Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Syria's chemical weapons cache was built up in response to Israel's alleged nuclear weapons stockpile, and that these nuclear capabilities make Israel into a target.
"Syrian chemical weapons were built in response to Israel's nuclear weapons," Putin said, responding to a question about the chances of persuading Syria to give up its arsenal, as agreed under a deal proposed by the Kremlin last week.
Speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod Region, north of Moscow, Putin said there are people in Israel who oppose nuclear weapons. Referring to nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, Putin said Vanunu was not anti-Israel, and that he did not change his stance on nuclear weapons even after years in prison.
Putin said that dismantling weapons of mass destruction was a key issue and that "Israel's technological superiority means that it doesn't have to have nuclear weapons." Israel's nuclear weapons "only make her into a target," he added.
In a conversation after the panel, Putin told one of the conference participants that Israel will have to agree to get rid of its nuclear weapons, as Syria was giving up its chemical weapons. The difference between Israel and Russia concerning nuclear arms, according to Putin, was that Russia is one of the five legitimate nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Playing the Israel card
Putin's statement is a new card in the Russians' poker game against the Americans vis-à-vis Syria's chemical weapons, former Israeli ambassador to Russia Eli Magen said. Putin's statement, he added, followed two similar remarks by senior Kremlin officials in closed conference sessions.
"Russia is dragging the Israeli nuclear issue into the Middle East negotiations," said Magen, today a senior researcher in the Institute for National Security Studies. "Perhaps this is a turning point in Russia's approach to Israel. So far Moscow has kept normal relations with Jerusalem."
But the move may have implications regarding Iran as well. Since Hassan Rohani's rise to power, he has been exchanging messages with the West, especially with the United States. If Washington and Tehran start direct negotiations, the Russians will be neutralized in yet another Middle Eastern arena they had been active in, after the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were resumed under American patronage without Moscow's involvement, he explained.
The Russians, who are also trying to resume dialogue with Iran, are even proposing renewing weapons and military supplies (S-300 air defense missile systems and a new nuclear reactor), Magen said, but added that as of now, it seems that this was not tempting enough for the Iranians. “Perhaps raising the Israeli issue will persuade Tehran to resume their talks with the Russians, since the Americans cannot deliver that," he said.
However, Vitaly Naumkin, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Chair of Faculty of World Politics, Moscow State University, said Putin did not intend to link Israel's nuclear weapons to Syria's chemical weapons.
"Putin said it was preferable for the Middle East to become clean of mass destruction weapons. It's an old idea Russia has been espousing for years. The Russians see it as the most effective way to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East," he said.
Naumkin said Putin is not conditioning dismantling Syrian chemical weapons on dismantling Israeli nuclear weapons. "The chemical weapons will be removed from Syria unconditionally," he said.
As far as the Russians are concerned, the ball is now in the UN Security Council’s court. Moscow says it is interested to assist the UN inspectors, in any way possible, to disarm Syria of chemical weapons. However, Putin’s words left some room for doubt.
"Syria agreed to join the Chemical [Weapons] Convention. Will we be able to accomplish it all? There is no one hundred percent certainty," he told a crowd of journalists and Russian experts, "But everything we have seen so far in recent days gives us confidence that this will happen ... I hope so." At one of the closed sessions, he sounded even more skeptical: “every effort that will enable us to dismantle,” according to a Kremlin official.
Some experts view these reservations as signs of insincerity on the Russian part. As Magen sees it, for Moscow this is yet another bargaining chip in their attempt to receive a higher return from Washington for disarming Syria. In one scenario, he speculates, Bashar Assad could be left in power, as part of an agreement with the U.S. that would prohibit a military offensive. Another scenario could be something to do with the second Geneva peace conference, where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry will discuss ways to end the war in Syria.
The Valdai International Discussion Club is an annual event, held in a different location in Russia every year, in which academics and journalists meet with Russian officials for a series of conferences and forums. The event, organized by the Russian RIA Novosti news agency, provides a unique opportunity to hear the Kremlin's take on central international events.
Taking part in the forums are some 200 "Russian and international experts on history, politics, economics and international relations" according to the organizers. Marking its tenth anniversary, the event is being held in its inaugural location – a hotel on the shores of Lake Valdayskoye, a favorite vacationing spot for the Russian elites in Soviet times. Despite a décor face-lift, the place still exudes a certain Soviet spirit, for better or for worse.
