Russian weapons in the Middle East

MOSCOW. (Nikita Petrov for RIA Novosti) - Three events have come together independently. But they produced an intrigue that has hooked both politicians and media in the Middle East. Here is what happened.

First, Moscow hosted MVSV-2008, an international show of weapons and military equipment. Then King Abdullah II of Jordan visited the show, met with designers and producers and had a discussion with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A few days previously, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had flown in for talks with Dmitry Medvedev. The press and television in Amman, Damascus and Tel Aviv made much of the events, especially the Syrian visit.

Israeli media claimed Bashar al-Assad had arrived on a purchasing spree, and his main aim was to buy the Iskander-E tactical missile system, in addition to Pantsyr-S1 and Buk-M2 ground-to-air missile systems and Su-30, MiG-29SMT and MiG-31E fighters. The Iskander missile had been promised to Damascus in 2001, and only a personal request by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to former President Vladimir Putin put a stop to its sale to Syria.

But now that Israel has helped to train Georgian commandos and equip the Georgian army that attacked South Ossetia, Moscow is within its rights to "repay the debt" and provide Damascus with the system, the media in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv said.

Yet Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during al-Assad's visit that Moscow "is ready to supply Syria only with defensive weapons, ones that do not upset the balance of strength in the region." This means Syria, as Moscow promised to Tel Aviv, will not get the Iskander system. Regarding ground- and air-based air defense units, including interceptor fighters, they are not considered offensive armaments and are immune from Russian-Israeli agreements.

It is another matter that military technical cooperation between Moscow and Damascus needs re-evaluating. Syria owes Russia $3 billion for weapons supplied to it, and this on top of Damascus' $10 billion debt for armaments sold in Soviet times which Moscow forgave, incidentally, for a pledge to spend another $2 billion on arms purchases from Russia.

Contracts currently being negotiated include Pantsyr and Buk missile systems, as well as Sukhoi and MiG fighters, but not Iskander missiles. The parties are also discussing the expansion of a Russian naval maintenance base at the Syrian port of Tartus.

Any movement of Black Sea Fleet forces from Sevastopol to Syria, as some Middle East publications suggest, is, of course, out of the question. But a supply and maintenance center for warships on missions in the Mediterranean will come in handy for Moscow. In the Soviet era, the Soviet Navy's 5th Mediterranean Squadron made full use of this port.

King Abdullah's visit to Moscow did not produce as much excitement as the trip by Bashar al-Assad to Sochi, perhaps because problems between Jordan and Israel are not as serious as between Tel Aviv and Damascus. Discussions mainly focused on military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Amman, rather than on Middle East issues. This cooperation is now on the rise, Dmitry Medvedev said during the meeting.

"Our relations are making good headway, this is our third meeting in six months and that points to the intensity of our contacts and good-neighbor relations," the president said, opening the discussion. "Trade between our countries grows steadily, although both countries would like to see it develop more quickly," Medvedev said.

Jordan lives up to these words. In recent years it has bought from Russia two Il-76MF military transport planes worth a combined $100 million, and six light multi-role Ka-226 helicopters (at an estimated cost of $25 million), which will be assembled in Jordan under license. The two countries have even set up a joint venture, Oboronprom Middle East, to assemble 15 to 20 Ka helicopters a year.

Plans are also under way to set up a joint venture for the production of RPG-32 Hashim multi-caliber grenade launchers. The launcher was developed by the Bazalt Moscow State Research and Production Enterprise at the suggestion of Abdullah himself. It is designed to engage armored vehicles and defended gun posts from a distance of up to 700 meters with 72mm and 105mm grenades. It will be produced in quantity both in Russia and in Jordan. Trial specimens have already been sent to Amman and were highly praised. A manufacturing license contract is expected to be signed soon. Jordan has received a special $350 million credit from Russia for this purpose, although the sum is also supposed to cover repairs and upgrading of weapons previously supplied to Amman.

Other equipment includes armored personnel carriers, fighting infantry vehicles, Kornet anti-tank missile systems, Igla ground-to-air missiles, and weapons for special operations - reconnaissance, sabotage and protection of the royal palace. King Abdullah is a former commando. He is an arms expert, and his buying of Russia's VSS silent sniper rifles and PSS silent pistols is good publicity for Russian arms-makers. It is not impossible that after his visit to Moscow, Amman will take delivery of Pantsyr-S1 ground-to-air missile systems, which are considered today among the most effective close-range air defense systems.

Russian weapons appeal not only to buyers in the Middle East. On August 23, the Russian president sent a message to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, raising the matter of military-technical cooperation between the two countries.

"Russia is interested above all in trade and economic cooperation between security-related agencies," the Russian leader told his Nicaraguan counterpart. "Military-technical cooperation between us offers a promising future."

This means that the military equipment once supplied to Nicaragua by the Soviet Union and which needs repairing, upgrading or replacing could be replaced with more advanced weapons, if Managua is willing. And Managua is willing, as is clear from the close ties that exist between Ortega and Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan leader is very pleased with Russian weapons.

The target mentioned at the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, of exporting $8 billion worth of Russian arms supplies in 2008, compared with $6.2 billion in 2007, does not seem too far-fetched.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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