THE RUSSIAN BEAR

Aggressive Russian bear has cornered US eagle

BY PV VIVEKANAND

THE rules of the “superpower game” have changed, leaving the US with limited options to deal with the crisis sparked by the Georgian move to take control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia and Russia’s aggressive response.

If anything, the situation is spinning out of American control, with the very essence of US-Russian relations and US policy vis-a-vis ex-Soviet republics being brought to question.

One of the last things Washington wanted was an open Russian challenge to its plans to “punish” Iran for pursuing its nuclear programme in defiance of US-led Western demand that it freeze all nuclear activities.

It is not simply that the US could no longer count on Moscow to support its campaign for a fresh wave of tough UN sanctions against Iran. Russia has tied the crisis sparked by the conflict in Georgia to its relations with the US and has brought in Iran as an important element in the equation. The scenario is no longer Georgia-specific but is linked to American forays into what the Russians consider as no-go areas for anyone but themselves and the erstwhile humiliating US treatment of the former superpower.

Moscow is reportedly threatening to supply the sophisticated S-300 missile system to Iran if Washington pursues its plans to include Russia’s pro-Western neighbours Georgia and Ukraine in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is said to have made an implicit offer to this effect to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during their bilateral meeting in Dushanbe on Aug.28, 2008.

Some reports claim that Russia has already moved some basic components of the S-300 missile system to Belarus, ready for possible transfer to Iran.

The Russian move has thrown a big spanner in the US-Israeli works against Iran because possible Iranian possession of the S-300 missile system would raise a big question mark for their plans to stage military action against Iran.

The S-300 missiles, which can track 100 targets at once and fire on planes up to 120 kilometres away, will be a major boost to Iranian defences against any air strike on its nuclear sites. They could nip any Israeli plan to stage air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities and seriously complicate any US aerial bombardment.

International military experts describe the S-300 missile as a source of “great concern” for every Western air force, including that of the US.

Effectively, the Russians are telling the Americans that “if you do not stop meddling in our areas of influence (ex-Soviet republics and former communist states in Eastern Europe), then we would supply the S-300 to the Iranians.”

There is little doubt that Russia feels that “enough is enough” of American moves in its neighbourhood and is determined to push for a showdown with the US.

Further angering Moscow was the US support for independence of the ex-Serbian province of Kosovo against Russian wishes and the signing of an agreement under which the US plans to station anti-missile missiles in Poland that could “neutralise” any threat posed by Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Acutely aware of the Bush administration’s Israeli-driven “strategic obsession” with Iran, Moscow is playing a very calculated game, which is leading to a foreign policy showdown ahead of presidential elections in the US.

Washington is now grappling with the question of how far it could go in supporting Georgia and proving to its others that the US is indeed a dependable ally while also ensuring that the confrontation with Russia is snuffed out.

Unless George W Bush moves to defuse the crisis, it could prove to be one of the biggest challenges facing the next US president, whether Republican John McCain or his Democratic rival Barack Obama, both of whom have declared their support for NATO membership for Georgia.

That Russia is dead serious in its confrontation with the US was made clear on several counts, including Moscow’s invitation to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and reported proposal to station advanced missiles in Syrian territory, presumably targeting Israel, the staunchest US ally in the region.

Israel, which is raring to go with military strikes against Iran, has already made amends to placate the Russians. It has suspended military assistance to Georgia and has frozen plans to set up pipelines that circumvent Russia to pump Caspian oil and gas to Turkey and from there to Israeli ports in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea for re-export.

In the immediate context, the possibility of Russia supplying the S-300 missile system to Iran could add a sense of urgency for Israeli action to “eliminate” Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The S-300 system needs about one year to be installed and turned operational and this would mean an Israeli urgency to hit Iran before it is too late.

Tehran is playing its own game by stepping up rhetoric and thumping its nose at the US and Israel.

“Any aggression against Iran will start a world war,” Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, a senior Iranian military commander, said over the weekend. “The unrestrained greed of the US leadership and global Zionism… is gradually leading the world to the edge of a precipice.”

It is difficult to see how the US would proceed from this point. However, it is indeed cornered and it is anyone’s guess how it opts to lash out.

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