In a move that could raise concerns in the U.S. and Israel, Russia will donate 10 MiG-29 fighter jets to Lebanon and commit to supplying the teetering Arab democracy with more war machines, an official told reporters Wednesday.
Though the jets aren’t likely to pose a strategic challenge to Israel, or even Lebanon’s other neighbor, Syria, the move signifies Moscow’s military resurgence in parts of the globe long dominated by the U.S.
“It is an effort to reassert Russia’s status in the Middle East in a way that has very high visibility,” analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said.
Moscow said the move was meant to help stabilize Lebanon, which frequently has descended into war during the last four decades.
“Lebanon has decided to intensify military-technological cooperation” with Russia, said Mikhail Dmitriyev, the director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. “We consider the Lebanese army as a key element of political stability within this country.”
In announcing the donation, Dmitriyev said Moscow might sell Lebanon tanks and artillery.
Lebanon’s weak and politically divided army, which has received extensive U.S. weapons and funding, must contend with the powerful Shiite Muslim political organization Hezbollah, whose Iranian- and Syrian-backed militia is committed to fighting Israel.
Although Washington says it has substantially increased military support to Lebanon, officials in Beirut complain that the aid has been minimal. U.S. officials have said they won’t help Lebanon’s army in a way that would threaten Israel’s security.
The Russian aircraft were designed to counter U.S.-made Lockheed F-16 Fighting Falcons, of which Israel has about 345. But Cordesman said the early export versions of the MiG-29 were little match for Israeli or even Syrian air power.
Lebanon’s air force currently amounts to a few combat helicopters and two 1960s Hawker Hunter fighter jets that were recently refurbished.
At least one Lebanese military official said the Russian planes would be of questionable use to the country.
“It is an unnaturally big step for the Lebanese army,” he told The Times, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Lebanon lacks the infrastructure and training to make use of such fighter jets.
Russia’s previously strong ties to the Jewish state began to weaken in 2005 when Moscow started selling advanced antiaircraft weaponry to Syria. The relationship suffered a further blow during Russia’s summer war against Georgia, which received military equipment and training from Israel.
Rafei is a special correspondent.