Text size

Relations between Israel and Russia have grown tense over a significant change in Moscow's attitude regarding the possible sale of S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and asked him to prevent the arms deal from going through.

Ahead of a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev next week, Israel has began an international effort to pressure Russia not to complete the sale of the advanced air defense system.

The deal between Russia and Iran for the sale of the air defense system was signed more than a year ago, but external pressure, primarily from the United States and Israel, led the Russian political leadership to delay its implementation.

The Russian response to Israeli inquiries on the matter had been that they do not intend to complete the deal. The same message was reiterated during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Israel last month.

A senior political source in Jerusalem said that in recent weeks there has been noticeable change in Russia's position on the matter of the arms sale.

The deterioration was first noticed during the visit of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Moscow several weeks ago. Lieberman, who prides himself on his close ties with the Russian leadership, was surprised to hear the Russians presenting a position on the missile deal contrary to their earlier stance.

Medvedev told Lieberman that Russia has a signed contract with Iran and some payments had already been made.

"It is a lot of money," Medvedev told Lieberman. "There is an economic crisis at this time and we are having a very difficult time," the Russian president explained to the Israeli minister.

According to a report in the daily Maariv, Medvedev had even suggested to Lieberman that Israel purchase the defense system instead, or convince a third country to buy them.

Haaretz has learned that Lieberman's response to the Russian proposal was vague.

As a result of the negative impressions that Lieberman had during his visit to Russia on the matter of the arms deal, Israel commenced intensive diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Russia, the U.S. and European countries in order to restore the earlier Russian commitment not to complete the deal.

Netanyahu's call to Putin was part of this effort. The prime minister argued that delivering the defense system to Iran would undermine the military balance in the region. There have not been any reports on Putin's response.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak met a week ago at the Paris Airshow with the Russian chief of staff, General Nicolai Makarov, and asked that he also intervene to prevent the arms sale.

"Arms that will subvert the military balance in our region and which will threaten stability should not be delivered in our region," Barak said.

The S-300 is considered to be one of the most advanced air defense systems in the world, and its capabilities allow it to intercept aircraft flying 30,000 meters up, from 150 kilometers away.