Medvedev phones Olmert to affirm ties

Assad in Moscow to buy arms; Russia may cut NATO ties; tension high after US-Polish missile deal.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit:)
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
In an atmosphere of heightened tensions, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday night to affirm the ties between the two countries. According to Olmert's office the two leaders talked about regional and bilateral issues and looked to advance relations between their nations. The conversation came after Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in Russia Wednesday for a two-day visit during which he is seeking to purchase weapons, including long-range anti-aircraft missiles. Assad has reportedly offered to allow Moscow to deploy Russian Iskander missiles in its territory. The Iskander (known by NATO as the SS-26 Stone) is a short-range, solid fuel-propelled missile system. Russia has reportedly not taken him up on the offer, which was publicized on Wednesday, the same day the United States signed an agreement with Poland to place a defensive missile system on Polish soil. Also on Wednesday, Russia informed Oslo that it plans to cut all military ties with NATO, the Norwegian Defense Ministry said. Norway's embassy in Moscow had received a telephone call from "a well-placed official in the Russian Ministry of Defense" who said Moscow planned "to freeze all military cooperation with NATO and allied countries," said State Secretary Espen Barth Eide of the Norwegian ministry. Russian officials were not immediately available to confirm the report, and the Russian ambassador to NATO did not reply to messages left on his cellphone. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post prior to Russia's move to cut relations with NATO, Israeli diplomatic sources said they were concerned, but not overly so, about Syria's visit to Russia because they believed Moscow's desire to be a diplomatic player in the Middle East would temper the scope of any military hardware sales it made to Syria. According to the Financial Times, Assad said he believed Russia would be receptive to his request to buy more arms given that Israel had supplied Georgia with weapons and that Russia and Georgia had been engaged in battle for the past few weeks. "Everyone knows about the role Israel and its military consultants played in the Georgian crisis," Assad said, adding that Russia could no longer count on "friendliness" from Israel. Israeli diplomatic sources disagreed. "We do expect that Russia will behave in a responsible way," said one diplomat, who added that all contacts with Moscow in the past weeks indicated that Russia was satisfied with its relationship with Israel. Russia has offered to host a Middle East peace conference and to mediate between Jerusalem and Damascus, the sources said. Moscow could not take steps that would inflame the region by increasing the level of arms in the arsenal of Israel's neighbors while at the same time presenting itself as the advocate of a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the diplomatic sources said. What would concern Israel is a scenario in which Russia increased the level of defensive weapons it was offering Syria to include anti-aircraft missiles, the diplomatic sources said. Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, dismissed the Israeli position as "wishful thinking," particularly given that Jerusalem had supplied arms to Georgia in the past. "Russia now [in light of the conflict with Georgia] feels that it has a free hand to do what it likes," Inbar said. Still, he said, Israel had already faced Russian arms of late, during the Second Lebanon War, when Hizbullah used Russian anti-tank missiles it obtained from Syria. "So in this respect there is nothing new, the Russians are not going to be our friends," he said. Given its democratic nature, Israel would always be closer to the United States than with Russia, he added. Inbar said he believed the situation with Russia in general had become more dangerous, but that he did not believe the world had returned to the days of the Cold War. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also expressed her belief that the "the Cold War is over" on Wednesday. Still, she continued to threaten Russia by saying that it would pay for its military operations in Georgia. Russia in turn issued threats to the United States Wednesday after the deal for a defensive missile system in Poland was signed. Although it is designed to defend Europe from Iran, Moscow believes that it's aimed at weakening Russia. Moscow issued a stern warning that should the missile system develop beyond the current plans, its response would go beyond diplomacy. The Russian Foreign Ministry's statement Wednesday was not as stark as the warning from a Russian general last week that Poland was risking a Russian attack, possibly even with nuclear weapons, by agreeing to host American interceptors. Nevertheless, Russia expert Amnon Sella of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya said Rice was correct given that the Cold War described a specific post-World War II period when the two superpowers were armed to the teeth with thousands of nuclear warheads targeting each other. But while Russia might be stronger than its neighbors, it did not have the same military capacity that it did during the Cold War, Sella said. AP and Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.