Putin tells ‘Post’: Missile deal with Syria possible

By David Horovitz January 28, 2005

Russian president says `defensive’ weapons won’t harm regional balance

KRAKOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, refused to rule out his country’s sale of anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, insisting that such missiles serve ‘defensive’ purposes only and would not affect the balance of forces in the region.

Putin was speaking to the Post through a translator at a luncheon in Krakow hosted by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.

He was asked first about the direct link he had drawn between Nazism and modern terrorism in a speech he delivered earlier in the day.

Questioned as to whether he regarded modern terrorism as a threat to humankind, Putin replied: ‘Definitely. That has been our direct experience. Those extremists who represent international terrorism in our territory in the northern Caucasus, what they want is to establish a global caliphate. This resembles the Nazis’ aspiration to global leadership. The same can be said, by the way, of the Communist revolution.’

The Post then put it to Putin that Israel was extremely concerned by terrorism, and had specific anxieties regarding planned Russian missile sales to Syria, a state notorious for its support of terror groups. Putin responded at length.

‘First of all,’ he said, ‘we understand and are committed to maintaining the balance of forces in the region. We understand our responsibilities. We have not taken a single step to violate that balance and we will follow that pattern in the future.’

Waiting patiently while his translator rendered this into English, Putin then continued, ‘Second of all, we won’t bring to the region weapons that can be used by terrorists or that can be transferred to terrorists without controls.’ The Russian president then repeated, ‘We have and will always act according to our international obligations.’ In that light, he added, the contemplated missile sale to Syria would not constitute a violation of responsibility because, he asserted, these are purely ‘defensive missiles.’

‘While we’re talking about supplies of weapons to countries in the region,’ he said, ‘such a supply should be understood in the light of supporting defensive capacities, as in Syria.’

Putin added that he was discussing the planned sale along with all other issues, ‘with all participants’ in what he called ‘the Middle East settlement, including frankly and openly with our Israeli partners.’

Indeed, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon talked with Putin only last week, and the two are expected to speak again in the coming days. And it is understood that Russia’s planned missile sale to Syria is currently on hold – neither definitively on, nor definitively off, according to Israeli sources.

‘Our actions, I say again,’ Putin then reiterated, ‘have never violated and will never violate the balance of
power in the region.’

The Post then pointed out to the Russian president that at the moment, that balance finds Israel with a vital military advantage.

Putin’s response: ‘Definitely, today, Israel has all the powers compared to its neighbors.’ The Post would have liked to clarify that rather equivocal response, but Putin indicated that the interview was over.

Israel, and the US for that matter, have been particularly concerned by Russian plans to sell SA-18 shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus.

According to Israeli sources, the SA-18 may indeed be described as a defensive missile, but Israel’s concern is that from Damascus they will find their way to Hizbullah and then to the West Bank, and come to constitute a threat to civilian airliners landing at and taking off from Ben- Gurion International Airport.

Senior Israeli diplomatic officials responded to Putin’s comments by saying he was resorting to a ‘traditional’ Soviet policy regarding arms sales – namely, that Moscow was only selling defensive, and not offensive, weapons.

‘The line between defensive and offensive weapons is very thin,’ one official said. ‘With this type of weapon they may feel more confident to take offensive actions against Israel.’ Furthermore, the officials said, if this weapon is delivered to terrorist organizations it becomes a purely offensive weapon that could be used to shoot down civilian aircraft.

The officials said that while Jerusalem did not expect that the sale would be finalized during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s current trip to Russia, they do expect that Russia will try to go through with the deal at another time, and try to get around Israeli and US objections that the missiles could be easily transferred to terrorists by reconfiguring them and placing them on Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs).

The officials said that the Russian decision to waive Syria’s $10 billion debts accumulated from previous arms deal is a clear indication that Russia has long-term plans for future arms deal with Damascus, and is trying to pave its way back into the Middle East via weapons sales.

Regarding whether mounting the missiles on APCs would remove the threat of their being transferred to terrorists, one official said ‘whatever can be mounted on a vehicle can easily be removed later.’

Israeli President Moshe Katsav held talks on Thursday night with Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, Germany’s President Horst Koehler and Romanian President Traian Basescu.

During his talks with Putin, it is understood, the Russian leader had given similarly equivocal responses on his plans to sell missiles to Syria as he had done in his interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier Thursday.

Chirac told Katsav, in talks which focused largely on Iran, that while Europe realized that Tehran was not telling them everything about its WMD programs, Europe nevertheless remained optimistic that international pressure on Iran, via diplomatic routes, would ultimately prevail.

(With reporting by Herb Keinon)

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