Israel carefully watching as Russians move in

jerusalem | A Russian plan to send a separate peacekeeping force to Lebanon has raised eyebrows in Israel, yet officials say they have no objections to it.

But other steps by Russia — such as ties and arms supplies to radicals like Syria and Iran, and differences with Israel on key issues like Iran’s nuclear weapons drive — are raising questions about Russia’s role in the region.

Hawkish observers like Yigal Carmon, president of the Middle East Media and Research Institute, maintain that if it helps them return to prominence, the Russians would have no qualms about seeing Israel destroyed.

“They don’t care about the Jews one way or the other. If it serves their interest to sacrifice us, that’s what they will do,” he says.

Regarding the Lebanon force, at least, Israel appears unconcerned.

Some observers see the force, operating independently of the United Nations’ French-led UNIFIL peacekeepers, as a sign that Russia is seeking a foothold in the Levant that could prejudice Israeli interests. But the force will remain in Lebanon only for a short time, and will focus solely on reconstruction work. It consists of two teams — engineering corps troops who are repairing bridges damaged in the Lebanon war and a small defense team to protect them.

Israeli officials say they would have preferred the Russians to operate within UNIFIL’s framework, but knew of the force in advance and support the troops’ humanitarian work.

“The Russian presence is a bilateral arrangement between Russia and Lebanon and Israel has no problem with it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said in an interview.

Russia says it plans to withdraw forces from Lebanon within six weeks, by which time the bridge repair work should be complete.

They also are using their brief sojourn in Lebanon to make a point about relations with Muslims from Chechnya. The soldiers guarding the engineers are from Chechen units in the Russian army.

Apparently the Russians believe rogue Lebanese militiamen are less likely to fire on fellow Muslims. They also want to give the Chechens a sense of being part of the Russian role in the Middle East and to showcase their domestic Muslim connections in a positive way, analysts say.

More than hurting Israeli interests, the Russians want to create the impression of being major players on the world stage, taking independent initiatives wherever they can, analysts maintain.

Nevertheless, Russia’s ties to Syria and Iran and its position on Iranian nukes are raising concern in Israel.

MEMRI’s Carmon sees Russia as part of the anti-Israel, Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Most Israeli analysts, however, see Russia playing a far more responsible role. For example, Amnon Sela, a Russia expert at the Herzliya Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, maintains that “Russia under Putin wants to show its independence on the world stage, but without compromising its close ties with the U.S., the EU and the G-8.”

In the Middle East, that translates into Russia going along with international initiatives, while seeking to carve out niches where Russia can play a special role.

Analysts identify a number of influential groups in Moscow pulling Russian foreign policy in different directions. The most powerful is the predominantly pro-Western clique led by Putin. At the other end of the spectrum is the floundering military-industrial complex, motivated by profit and an abiding hatred of the United States, ready to sell arms wherever it can.

Israeli officials say there’s no question that, for now, Putin’s is the dominant voice, and he’s fully in control.

“Putin is a great friend of Israel’s and a great friend of the Jews,” a senior official said. “He may not be the only decision-maker in Russia, but thank God he’s the most important one.”

Still, Israeli-Russian relations have not been free of tension. One of the major sticking points was the large number of sophisticated Russian anti-tank weapons that wound up in Hezbollah hands and caused most of the Israeli casualties in the Lebanon war — exactly as Israel warned when Russia overrode Israeli objections on arms sales to Syria.

During Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s mid-October visit to Moscow, Russian leaders gave assurances that the flow of Russian arms to Hezbollah was a thing of the past. They told Olmert that Syria and Iran had broken contractual agreements not to allow Russian arms they bought to fall into the hands of third parties, and they promised to be stricter in the future about enforcing their arms export rules.

An even bigger Israeli concern is Russia’s ongoing relationship with Iran. The Russians are set to supply Tehran with $700 million worth of Tor M1 mobile anti-aircraft systems, which could put Israeli jets at risk in another round of fighting in Lebanon or help Iran protect nuclear installations in a showdown with Israel or the United States.

Then there’s the Russian role in Iran’s nuclear program. For years, Russia provided Iran with nuclear technology as they built the reactor at Bushehr.

On the upside, Russia has not allowed Iran to use the facility to produce nuclear fuel, and construction at Bushehr is about four years behind schedule, because the Russians apparently are dragging their feet.

But Olmert failed to persuade Putin to consider military steps to pre-empt Iran’s nuclear weapons’ drive.

“The Iranians need to fear that something they don’t want to happen to them will happen to them,” the prime minister declared in Moscow, adding that Israel never would accept the idea of a nuclear Iran.

While acknowledging that Russia was deeply troubled by Iran’s nuclear drive, Putin ruled out military action.

Still, Israeli officials dismiss the idea of a dark strategic alliance between Russia and Iran, arguing that, on the contrary, the Russians are deeply suspicious of Iranian motives.

“They have a lot of trade with Iran, that’s true. But they know exactly what Iran is up to and what Iran stands for,” one senior official said. “They too are very worried about Islamic extremism. And it’s not only the Chechen problem: There are 20 million Muslims in Russia, and the last thing they need is for them to go the extremist way.’

But while Russia and Israel both oppose a nuclear Iran, the stakes for each are very different. Russia would simply train dozens of its own nuclear weapons on Iranian cities, creating a balance of fear.

For Israel, however, nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical regime that calls for its destruction constitute a clear and present existential threat.