Moscow is selling S-400 air defence systems to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the first case, a down payment has apparently been made while in the second the intention has been announced. This immediately presents the question of why Moscow would agree to sell one of its crown jewel weapons systems to countries which are not only not solid allies but are, in fact, American allies.
The "Atlanticist View" answer to the question would run something like this: Putin's "hold on power" is trembling, the Russian economy is in trouble, Russia is running out of money and because it has only two exports, weapons and energy, it is desperate to sell either to anyone. And, right on cue, from the usual people, we had this a couple of weeks ago:
Putin’s hold on Russia may be more fragile than it appears. One reason is Western economic sanctions, which are biting and causing hardship to Russian businesses and ordinary citizens. Another is the dependence of Russia’s economy on fossil fuels at a time when oil prices are down and not expected to rebound soon. To the extent that Putin’s legitimacy rests on prosperity, Russia’s economic woes are a problem for him.
While no one in the report stated that "Putin's Russia" might sell weapons, the participants would probably see such sales as another indications of "economic woes". To them "Russia has effectively declared political war on the West, even if Europe and the United States haven’t quite grasped that yet." Such people think that, in order to "keep Russians under his autocratic thumb, he needs them to see that the freedoms of Berlin, London and Washington are nothing to be envied". This is a continuation of the fantasies that have ruled in such circles (and paid the participants generously) for years and makes them always surprised by what Moscow does. A year ago, for example, some of the "best security minds" of the "POLITICO Cabinet" quoted above were rabitting on about how Russia was in a quagmire in Syria and that "time is not on Russia's side". And, a year before, one of them was saying Russia was economically weak and politically "brittle". Flat learning curves all of them. Syria was not a quagmire, Russia is not isolated, it's not failing, its leaders are not fools, its economy is not collapsing, support for the Putin team is strong, sanctions are not "biting" and weapons sales are not the last gasp before collapse.
Where these people profess to perceive an innate Russian malevolence and hostility to "freedom", others see a wholly rational response to years of NATO expansion and Washington's flouting of international law and custom, regime change operations and invasions wrapped in sanctimonious protestations of virtue. Moscow believes – quite rationally – that it is on Washington's target list and it is my opinion that it was the destruction of Libya under "human rights" cover that finally convinced the Putin Team that it had better look to Russia's defences. Subsequent experience of Ukraine and Syria would only have strengthened their resolve. The S-400 sale is better seen as component in a prophylactic policy against further Washington-NATO chaotic wars and to safeguard Russia itself than malicious resistance to counselling from its betters.
The S-400 sales are actually a geostrategic move of some significance.
The first question to be asked is what, exactly, will be sold to NATO member Turkey and US ally Saudi Arabia? I doubt it is the full-capability S-400 system that Russia itself is using. First, Almaz-Antey is already working on the next in the evolving series. Secondly I would be very surprised if there weren't, buried inside the circuits, an IFF system that would prevent firing at a Russian aircraft and a self-destruct failsafe if anyone should try to tamper with the inside. As for those who think that no one would buy systems with such limitations, the simple response is this: who apart from the makers would know whether there were such limitations, where and what they were and how to nullify them? We have the confirmation of all that here:
"We won't give them any of the electronic codes or 'internals.' Under the agreement, technical servicing will only be done by Russia and they [the Turks] won't gain entry to the systems," a Russian military source told Gazeta.ru.
"All the fears about the leak of technology are greatly exaggerated, especially so far as anti-aircraft missiles are concerned," Khodarenko said. "Even if they were to disassemble the system down to the last bolt to try to pull out some military secrets, they would still be left with nothing."
So, as to the question of Moscow's risking the secrets of the S-400 falling into the wrong hands, I would assess that it is greatly reduced if not altogether eliminated.
The S-400 system is generally considered to be pretty capable even there has been – as far as we know – no combat use of it. Its threat may have reduced US coalition aircraft operations in Syria and a US general said that "the introduction of an A2/AD bubble in Syria would be Russia’s third denial zone around Europe". It is a complete mobile system involving several different missiles and a full suite of radars, management and command centres. There are a number of variations and combinations of parts possible – it's not yet public exactly what parts either will be buying – with effective ranges out to 400 kilometres against targets including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and all kinds of aircraft. A large number of targets can be tracked and many missiles controlled at once by the integrated detection and command package. Like most Russian (and Soviet) systems it is the product of years of evolution, testing and learning. So, on paper, it is very formidable. And, since it has a number of customers, one has to assume that they are convinced that it is as good as it is advertised. In conclusion, therefore, it is likely that the systems sold to Turkey and Saudi Arabia will be protected against being used against the Russian Aerospace Forces and protected against prying eyes trying to get its secrets. But they are buying an air defence system effective against non-Russian targets.
And why would they want that? They know that Washington has a history of turning against former associates. Saddam Hussein was useful until he wasn't, so was Manuel Noriega, bin Laden & Co ditto, Qaddafi had his moment of cooperation, even Bashar Assad had his after 911. It is more dangerous to be Washington's former friend than to be its permanent enemy. Both Ankara and Riyadh could be contemplating the possibility of becoming Washington's former friend. One should remember that Erdoğan attributes last year's coup attempt against him to Washington's influences and Riyadh may be contemplating another switch of Western patron.
In short, should either Ankara or Riyadh be contemplating a move away from Washington, precedent suggests they should prepare for the worst. And, as Hussein, Noriega, bin Laden, Qaddafi and Assad can all attest, air attacks are the principal expression, in military form, of Washington's displeasure. If all you have are antiquated and poorly maintained Soviet air defences from the 1980s (or US equipment with hidden IFF settings) you are pretty helpless and US air power will have a free run.
But, with S-400s, you have a chance. Or at least an alternative. And that is the geopolitical significance of the sales.
The possession of S-400 system gives the owner the possibility of a foreign policy independent of Washington.
Therefore it is not just another weapons sale, it could be a geopolitical game-changer.