The Russians have decided to further agitate Israel and the US by supplying one of the most defenceless countries in the world, Lebanon, with a small air force.
Russia will donate Lebanon ten MiG-29s, which are scheduled to be delivered before August 2009 to coincide with the Lebanese Army Day.
Israel and the US have expressed concern at the deal, warning it may threaten Israel's air force.
The deal comes as some of Lebanon's American-backed leaders expressed frustration at the US' "empty promises" to upgrade the Lebanese military. Washington had promised to aid and equip Lebanon's army after Syria withdrew its forces from the country in 2005, but little has arrived as a consequence of Israel's opposition to deliver potentially threatening weapons to Lebanon.
Defenceless or defensible?
Lebanon has long been Israel's soft target, a country it can pound as it pleases due to the country's lack of defence. Lebanon has no anti-air capabilities, little air or naval power, and a severely under-armed and under-trained army.
Hezbollah has proven to be Lebanon's main defensive arm of late, the country's only paramilitary organisation with substantial backing and training. However, the Iranian-backed Shia group is only able to match Israel using guerrilla warfare, and cannot defend Lebanon from conventional military incursions, such as air and navy.
Israel isn't frightened by Lebanon acquiring ten Russian fighter jets as the MiG-29s won’t stand a chance against Israel’s far superior air force. Its concern is that it won't be able to violate Lebanon's airspace without running into contact with a fighter jet. If the Israelis engage and shoot down a Lebanese MiG-29 in Lebanon's skies, the world - and more importantly Hezbollah - will view it as an Israeli attack on Lebanese territory. Such an attack could validate a military response by Hezbollah, and spark conflict along the border.
Russia tests Israel's patience
Israel's becoming increasingly alarmed by Russia's continued drive to equip its adversaries with weapons capable of causing harm to the Jewish state. Sophisticated arms sales to Syria and Iran have constantly caused Israel to panic, and the Israelis often model its defence capabilities on potential attacks by Russian-made systems operated by its two main rivals.
The Israelis never counted on facing a similar front in Lebanon. The Russians - still angry after Israel's military engagements with Georgia - are aware that Lebanon is traditionally a no go zone for major arms sales. Any weapons deal with Lebanon is guaranteed to infuriate the Israelis, which appears to be the Kremlin's goal.
From Israel's point of view, the unstable Lebanon needs to remain utterly defenceless to ensure the Jewish state maintains its military superiority and intimidation over the country. A few fighter jets will do little to change the regional balance of power, but it's Russia's intentions in the Middle East and its willingness to add Lebanon to its list of military clients that troubles Israel and the US. Ten MiG-29s today, an anti-air system tomorrow? A handful of tanks next week?
Russia - US competition
Russia has increased its activity in the Middle East in recent years, with a bid to restore the prominent role it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s warming military ties with Iran and Syria has drawn sharp rebuke from Washington and Tel Aviv.
The Lebanon deal comes after a string of Russian military sales to opponents of the Israel/US axis in the region. The latest Iranian report has revealed that Russia will be selling Tehran the advanced S-300 air defence system, despite strong lobbying from Israel. Other military moves in the Middle East include the re-opening of a Soviet-era Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria, and the sale of advanced anti-tank rockets to Damascus, which Israel attests were used by Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
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