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Jan. 12, 2005
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Like a Pogrom from the Blue
// Russian Missiles Chill Russian-Israeli Relations
People's Friendship
A major scandal erupted between Russia and Israel in the first few days of January 2005. In Jerusalem, they started talking about how relations between the two countries were on the verge of being severed. On January 2, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held a secret cabinet meeting on the Russian problem. Meeting participants signed a statement of nondisclosure. Israeli ambassador to Russia Arkady Mil-Man was urgently summoned to Jerusalem. According to Kommersant's information, this was Israel's reaction to Russia's plans to sell Syria the latest weapon Iskander-E high-accuracy tactical missile systems capable of striking targets at ranges of up to 280 km.

The first reports of a sharp worsening of relations between Israel and Russia appeared on January 3. The newspaper H'aaretz published a brief report on a special meeting on relations with Russia conducted by Ariel Sharon. Present at the meeting were Foreign Affairs Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, head of the National Security Council Gior Eyland, and the heads of all Israeli special services. Meeting participants signed a statement of nondisclosure. Nevertheless, it was learned that the meeting dealt with certain unfriendly moves on the part of Russia and the formulation of a retaliatory policy. According to H'aaretz, no specific decisions were made. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the special services were instructed to keep a close eye on the situation. Israeli ambassador Arkady Mil-Man was urgently summoned from Moscow. He bluntly refused to explain the reason for his unscheduled trip to the homeland to the Kommersant correspondent.

Israeli analysts started guessing the cause of the crisis. The first version concerned the words of Vladimir Putin, who said during a press conference on December 23 that there were people in Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko's entourage using Zionist slogans. However, since the Kremlin's press service qualified Vladimir Putin's statement (the Russian president wanted to say anti-Semitic), they rejected this version.

Meanwhile, the crisis deepened. A planned visit to Israel by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov, who had arrived as an observer of the elections for head of the Palestinian Autonomy, did not take place. Next, a second article on the same topic appeared in H'aaretz. This time, the newspaper's source in the Israeli government said the acute crisis in relations with Russia was caused by a specific, top-secret problem. Israel was obviously using these alarming reports to inform Moscow of its irritation.

Israeli analysts advanced numerous theories about what could have so suddenly undermined the dynamically developing relations between the two countries. Some said this might be another spy scandal, evidently much more serious than previous ones (last year the Israelis accused First Secretary of the Russian Embassy Andrey Mochalov and journalist Konstantin Kapitonov of espionage). Others maintained that the crisis was somehow connected with the YUKOS affair and Group MENATEP shareholder Leonid Nevzlin, who lives in Israel. However, the most convincing theory was that only Russia's friendship with Israel's enemies could actually have provoked the crisis. The Israeli leadership has always kept a close watch on Russia's military and technical cooperation with Arab countries and Iran, so that each new contract has been carefully studied for threats to Israel's security and the correlation of forces in the Middle East.

And in fact, as Kommersant has learned, the crisis in bilateral relations is the result of Russia's plans to sell Syria the latest Iskander-E tactical missile system. Israel is extremely alarmed by the fact that if the Iskander were deployed, for example, close to the demarcation line in the area of the Golan Heights, Israel's entire territory would be within striking distance of the missiles, including the Negev Desert, where the Dimona nuclear facility is located, and all the major cities, except for the port of Eilat on the Red Sea.

The Iskander high-accuracy tactical missile system was developed at the Kolomensky Mechanical Engineering Office in the mid-1990s. It has a three-man launch crew. The weight of an Iskander-M mobile launch pad with two missiles is 40 tons. The missile has a starting weight of 3800 kg and a range of 50 to 280 km. The weight of the warhead is 480 kg. The missile is equipped with a self-contained inertial guidance system operating in combination with an optical homing head. As a result, the Iskander-M has a target striking accuracy of 2 m. Production of the solid-fuel missiles for the Iskander system has been expanded at the Votkinsk Engineering Plant (Udmurtia). The export version of the system (Iskander-E) will be equipped with one missile, but with an accuracy an order of magnitude less than the Iskander-M.

The Russian military completed official testing of the system in August 2004, which RF Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov and Chief of General Staff Yury Baluevsky reported personally to President Vladimir Putin. According to the Defense Ministry's plans, the first two Iskander-M launch pads should be armed this year. However, an order for eight to ten pads was needed to set up serial production. According to Kommersant's information, it was Syria that saved the day. Two years ago, Damascus sent a request to Moscow for the delivery of 18 Iskander-E missile systems. But at that time the system had still not undergone testing and selling it was out of the question. As a result, Syria signed contracts only for delivery of Kornet-E and Metis-M antitank missiles for $65 million and $73 million, respectively.

According to Kommersant's information, Moscow informed Damascus of the completion of tests of the Iskander in October and last week received a reply confirming Syria's interest in buying not only Iskanders, but also S300PMU2 Favorit and Top-M1 anti-aircraft systems, as well as in additional purchases of Kornets and Metis.

However, yesterday the Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation (MTC) with Foreign States and the state company Rosoboronexport refused to comment to the Kommersant correspondent not only on the classification of the armaments preparing for delivery being discussed by Moscow and Damascus, but also on the very fact of RussianSyrian negotiations in the area of MTC.

We note that the possible delivery of Iskanders to Syria could lead to complications not only in RussianIsraeli relations. The United States will certainly side with its ally. Several years ago, Washington imposed sanctions against the Tula Instrument-Making Design Bureau for the sale of anti-tank missiles to Syria. Now, the matter concerns a far more powerful impact weapon. And it is logical to assume that the US might take much more decisive measures that will affect not just one separate company but Russia as a whole.
Nikolai Gulko, Maksim Grigorev

All the Article in Russian as of Jan. 12, 2005

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