The S-400 missile battery and radar array that Russia’s defense minister claimed would be deployed to Syria — in response to Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane earlier this week — is capable of detecting and destroying aircraft some 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.
Its placement in Latakia would grant Russia aerial oversight over practically all of Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus, over half of Turkey, parts of Iraq and Jordan — and, of course, Israel: Planes flying in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport — approximately 395 kilometers (245 miles) from Latakia — would be within Russian sights.
“Do we have something to fear? The answer is: yes and no,” Russia expert Zvi Magen told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
“If [the S-400] is indeed deployed,” Magen explained, “it will be a game-changer.”
However, that is a big “if,” according to Magen, who served as Israel’s ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia in the 1990s. “I don’t see it actually reaching Syria,” the former Israeli ambassador to Moscow and Kiev explained.
Though Russia feels it must project strength and fearlessness in response to the Turkish military downing a Su-24M fighter jet that allegedly ventured into Turkey’s airspace on Tuesday, installing an S-400 missile system would be a dramatic statement with repercussions Russia would do better without, Magen said.
The S-400 Triumf system, also known as the SA-21 Growler, combines an advanced radar system, which can detect ballistic missiles and high- and low-flying aircraft from hundreds of miles away, with a variety of missiles capable of taking them out.
Anything from an F-15 fighter jet to a B-2 stealth bomber that comes into the range of the S-400 is at risk of being blown out of the sky.
‘If it gets there, [the S-400] would just change the rules of the game. But will it get there, is the real question.’
For Israel, the threat is not one of inevitable conflict: Russia is, after all, not an enemy. The threat is in the potential, explained Magen, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.
When Russia brought its troops into Syria, Israeli generals met with their Russian counterparts to create a hotline to ensure that the IDF could continue to operate against Hezbollah without incident.
Today that protocol is, to an extent, voluntary. However, should the Russian army bring in the anti-aircraft missile defense system, Israel would then be forced to coordinate its attacks with the Russians, Magen explained.
Israel would not have the freedom to be able to send in aircraft to Syria unannounced. The S-400 system would be a Sword of Damocles over the IAF’s head — ever present, always ready to knock an unsuspecting Israeli plane out of the sky.
“If it gets there, [the S-400] would just change the rules of the game,” he said. “But will it get there, is the real question.” And the answer: probably not.
“I have serious doubts that they will do it,” Magen said.
The S-300, which is about half as effective as the S-400, has been a source of sufficient worry and angst for Israel and other Western countries, who have been desperately fighting the sale of the system to the Iranians since 2007.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu simply threatening to deploy the S-400 into one of the most contentious regions in the world has already stirred ample controversy. Actually bringing in the defense system would be an aggressive move that would invite heavy international backlash — and for no good reason.
“They already have enough anti-aircraft systems in the area that are good enough to threaten the Turks,” Magen said.
But the main obstacle to aggressive Russian action is this: Russia cannot attack Turkey without facing a response from Ankara’s fellow NATO members.
“Section five of the NATO agreement states that if a member of NATO is attacked, the other members are required to assist. An attack on Turkey by Russia would basically be an invitation to all of NATO to deal with the Russians,” Magen explained.
“That’s not in Russia’s interest, nor is it within its capabilities,” he added.
Even if Russia were not currently engaged in military conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Russian President Vladmir Putin would be loath to enter into a conflict with the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and 24 other member states. But with the Russian military already preoccupied, a confrontation with NATO members would be even more disastrous.
“Before they do this, they will have to re-examine [their decision] thoroughly,” Magen said.
In place of a military response, he said, Putin will likely continue with the diplomatic and economic steps he has already taken against Turkey.
“Maybe he’ll take advantage of an opportunity to hit them here and there,” Magen said, “but the response will likely be political and economic, not a military conflict.”