Russia Presses for Larger Middle East Role

By Sergei Blagov | October 8, 2008 | 6:53 AM EDT

Moscow ( – As Russia moves to boost its clout in the Middle East, Israel is stepping up its appeals to Moscow not to provide Iran and Syria with advanced weapons systems.          
Visiting Moscow on October 6-7, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged President Dmitry Medvedev not to sell air defense and other sophisticated arms to Israel’s two most dangerous foes.
Medvedev refrained from any firm commitment on the issue, but reiterated Russia’s determination to play an important role in the Middle East and contribute to peace-making efforts in the region.
The Soviet Union supported the establishment of Israel in 1948 but later supported Israel’s Arab enemies. Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, relations with Jerusalem have improved, and Israel now buys 70 percent of its crude oil in Russia. Nearly one fifth of Israeli citizens are Russian speakers, originally from former Soviet states.
Serious bilateral disagreements exist, however, particularly over Russia’s role in building a nuclear reactor in Iran and anti-aircraft missiles sales to Syria. Moscow maintains that it carries out arms exports in accordance with international law and refrains from doing anything that would destabilize the region.
Israeli officials are skeptical of that claim. Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday called on Russia to play a positive role in peace efforts instead of destabilizing the Middle East.
Ahead of Olmert’s visit, the foreign ministry’s deputy director-general for Russia and Eurasia, Pinhas Avivi, told Russian journalists Russia should not supply offensive weapons to Iran and Syria. He denied that Israel sells equipment of that type to Georgia, an Israeli ally which Russia invaded in August, following a Georgian offensive against Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia.
Seeking to allay Israeli concerns, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Olmert Monday that Russia remained committed to preventing Iranian from using its nuclear program for military purposes. He warned Israel against solving the problem by force, however.
In keeping with its aim of increasing its profile in the region, a taskforce of Russian warships this week entered the Mediterranean for visits to Libyan and Syrian ports, en route to the Caribbean where they will hold joint exercises with Venezuela.
The visits follow Russia’s biggest military drill in the Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War, last January.
Moscow views relations with Syria as a key element of its Mideast policies. After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow in August, Russian authorities announced that renovation work was underway at the Syrian port of Tartus to allow Moscow to develop and enlarge the port for a regular naval presence in the Mediterranean.
Russia in recent years has agreed to restructure Soviet-era debt owed by Syria for earlier arms purchases.
A reported agreement to sell Syria Igla SA-18 shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles raised concerns – Israel worried that they could end up in the hands of Hezbollah or Palestinian terrorists, while the U.S. also opposed to the sale, concerned that the missiles could find their way into Iraq and be used against coalition assets there. There has been no confirmation that the sale has gone ahead.
Russia, a member of the “Quartet” mediating Mideast peace efforts, has consistently taken a softer line than Western governments on Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are considered terrorist organizations by Israel and most Western countries.
In April, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Moscow to discuss plans for a Middle East conference in Moscow in the fall of this year. During talks with Abbas, Russian officials suggested that the planned summit should also discuss Lebanese and Syrian aspects of the Middle East peace process.
However, the proposed Moscow conference failed to take place – evidently as a result of Russia-U.S. tensions over the Georgia war. At a Quartet meeting in New York City late last month, representatives “agreed that the spring of 2009 could be an appropriate time for an international meeting in Moscow,” according to a statement released after the meeting.
It remains unclear how the delay will impact the Bush administration’s stated goal of an agreement by the end of this year paving the way for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Quartet’s other members are the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.