Following a meeting of foreign ministers yesterday, NATO gave its ok to deploy Patriot missile batteries to Turkey in order to guard against a missile attack emanating from Syria. While this is welcome news in Ankara, it is a move that Russia has been complaining about and trying to sandbag ever since Turkey made its initial request for Patriots last month. Russia’s concerns over deploying Patriots to the border with Syria are twofold and both fairly obvious. First, as Syria’s external patron, Russia wants to avoid intervention by any outside actors, and it has been afraid that sending Patriot missiles to Turkey is a precursor to wider action on the part of outside powers. Second, the fact that the Patriots are coming from NATO adds to Russian paranoia. NATO is and always has been a sore spot for Moscow, and understandably so. The organization that was formed during the Cold War as a way of containing the Soviet Union did not disband once the USSR broke apart and its raison d’être no longer existed, but actually expanded and in the process encircled Russia even more. Despite repeated American and Western assurances that this was not aimed at tamping down Russian power, Russia has never quite believed this version of events, and so it reflexively opposes any increased NATO presence in its backyard or in any situations in which it is intimately involved.
Nevertheless, following NATO’s decision to send Patriots to Turkey, Russia actually downplayed its criticism. At a press conference in Brussels after a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia did not object to the Patriot deployment but that it did not want the situation with Syria to escalate any further. Lavrov was clear that Russia differs with NATO on issues of missile defense, but Moscow has apparently decided not to take a hard stand in this particular instance. The reason for this is partly because NATO has made it abundantly clear that placing Patriots on the Syrian border is not in any way a harbinger of an eventual NATO intervention, but is rather a measure designed to placate and reassure a skittish Turkey. The Patriots have been programmed so that they can only intercept missiles crossing over into Turkish airspace and cannot cross over into Syrian territory preemptively. If it had not already been clear enough, the NATO foreign ministers issued a statement emphasizing that the Patriots would not be used offensively in any way and will not be linked to any theoretical no-fly zone. While Russia is still not thrilled with the development, the effort to reassure the Russians that the Patriot missiles do not herald Western states actively intervening on behalf of the rebels in the Syrian civil war seems to have paid off.
There is, however, another reason that Russia is all of a sudden displaying a more pliant side, and it has to do with Turkish energy demands. As sanctions have kicked in on Iranian oil, Turkey has been meeting its vast and ever growing energy needs with Iranian natural gas, and it has been buying that gas with gold in an effort to evade the ban on financial transactions with Iranian banks. In response to Turkey’s end around, the Senate is considering a new sanctions bill that would cover the sale of precious metals to Iran, and while Turkey insists that it will continue buying up to 90% of Iran’s natural gas exports, at some point the White House is going to be forced to take a tougher line with Turkey given the pressure from Congress over the issue. As I wrote back in April when looking at Turkey’s energy trade with Iran, Turkey’s biggest oil supplier is not Iran but Russia, and if Turkey is forced to look elsewhere for its natural gas needs, Russia is the logical partner. There are signs that Turkey is preparing for this very eventuality, as it has asked Russia to increase its natural gas sales to Turkey by 3 billion cubic meters per year, which does not entirely replace the 10 billion cubic meters per year that Turkey gets from Iran but significantly cuts into it. Russia wants Turkey to buy more of its gas at Iran’s expense, and this may partially explain Russia’s backing down from its strident stance on NATO deploying Patriot missiles in Turkey. Russia wants to keep Turkey as a happy client, and if placing some defensive missile batteries along the border with Syria are the price of doing business, Russia has concluded that the pros outweigh the cons.