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Russia Vows to Sell Missiles to Syria

February 28, 2011

MOSCOW – Russia announced Feb. 26 that it intended to fulfill its contract to supply Syria with cruise missiles despite the turmoil shaking the Arab world and Israel’s furious condemnation of the deal.

“The contract is in the implementation stage,” news agencies quoted Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov as saying.

Russia initially agreed to send a large shipment of anti-ship Yakhont cruise missiles to Syria in 2007 under the terms of a controversial deal that was only disclosed by Serdyukov in September 2010.

The revelation infuriated Israel and the United States and there had been speculation that Russia would decide to tear up the contract amid the current turmoil plaguing North Africa and the Middle East.

Israel – which is still technically in a state of war with Syria and fears its close ties with Iran – suspects that the shipment is ultimately aimed at supplying Hezbollah militants in neighboring Lebanon.

The disputed sale is believed to be worth at least $300 million and is meant to see Syria receive 72 cruise missiles in all.

Russia has not officially confirmed making any Yakhont deliveries to date.

But Interfax cited one unnamed military source as saying that Russia had already sent Syria two Bastion coastal defense systems that can include up to 36 Yakhont missiles each.

The feared systems can only operate when equipped with radar and target detection helicopters and it was not clear from Serdyukov’s comments which supplies – if any – had already been received by Syria.

Serdyukov’s comments come amid Russian efforts to keep its military supply lines open to the Middle East despite the wave of revolutions and social unrest currently sweeping the region.

A source in the Russian arms exports industry said this week that the fall of the region’s regimes may see the country lose about $10 billion dollars in contracts.

Serdyukov himself confirmed that the unrest may force Russia to give up some of its Soviet-era clients in the Arab world.

“There is a chance we might lose something,” the defense minister said on a visit on visit to Russia’s Pacific port city of Vladivostok.

“But I hope that the main weapons and military equipment agreements will be fulfilled,” Serdyukov said.

Russia’s sales to Syria have come under particularly close scrutiny because of fears that Moscow may be also covertly assisting Damascus’ nascent nuclear program.

The head of the country’s arms export corporation in October denied that Russia had also signed an agreement to supply Syria with its latest range of MiG-31 fighter jets.

But the same agency confirmed in May that Russia was in the process of supplying Syria with a less advanced fighter jet version – the Mig-29 – along with short-range air defense systems and various armored vehicles.

Russia is the world’s second-largest arms exporter behind the United States and its sales are crucial to the country’s efforts to keep alive a creaking defense industry whose reforms have dragged on for years.

The military this week announced with some fanfare the start of a $650 billion rearmament drive that will add eight nuclear submarines and hundreds of warplanes to the under-equipped force by 2020.

Serdyukov said Feb. 26 that Russia intended to arm its nuclear submarines with the high-tech Bulava long-range missiles whose deployment is being delayed by a series of embarrassing test failures.

But Russia’s last two Bulava launches were successful and Serdyukov said Feb. 26 that the first new missiles would be dispatched to the country’s Pacific Fleet.

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