Commentary: Israel ruined the reputation of Russian air defense systems, and it's hurting sales

The Russian Army has started praising its air defense systems in Syria, without any proof of success. Why now? It's simple. The Russian systems don't stop the Israeli and American systems, and customers of the Russian defense industry are starting to ask questions 

This week there were reports based on the Russian media that Russia thwarted a number of Israeli attacks in Syria. The Russians have yet to provide proof. Pictures of remnants of Israeli munitions, allegedly in Syria, are occasionally posted online. It appears plausible that the Russian systems are partially effective and can intercept some of the munitions made in Israel.    

But not all of them. Considering the results, it doesn't help the Kremlin. The systems that interfere with the IDF in Syria are destroyed. In one case, Israel even sent a strong hint to Russia by releasing footage of munitions destroying a Russian "Pantsir" system.  

Money, money, and once again money

One of the questions regarding the uproar by the Russians online regarding Israeli attacks in Syria is why they are doing it now. Israel has been operating freely in Syria for years. So why are the Russians saying now that it bothers them? Well, apparently not because of the Iranians, the Syrians or any militia that the IDF is operating against in Syria.      

The Russians are thinking about the Russians. The Kremlin is using diplomatic means with Jerusalem, or the liaison between the IDF and the Russian Army, to balance Israel, Iran and Syria on Syrian territory. They don't turn to the media for this purpose. The reason that the Russians turned to the media, and praised their air defense systems, is arms sales.   

The Russian defense industry is a source of foreign currency for the Russian government, and air defense systems are a main part of this equation. And when Israel bombs Syria without interference, despite the Russian air defense systems, countries around the world take notice and understand by themselves. They understand that the Russian systems do not provide results in the field, and that's an understatement.  

How much can they explain the failures of these systems by saying "the operators were Syrian", or "the systems didn't go into action, they were only in a monitoring mode", or "the systems still aren't operational"? Defense customers accept these excuses less than the general public. If Syria buys new air defense systems like the "Pantsir" or the S-300 from Russia, and the IDF continues to bomb freely in Syria and, when needed, also destroys Russian systems that interfere, it raises questions. And customers ask questions.               

By the way, along with the successes of the IDF in Syria, with munitions made in Israel or the U.S., the reality is that neither the S-300 nor the S-400 has ever proven that it can intercept something, like a fighter plane or a missile. The Russians continue to develop the S-series, and introduced the S-500 in recent weeks, but the skepticism over the real capabilities of the S-series will remain with us until its first operational success, if and when it happens.       

Syria, a Russian testing ground for combat 

But let's get back to the Russian complaints. Recently it was reported in the Russian media that the Russian defense industry tested about 320 different types of new weapons in Syria in recent years. In other words, Syria, as various reports claimed in recent years, has become a testing ground for the Russian defense industry – helicopters, planes, drones, missiles, various munitions, ground systems and more. The Russians tested everything that they wanted to test.

However, the air defense in Syria is still considered a failure in the eyes of potential buyers. The Russian electronic warfare systems that were deployed in Syria occasionally disrupt transmissions in Israel, and interfere with the IDF, but did not succeed in disrupting Israeli and American munitions to the extent of thwarting attacks in Syria.  

One of the reasons is the development of Israeli munitions with an internal autonomous navigation mechanism and situational assessment capabilities. Another reason is electronic warfare countermeasures capable of providing Israeli aircraft with enough of an area to attack, even where the Russian systems are deployed.    

The competition between the Israeli and Russian industries is not new. In almost all of its wars, Israel was confronted with various types of Russian weapons - in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and more. This confrontation requires the Israeli industry to overcome the Russian one. It should be added that the large-scale immigration from Russia in the 1990s brought with it a lot of engineering knowledge from Russia that immeasurably improved the capabilities of the Israeli defense industry.     

The Kremlin's Catch-22

And now, as we approach 2022, the Russians are complaining that their defensive weaponry doesn't work well against Israeli weaponry. So what did the Kremlin decide to do? It decided to threaten Israel. If Israel stops attacking in Syria, the Kremlin can continue to claim that their systems are excellent, and sell them to whomever they want. But there's a problem. If there is a real war with a military that uses American, European or Israeli weapons, those customers are going to be in trouble.     

Will the Russians decide to operate the S-300 or S-400 systems against IDF planes in the future? Well, it's highly doubtful. If the system works, and it shoots down an Israeli fighter plane, the system will be destroyed by the IDF in the attacks that follow. Nobody can defend those systems in Syria, and they are not capable of defending themselves alone from a weapon from standoff distance. They are expensive systems that Syria doesn't have the money to pay for. In other words, those new systems will be acquired with Russian money for Syria.       

If the system doesn't work, the whole world will see that the system is not worth the money, and the Russian sales will suffer even more. Furthermore, those systems, apparently the more advanced versions that are not intended for export, are located around Moscow and Russian strategic sites to defend them from American or European attacks on Russia. If it becomes clear that the Russian systems don't hit their targets, it will be a strategic failure by the Kremlin against NATO and the U.S.   

Thus, it can be assumed that in the current reality, the Russians will continue to sell systems and claim that they are thwarting the attacks in Syria, without providing proof. The IDF will continue what it is doing in Syria without saying a word about the Russian systems. Jerusalem will also maintain silence regarding the matter with the Kremlin. Everything will go on as usual, and everyone will be satisfied.

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