Editorial: Russia’s dangerous sale

Selling weapons to Syria is bad conduct for a member of the Quartet, who purports to have the best interests of all the regional players at heart.

September 27, 2010 03:36
3 minute read.
Dmitry Medvedev

Medvedev angry 311 . (photo credit: Associated Press)

The Russians have pledged that state-of-the-art weaponry they are insistently marketing to Syria – despite entreaties from both Israel and the US – won’t end up in Hizbullah hands.

This, regardless of the fact that during 2006’s Second Lebanon War, Hizbullah deployed Russian-made anti-tank missiles that had been supplied to it by Damascus. Some such missiles fell into IDF hands still bearing original Russian insignia, which nobody had bothered erasing.

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This and many more examples of blatant Syrian-Hizbullah collusion prove that the latest Russian undertakings cannot be relied upon. We don’t know why Russia makes these hollow promises. Surely, it knows that Israel dare not take them seriously.

If anything, what the Russians continue to do, vis-à-vis both Syria and Iran, detracts from Russia’s claims, and its ostensible desire, to be a neutral force for peace. It also detracts from the welcome impact of its apparent decision to cancel the supply to Teheran of high-precision air-defense missiles.

Israel implored Russia not to sell Syria advanced rocketry, like the P-800 Yakhont cruise missiles. During his recent visit to Moscow, Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly lobbied hard against the sale. The Americans likewise did their bit, just as they had earlier tried to dissuade Russia from beginning the startup of Iran’s only nuclear power plant.

Hence, when it emerged that the Syrian transaction had not been put on hold, Russia not only disdainfully slapped Israel, it equally rebuffed the US.

Why would it do so? With the Cold War presumably long behind us, one might have expected to see the emergence of a cooperative rather than an obstructionist Russia. Yet Moscow’s behavior too often seems eerily reminiscent of the defunct Soviet Union.

Instead of moving forward as a genuine free-world democracy, Moscow can appear to be donning the trappings of democracy while performing inconceivable stunts of realpolitik acrobatics. It’s not an outright foe but neither is it quite the dependable friend. And it is very obviously determined to stake its claim to superpower status by forging foreign policies that, from these shores, sometimes appear to counter free-world interests, Israeli interests and, when it comes to enabling Iranian nuclear progress, even Russia’s own interests.

Evidently Moscow does not wish to appear to be dancing to Washington’s tune. But there are times when it’s almost as if Russia relishes being unpredictable and inscrutable. It canceled delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran, yet persists in efforts to weaken sanctions against the ayatollahs.

And the fact that the current American administration is regarded in Moscow as naïve plainly only emboldens Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin.

THE WEST, meanwhile, chronically fails in its strategic assessments of post-USSR Russia. Western intelligence has tended, especially initially, to exude unjustified optimism regarding the new Kremlin, despite the decisive ongoing influence of ex-KGB officers, Putin foremost.

This is particularly significant in our context. In his book The White House Years, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger astutely observed that the USSR’s animus toward Israel did not arise from the Soviets’ hobnobbing with the Arabs, but, rather, that it was often the Soviets who encouraged Arab antagonism and steered it forward with refurbished and modernized tactics.

With the influence of former Soviet personnel still rife, it is worrying to see signs of a Russian regression toward a revised version of yesteryear’s Cold War, albeit in lower profile.

Moscow’s chumminess with prime terror-sponsors like Syria is a dangerous case in point, especially given Syria’s open commitment to making its weaponry available to Hizbullah.

The insistent equipping of Syria with Russian technology cannot be explained away with promises that it won’t end up in terrorists’ hands when all the recent evidence is to the contrary. The assistance with Iran’s nuclear program is similarly irresponsible. It becomes ever-harder to avoid the conclusion that Russia deliberately fishes in murky waters, looking to align itself with countries inherently inimical to the West and thereby to consolidate a global counterweight bloc.

Israel has important interests in Russia, but it cannot afford to delude itself about the dangers presented by some of Moscow’s other partnerships.

The latest arms deal with Syria is a potential game-changer given our sensitive regional balance of power. So was Russia’s fueling of Iran’s reactor in Bushehr.

And such moves are intrinsically un-befitting conduct for a member of the Quartet, an international body that purports to have the best interests of all would-be peaceful regional players at heart.

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