Moscow considers the event an important venue for promoting the nation's image, as part of its efforts to portray Russia in a positive light which highlights its complexities. Participants sample the best in Russian cuisine, of course – including a meal served by nuns from the nearby Valday Iversky Monastery, a central site of the Russian-Orthodox Church.
Among the participants are senior Russian opposition members, who are bestowed with a chance to present their views. This year, one of them was Kseniya Sobchak, a TV anchor turned opposition leader. Attending the forums were also senior figures of the Russian church, leaders of the Russian Muslim community and a representative of Russia's Jewry, who participated in a panel devoted to Russian interreligious dialogue.
'Garage-manufactured' chemical ammo
This year, the topic of Syria dominated the conference. Besides Putin, the official Kremlin position was presented in the forum by Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Kremlin’s Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov.
In their dispute with the UN inspectors - and with the West in general - the Russians maintained their position on the culpability for the usage of chemical weapons in Syria. Putin, Assad's main ally in the more than two-year-old civil war, said he had strong grounds to believe that an August 21 chemical attack in Syria was staged by opponents of the Syrian regime.
"We always talk about the responsibility of the Assad government, if he was the one who used it (a chemical weapon). What if the opposition used it?" Putin said. "We have every reason to believe it was a cunning provocation."
Russia argues that it has never supplied Syria with ammunition suited for chemical weapons use – and thus the Cyrillic script on shells found to have been used in the August 21 chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus prove it was carried out using improvised weapons, made, as one official put it, "in garages." Or as Putin put it, the use of Soviet ammunition could be construed as ''a clever provocation.''
Moreover, Moscow continues to claim ground samples it obtained prove improvised chemical weapons were used by rebels near Aleppo on March 19, adding it is willing to share this evidence. This attack on Kham al-Assal, was at the focus of the UN inspectors' Syria original mission, before attention was turned toward the large-scale attack near Damascus, for which both the rebels and the Syrian government trade blame.
On a fundamental level, Russia’s policy is an objection to unilateral action in the international arena or one that is not within the framework of international law. As a senior Russian official said, every military action not sanctioned by the UN Security Council or not in self-defense is an act of aggression.
"We see an attempt to violate the principles of international law and create a unipolar world,” said Putin. “Russia is convinced that decisions must be made jointly and not according to the interests of one country. We must understand that there are regions in the world that cannot live according to the same model, whether it is the American model or the European model. They have other traditions.”
The uprising in the Arab world in recent years, he argued, prove his point. “In Egypt we have returned to the starting point. In Libya, they (the West) had noble goals. Now the country is falling apart and everyone is fighting with everyone. Where is the democracy there?”
The founders of the UN had stated that the matters of war and peace should be decided unanimously, Putin noted, and added that if one country would act unilaterally it would undermine international order and the Security Council.
American and Israeli fears
To Israelis, Putin's statements sound hackneyed. Israel is used to acting in contravention of international law and it views every one of its attacks is viewed as being in self-defense, regardless of the international community’s position.
But for Russia, holding firm on these principles stems from its desire to limit American influence in the world and putting an end to what it sees as arrogance of bringing democracy by force to oppressive countries. Moscow wants to end American military actions across the globe, which are carried out in the name of protecting human rights, but are not supported by Russia.
Russia is reminding that unilateral actions by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya caused in the long run more harm than good. The “Libyan example,” a reference to the disappearance of large quantity of shoulder-fire missiles from Libyan army stockpiles and their transfer into 12 countries, is repeatedly mentioned by senior Russian officials. In their view, there is a clear and direct line heading from what happened in Libya to the events in Syria. When just 25 percent of the rebels in Syria support the West, as they Russians claim, Syrian chemical weapons falling into the rebels' hands constitutes a threat to the entire world. These warnings speak to both American and Israeli fears.
During his appearance at the conference, Putin mentioned the op-ed piece he wrote that was published in The New York Times. “It was my idea,” he said. “I noticed that [U.S.] President Obama had transferred the discussion over an attack on Syria to the Senate, and I wanted to provide the decision-makers with my position.”
With his characteristic cutting humor, Putin wrote off the response essay written by U.S. Senator John McCain that was published in Russian media and had called Putin a corrupt dictator. “I think that he has a certain deficit of information about our country,” Putin said in reference to the U.S. senator. “He wanted to be published in a newspaper that is most authoritative… Pravda is a respected publication the Communist party, now in the opposition, but the level of its distribution in the country is minimal.”
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