When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert goes from Jerusalem to Moscow later this month, his first order of business will be to make sure the Russians don’t sell sophisticated new weaponry to Syria that could alter the military status quo in the Middle East.
Late last month, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Russia to make a pitch for the arms, new anti-aircraft missiles and ground-to-ground rockets that would put all of the Jewish state within range of Damascus.
Though Russia rejected the request, the Russians apparently are prepared to sell Syria other anti-aircraft missiles, state-of-the-art, anti-tank missiles and fighter planes.
In January 2005, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s president and now its prime minister – promised Israel not to sell arms that might upset the strategic balance in the Middle East. So far, Putin has kept that promise.
But with talk of a new Cold War in the offing following Russia’s military successes in Georgia earlier this month, Israel is worried Russia might reassess this policy and use the sale of new weaponry to Syria – or the threat of it – to strengthen Russia’s hand vis-a-vis Israel’s primary ally, the United States.
Some experts are concerned that the growing clash between Russian and U.S. interests will prompt Moscow to feel freer to sell its arms to countries outside the U.S. orbit that also happen to be hostile to Israel.
The worst-case scenario, experts say, is that Russia would revert to its Soviet role as Middle East spoiler, fanning the flames of conflict and undermining peace efforts.
Most say, however, that Russia will always stop short of direct confrontation – and the Georgia episode hasn’t changed this approach.
“There is no way the Russians are going back to the Cold War or anything like it,” one Israeli official told JTA on the condition of anonymity.
But Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is now at Tel Aviv University, argues that Russia has emerged much stronger from its Georgia campaign and that this will have repercussions for the Middle East.
In Rabinovich’s view, U.S.-Russian co-operation on Iran is now far less likely, and Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria are much more likely.
Israeli analysts say the Russian military industry long has been pushing for unrestricted weapons sales, but Putin has been wary of selling weapons that could spark regional flare-ups and involve Russia in head-to-head conflict with the West.
In the past, Russia has refrained from selling strategic weapons like the Iskander-E ground-to-ground rocket or the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Syria.
The Iskandar is far more accurate than the Scud rockets currently in the Syrian arsenal and could pinpoint any target in Israel from Haifa to Eilat. The S-300 has a range of 125 miles and can handle 36 targets at once. Deployed in Damascus, it could threaten aircraft deep inside Israeli airspace.
With Moscow emboldened after its dramatic success in Georgia, some Israeli analysts worry these weapons eventually could find their way to Damascus.
In the telephone conversation last month during which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev invited Olmert to Moscow, the Israeli prime minister bluntly conveyed the extent of Israel’s opposition to any such sale to the Syrians.
It would be a pity for Assad to spend billions on arms Israel would be forced to destroy, Olmert reportedly warned Medvedev.
The Russian-Syrian connection goes back to the mid-1950s, when the Soviet Union turned the Arab-Israeli conflict into a proxy war with the U.S.
In those days, the Soviets were perceived as a real threat to Israel’s existence and as an obstacle to peace.
Syria became Moscow’s chief client state after Egypt expelled the Soviets in 1972 and made peace with Israel in 1979. This changed only in the late 1980s, when Syria no longer could afford to buy conventional weapons from Russia.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia pursued a more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. Although it continued to sell arms to Syria, it developed economic ties with Israel worth more than $2 billion a year – a volume of non-military trade that exceeds that between Russia and the entire Arab world.
Israeli officials do not expect this to change much in the wake of the Georgia campaign.
The key question is what the Russians do in Iran. The record so far is not encouraging.
Russia has done little to help stop the Iranian nuclear weapons drive. On the contrary, Russia has signed lucrative contracts to develop Iranian nuclear plants and oil fields; blocked U.N. Security Council proposals for stricter sanctions; built Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor; reportedly started supplying Iran with $4 billion worth of air defenses, including S-300 missile systems, to thwart a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities; and reportedly signed contracts worth about $20 billion to build 20 civilian nuclear power stations by 2020.
Israeli officials believe that Russia ultimately does not want to see Iran with a nuclear bomb – that would threaten Russian interests, too. Rather, Israel expects Russia to try to reap as much economic benefit as possible from its Iranian connections while stopping short of allowing Iran to acquire the bomb.
The question going forward will be whether the tension between Moscow and Washington heats up or cools down.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is hoping any potential Moscow problem can be defused with incentives from the West. During a visit to Washington in July, Barak proposed that the U.S. give up its planned missile defenses in eastern Europe in return for a clear-cut Russian commitment on Iran.
The Americans, however, were not convinced.