting the defense minister, Kommersant reported:

At the same time, he specified that the condition of the deal should be the transfer of production technologies. “We have reached such a level of production of our own tanks that the need to acquire such vehicles abroad is reduced,” said [Brigadier] General [Kiomars] Heidari, recalling the recent decision of the Iranian government to ban Iran’s ground forces to acquire military vehicles without the transfer to Tehran of the technology for its production.

According to the prognosis of one of Kommersant‘s sources in Russia’s Federal Military Technology Cooperation (FTS) agency , “negotiations on that issue will be difficult.” Even so, Kommersant’s source “did not rule out”that Russia would agree to localize the assembly of the T-90 in Iran.

As Iran Project reported, Iran had in fact not scrapped plans to buy the T-90.
Another Kommersant source in the FTS system said that Tehran may request Moscow’s help in repairing the Iranian fleet of MiG-29s and Su-24MKs and also its submarines.
The biggest difficulty in expanding military-technical cooperation is Tehran’s lack of cash, however; Iran wants to get the Russian armaments on credit, but due to the economic crisis, the Kremlin cannot allow that. 

Iran has been attempting to negotiate an $11 billion loan with Russia for “infrastructure support” — this is supposedly separate from any arms deal. 

Kommersant also spells out the problems with the UN resolution: tanks, armored vehicles, high-caliber artillery systems (100 mm and larger), fighter jets and helicopters, war ships, missiles and missile systems — these are all supposed to be sanctioned for 5 to 8 years.

Only if the UN Security Council gives preliminary permission could the sales be made before 2020, if the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t enable these sanctions as well to be removed. Kommersant believes that Russia would be unable to deliver to Iran some of the items on their list — the Su-30SM, the Bastions, the frigates and the submarines. If Russia put this request to the Security Council, the US would likely veto it.

Of course, the Russians could supply Iran by stealth — and it might be as hard for the US to notice as it is the fine print in Russian-language media. 
Ruslan Pukhov, director of Russia’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies said:

“The Iranian armed forces must replace everything now. But given the economic realities, Tehran will have to place its priorities.” In his opinion, first Iran will bet on the anti-aircraft defense systems, the technology for radioelectronic warfare, the helicopters and training jets and only later, on the expensive forms of armaments and vehicles.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

RAF Jets Scrambled, Reportedly To Intercept Russian Tu-160 Bombers

There are unverified reports from radio observers that two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers have been intercepted by Royal Air Force Typhoon fighters off the English coast.

The British Ministry of Defence has confirmed to The Interpreter that RAF Quick Reaction Alert fighters have taken off from RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. 

However the MOD declined to confirm the identity of the aircraft intercepted as “the mission is still ongoing.”

— Pierre Vaux