Analysis: From Russia with love in Lebanon

Why is Russia cozying up to Hezbollah and what does it mean for Israel?

By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

Russia’s Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin recently warned of a potential military conflict between Lebanon and Israel. He also commended the Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah for its role in defending the Syrian Assad regime. The Russian Ambassador also accused Washington of inciting “new conflicts” in the Middle East.

Russia’s presence and interests in Syria are well known. However, Moscow is gradually also seeking to increase its influence in neighboring Lebanon. What are the implications for Israel and the Middle East?

Without the comprehensive military assistance of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Assad regime would have likely collapsed years ago. Despite many ideological and political differences, Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah were undeclared allies in the efforts to maintain Assad’s rule in Damascus.

After largely securing Syria, Russia appears to be eyeing neighboring Lebanon. Moscow’s recent pro-Hezbollah statement may seem contradictory to the growing tensions between Moscow and Hezbollah’s Iranian patron. However, Russia’s complex Middle East policies, are ultimately guided by Moscow’s overall strategic interests.

Russia’s strategic interest in Syria is to protect its military assets including its strategically important naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. At the same time, Moscow is struggling with a stagnant economy due to U.S.-led Western sanctions over Russia’s policies in Ukraine. Moscow is therefore looking for opportunities to boost its economy.

Tiny Lebanon has often been a battleground for larger and more powerful players. Lebanon claims that parts of Israel’s significant offshore natural gas deposits extend to Lebanese territorial waters. While Jerusalem denies this, there is a risk for confrontation between the two countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Moscow, Aug. 20, 2018. (AP/Pavel Golovkin)

In practice, Lebanon’s government is today controlled by Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy. Russia’s recent pro-Hezbollah statement appears to be part of Moscow’s intention to increase its influence in Lebanon at the expense of its rival Iran. Russia is also reportedly interested in exploring the possibilities of benefiting economically from Lebanon’s alleged natural gas deposits.

From Israel’s and America’s perspective, Russia’s increased involvement in Lebanon is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it could give Hezbollah a measure of impunity by making it more difficult for Jerusalem to downgrade the Islamist terrorist group’s military capabilities.

On the other hand, Moscow’s growing presence in Lebanon could force Hezbollah to adopt a more pragmatic and moderate position that avoids military escalation with Israel. While Russia has vocally criticized Israel’s military operations in Syria, Moscow understands Jerusalem’s security needs. Like Israel, Russia is ultimately interested in stability in Syria.

While publicly criticizing Washington, it is likely that Russia is secretly seeking to deescalate tensions between Hezbollah and Israel. From a Russian perspective, a stable Lebanon is no less important than a stable Syria. Since Israel also shares this goal, there is a common ground to build on when Prime Minister Netanyahu meets Russian President Putin next week.