Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 87

Russia’s ambassador to Israel made the surprising assertion last week that Moscow has no major arms deals in the works with Syria. Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters on April 28 that “we have no arms deals, have no evidence there are complete agreements or deals on this” with Syria. He also said that reports in Israeli–or Russian–newspapers purporting that Israel and Syria are on the verge of signing a major arms accord are “totally untrue.” Bogdanov’s remarks came before a meeting with Eytan Bentsur, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry. The Israeli government had reportedly requested clarification from Russia whether reports of the arms deal were accurate. Bentsur himself expressed satisfaction with Bogdanov’s message, telling reporters that “we are satisfied with his information.”

The Bogdanov remarks are surprising because Russian defense and arms export officials have been negotiating with Syria for several years now over what has been suggested would be a major Syrian purchase of Russian military hardware. Indeed, even in late February of this year Russian reports continued to suggest–in this case following talks in Moscow between top Russian and Syrian defense officials–that military-technical cooperation between the two countries could amount to US$2 billion over the next five years (Russian agencies, February 25). More recently there has been talk of an imminent, Russian-Syrian deal under which Damascus would purchase Russian Su-27 fighters, tanks and, possibly, advanced S-300 air defense missiles.

What is unclear from Bogdanov’s remarks is whether the Russian-Syrian arms negotiations have stumbled yet again–as they have on several occasions over the past two years–on Syria’s inability to pay for the Russian hardware, or whether Moscow has in some way reassessed its relations with Damascus and the desirability of dealing arms to that country. In that context, it is noteworthy that Bogdanov also announced on April 28 that Moscow intended to dispatch a special envoy–Nikolai Kartuzov–to the Middle East in order to try to break the impasse in Israel-Syrian peace talks. Reports suggested that Moscow hoped to use its friendly relations with Syria in order to persuade Damascus to resume talks with Israel. Kartuzov, who is a former Russian ambassador to Iraq, was scheduled to arrive in the Middle East this week, and will reportedly visit Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus (UPI, Reuters, AP, Xinhua, Itar-Tass, April 28; Jerusalem Post, April 30).