In making the case for the supply of S-300 missiles to Syria, Russia's highly experienced foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, tried to make the point that his government was only selling Damascus "a purely defensive system." The S-300, he said, as was clear from its name, was for purposes of "air defense."
In other words, he was suggesting that there were weapons systems, like air defense missiles, that were inherently defensive by their nature.
Ironically, by making this argument, Lavrov was undermining one of the main pillars of Moscow's case against other defensive systems which it has opposed vociferously in the past. If defensive weapons systems should not be opposed because, by definition, they have no offensive applications, then why not accept US missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe or in other countries ringing Asia? For while Russia has been stressing that its air defense systems are not offensive in character, it has been strenuously opposing missile defenses for many years, refusing to see them as defensive weapons alone. Since president Ronald Reagan first proposed the US anti-missile system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) - also called the "Star Wars" program - in 1983, Russian strategists argued to their American counterparts that missile defenses are inherently destabilizing. During the Cold War, stability was based on the maintenance of deterrence and the credibility of each superpower's retaliatory strike capability. The argument against missile defenses back then was that a robust SDI-type system could neutralize the weakened retaliatory capacity of the side that was hit first.
This strong opposition to missile defenses was maintained by Moscow after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. To some extent it was intensified as the Soviet missiles forces were degraded and even cut by arms control agreements like START. In 2007, for example, when the Bush administration proposed installing missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, the chief of the Russian General Staff declared that Moscow would withdraw from arms control agreements with the West in retaliation.
In that same year, President Vladimir Putin even compared the deployment of Western anti-missile systems to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Russian generals in 2007 spoke about targeting these missile defense systems if they were ordered to do so by the Russian leadership. More recently, the US defense correspondent Bill Gertz reported on Russian military exercises simulating an attack on US sea-based missile defenses deployed on an Aegis cruiser near Japan.
In a speech in late December 2009, Putin laid out the logic behind the Russian opposition to missile defenses: "By building such an umbrella over themselves our [US} partners could feel themselves fully secure and will do whatever they want which upsets the balance."
In short, according to the Russians' strategic doctrine, missile defenses were completely destabilizing.
It would take extraordinary political acrobatics to explain why missile defenses in Eastern Europe endanger stability, yet robust air defenses based on the S-300 in Syria somehow contribute to stability.