Russia will be giving Lebanon a free, unconditional gift of arms and military supplies to strengthen the Lebanese army, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri this week.
The gift will include six Mi-24 attack helicopters, 31 T-72 tanks, 36 130-millimeter artillery pieces and 500,000 shells to be used by existing Lebanese artillery.
Lebanon has no real air force, aside from 30 helicopters and a few British jets from the 1950s, so it will need to train its soldiers to use the tanks and helicopters.
That gives Russia, whose President Dmitry Medvedev will pay a first visit to Israel in January, the chance to send military consultants and instructors to teach the Lebanese how to use the military equipment. Russia has coordinated the decision with Syria, which has long had a dominant influence on Lebanon.
The Russian announcement came shortly after the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs lifted its ban Friday on giving $100 million in military assistance to the Lebanese army. But another hearing on the issue is expected in January, and Republicans, who will be taking control of Congress, typically oppose military aid because they fear it will end up in the hands of Hezbollah.
Russia, in contrast, is setting no conditions for the use of the weapons it is giving Lebanon.
The Russian decision could help American supporters of military aid to Lebanon push through the assistance in an effort to keep Beirut from expanding its Russian acquisitions, which would keep the United States from monitoring how the weapons are used.
The Soviet Union began using the Mi-24 helicopter in 1972, including during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The attack helicopter, which is similar to a Black Hawk but can operate under tougher conditions than the U.S.-made version, is equipped with machine guns and can carry up to half a ton of bombs. It has a 450-kilometer range and can fly up to 330 kilometers an hour.
Russia announced in 2007 that it plans to replace all of its 250 Mi-24s with Mi-28s, and the helicopters it will be giving Lebanon will likely be those manufactured in the 1980s.
Hariri tribunal worries Arab states
Meanwhile, the international tribunal on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri continues to worry Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United States.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and Saudi Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah, King Abdullah's son, have been holding frequent meetings for weeks in an effort to reach an agreement on an appropriate reaction to the indictment that the international tribunal is expected to issue in the coming weeks.
The options include letting the Lebanese government cooperate with the court or calling for it to ignore what the court says. Their primary goal is preventing Hezbollah from using violence or inciting riots that could paralyze the Lebanese government.
The goal is to maintain stability in Lebanon, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said last week. He criticized Egypt for saying the international court should be allowed to look into the assassination.
Up to about a month ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was refusing to reveal how Hezbollah would treat the court, but last week he laid out a few possibilities, including "very broad action to foment major regime change."
Nasrallah did not go into detail about how such regime change might be implemented, but he has demonstrated his ability to paralyze the government and indirectly determine who will be president.
He did specify that he does not expect an imminent Israeli attack on Lebanon, "since the Israelis have not yet completed their preparations for a conflict with Hezbollah, especially on their home front."
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