Putin to Israel: Get Rid of Your Nuclear Weapons

After deal to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, Russia is dragging the Israeli nuclear issue into the Middle East negotiations.

Asaf Ronel
September 22, 2013


Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Syria’s chemical weapons cache was built up in response to Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons stockpile, and that these nuclear capabilities make Israel into a target.

“Syrian chemical weapons were built in response to Israel’s nuclear weapons,” Putin said, responding to a question about the chances of persuading Syria to give up its arsenal, as agreed under a deal proposed by the Kremlin last week.

Speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club in the Novgorod Region, north of Moscow, Putin said there are people in Israel who oppose nuclear weapons. Referring to nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, Putin said Vanunu was not anti-Israel, and that he did not change his stance on nuclear weapons even after years in prison.

Putin said that dismantling weapons of mass destruction was a key issue and that “Israel’s technological superiority means that it doesn’t have to have nuclear weapons.” Israel’s nuclear weapons “only make her into a target,” he added.

In a conversation after the panel, Putin told one of the conference participants that Israel will have to agree to get rid of its nuclear weapons, as Syria was giving up its chemical weapons. The difference between Israel and Russia concerning nuclear arms, according to Putin, was that Russia is one of the five legitimate nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Playing the Israel card

Putin’s statement is a new card in the Russians’ poker game against the Americans vis-à-vis Syria’s chemical weapons, former Israeli ambassador to Russia Eli Magen said. Putin’s statement, he added, followed two similar remarks by senior Kremlin officials in closed conference sessions.

“Russia is dragging the Israeli nuclear issue into the Middle East negotiations,” said Magen, today a senior researcher in the Institute for National Security Studies. “Perhaps this is a turning point in Russia’s approach to Israel. So far Moscow has kept normal relations with Jerusalem.”

But the move may have implications regarding Iran as well. Since Hassan Rohani‘s rise to power, he has been exchanging messages with the West, especially with the United States. If Washington and Tehran start direct negotiations, the Russians will be neutralized in yet another Middle Eastern arena they had been active in, after the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were resumed under American patronage without Moscow’s involvement, he explained.

The Russians, who are also trying to resume dialogue with Iran, are even proposing renewing weapons and military supplies (S-300 air defense missile systems and a new nuclear reactor), Magen said, but added that as of now, it seems that this was not tempting enough for the Iranians. “Perhaps raising the Israeli issue will persuade Tehran to resume their talks with the Russians, since the Americans cannot deliver that,” he said.

However, Vitaly Naumkin, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Chair of Faculty of World Politics, Moscow State University, said Putin did not intend to link Israel’s nuclear weapons to Syria’s chemical weapons.

“Putin said it was preferable for the Middle East to become clean of mass destruction weapons. It’s an old idea Russia has been espousing for years. The Russians see it as the most effective way to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East,” he said.

Naumkin said Putin is not conditioning dismantling Syrian chemical weapons on dismantling Israeli nuclear weapons. “The chemical weapons will be removed from Syria unconditionally,” he said.

As far as the Russians are concerned, the ball is now in the UN Security Council’s court. Moscow says it is interested to assist the UN inspectors, in any way possible, to disarm Syria of chemical weapons. However, Putin’s words left some room for doubt.

“Syria agreed to join the Chemical [Weapons] Convention. Will we be able to accomplish it all? There is no one hundred percent certainty,” he told a crowd of journalists and Russian experts, “But everything we have seen so far in recent days gives us confidence that this will happen … I hope so.” At one of the closed sessions, he sounded even more skeptical: “every effort that will enable us to dismantle,” according to a Kremlin official.

Some experts view these reservations as signs of insincerity on the Russian part. As Magen sees it, for Moscow this is yet another bargaining chip in their attempt to receive a higher return from Washington for disarming Syria. In one scenario, he speculates, Bashar Assad could be left in power, as part of an agreement with the U.S. that would prohibit a military offensive. Another scenario could be something to do with the second Geneva peace conference, where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his American counterpart John Kerry will discuss ways to end the war in Syria.

The Valdai International Discussion Club is an annual event, held in a different location in Russia every year, in which academics and journalists meet with Russian officials for a series of conferences and forums. The event, organized by the Russian RIA Novosti news agency, provides a unique opportunity to hear the Kremlin’s take on central international events.

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