With the Syrian civil war winding down, many diplomats say Israel will soon turn its attention to eliminating Hezbollah.
From providing crucial support to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad to agreements to supply advanced S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries to Iran and Turkey, Russia has become a bigger player in the Middle East. Now it looks set to expand its influence in Lebanon.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in mid-September in Moscow and then Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi. Hariri told Russian media that Lebanon wanted to buy Russian military equipment and that Russian energy companies would be able to bid on drilling and development licences off Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast.
It’s clear that these play to Russia’s top exports — energy and armaments. If Russia helps Lebanon develop energy assets and equip its armed forces, there will be regional implications for Lebanon’s southern neighbour Israel.
Lebanon presents it as a counterterrorism strategy. Following his discussions with Putin, Hariri said: “We are partners with Russia in a common fight against terrorism.”
The military hardware on its Russian shopping list, however, is likely to raise tensions with Israel, which will see any improvement in Lebanon’s defensive capabilities as unwelcome. The list includes Kalashnikov AK- 47 assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, disposable rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Two years ago, Lebanon and Russia concluded a $500 million deal for AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles and T-72 tanks but the contract has not yet been implemented.
Israel will be watching closely. In 2006, during one of its incursions into southern Lebanon to fight Hezbollah, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) saw its front-line Merkava tanks badly damaged by fusillades of Russian-made AT-14 Kornet, RPG-29 Vampir, 9M113 Konkurs and 9K115-2 Metis-M anti-tank missiles.
The Russian weapons hit 45% of IDF Armoured Corps tanks and armoured personnel carriers, causing Israel to lodge a diplomatic protest with Moscow about such weaponry falling into Hezbollah’s hands, ostensibly via Syrian government purchases.
As with Russia’s sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries to Iran, the purchase of advanced Russian weaponry by Lebanon’s armed forces, determined to defend their national sovereignty, will be seen by Israel as a deeply destabilising regional development.
There is little sign that Russia will allow Israeli concerns to affect, much less dictate its course of action. Russian foreign policy takes less cognisance of Israel’s concerns than do the United States and the European Union. It is symbolic of this policy divergence that Russia does not recognise Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Russia’s pragmatism towards Israel is all the more striking considering more than 10% of Israel’s population is of Russian ethnicity.
Russia’s involvement in Lebanon’s efforts to develop its offshore hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean will similarly be a troubling development for Israel. Israel is in dispute with Lebanon over the countries’ offshore borders. The stakes are significant.
In March 2010, a US Geological Survey report on the Levant Basin concluded that the waters of Israel, Lebanon and Cyprus potentially contain at least 1,415 billion cubic metres of natural gas. It added that the Levant Basin could contain as many as 6,440 billion cubic metres of natural gas and 483 million barrels of oil.
Israel has begun to develop its offshore natural gas fields but Lebanon has lacked the expertise to follow suit. Russian involvement would change that.
Russia is a major player in Syria, on Israel’s eastern border. The new initiative with Lebanon would potentially give it a significant presence along Israel’s northern border as well as in the eastern Mediterranean. With Russia also improving its relations with Egypt, Moscow could be said soon to have a significant “encircling” presence around Israel.
With the Syrian civil war winding down, many diplomats say Israel will soon turn its attention to eliminating Hezbollah. What this will mean in a region that is increasingly acquiring more advanced Russian weaponry remains to be seen. The Kremlin may see its munitions shipments as deterrence but Israel will not.
The day Hariri met with Medvedev, sonic booms could be heard in the skies over southern Lebanon as IDF jets flew overhead. The stage may be set for many more.