Israeli military attaché, Colonel Vadim Leiderman, was detained by Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officials in Moscow on 12 May following a business lunch with an unnamed Russian citizen, accused of espionage and immediately (within 48 hours) deported. No official explanations on the specific nature of the espionage were immediately given. Instead, information was leaked to the media that the attaché was allegedly lobbying for the sale of Israeli military drones to Russian security forces. He got in the way of the Russian manufacturers and competitors, and was punished for doing so. But lobbying for Israeli products in Russia, of course, is not espionage.
In 2009 and 2010, the Russian Defence Ministry purchased a fairly large amount of Israeli drones from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), paying some $200 million, but this was only a prelude to the main transaction. In October 2010, Russia’s Oboronprom Corporation and IAI signed a $400-million contract in Tel Aviv on the licensed assembly of Israeli drones in Russia, while IAI received an advance of $280 million. The contract was signed by Oboronprom General Director Andrei Reus in the presence of Russian Industry and Trade Minister Viktor Khristenko, who made a special trip for the signing. Oboronprom was established in 2002 by the state intermediary and monopolist in arms trade, Rosoboronexport, which today is controlled by the Russian Technologies State Corporation.
There are only two countries in the world today which produce modern drones – Israel and the U.S., so the Defence Ministry did not really have much of a choice. Many institutions have tried to produce drones in Russia, but the results have been poor: they don’t have the experience or the modern components. According to the Israeli media, Leiderman was scheduled to depart Moscow in July and supposedly planned to work on promoting Russian-Israeli military industrial ties, which is unlikely to occur now.
Finally, last Friday, the FSB press service gave the real reason for Leiderman’s deportation: “He tried to obtain from several Russian civil servants secret information on the prospects for bilateral military technical cooperation as well as Russia’s military technical cooperation and aid to several Arab states and CIS countries”. Russia supplies Syria with modern weapons, some of which fall into the hands of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and the Palestinian organisation Hamas. In April, an Israeli school bus was struck at the border with the Gaza Strip by a modern long-range (5 km) guided Kornet antitank missile produced at Russia’s Tula Instrument Design Bureau. Fortunately, the driver and one student were the only people on the bus, and they escaped with only injuries. The attack was so heinous that even Hamas deemed it necessary to apologise, stating that they thought the Israeli Defence Forces were actually hiding on the bus.
Moscow has always denied that our weapons end up in the hands of terrorists via Damascus. Of course, it’s possible they are being re-exported via other “states and CIS countries”. Perhaps, Leiderman was trying to get an idea of the real picture from knowledgeable people and also learn about prospects for bilateral military technical cooperation, the development of which naturally influences Russia’s policy on the Middle East. At the same time, Tel Aviv has put constant pressure on Moscow, lobbying hard for restrictions or, even better, a ban on military supplies to Syria. As the FSB was preparing to arrest Leiderman, Shaul Mofaz, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee at the Knesset, the former chief of the General Staff and a former defence minister, travelled to Moscow and met with government officials. Recalling the incident with the school bus and Kornet missile, he called for postponing contracts on supplies of Onix anti-ship missiles and Pantsir air defence systems to Syria. He also thanked Russia for refusing to supply S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.
The Russian arms export community has been concerned recently about attempts by Washington and Tel Aviv to restrict exports of our weapons to the Middle East as well as the complaisance of Russian leaders. Initially, the Kremlin prohibited the supply of S-300 missiles to Iran despite the objections of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The $800-million contract was cancelled, and Russia had to return an advance of $166.8 million. Russia then supported sanctions against Libya, and now doubt has been cast over the deal with Syria, where the regime has been shooting en masse at anti-government demonstrators. Dmitry Medvedev gave public assurances last week that he would not support any UN resolution on Syria, but the controversy with Leiderman serves as an additional signal and guarantee that military supplies will continue.
It’s clear that Syria will never be able to pay in full for the weapons. Moscow just recently wrote off $12 billion in Syrian debt. Now, when it’s obvious that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which only represents a small section of the Syrian population (the Alawi), is falling apart, it’s useless to expect payment. Even if al-Assad manages to hold out, the devastated country will be in no shape to pay. This, however, is a problem for the Russian state budget, that is, for all Russian citizens, who are jointly funding military supplies to Damascus and who will also jointly make up for any deficiencies, if need be. Traders and intermediaries, both Russian and Syrian, receive their compensation and kickbacks without delay as far as signing and fulfilling their contracts. Arms trade with Syria essentially means the Russian federal budget is being siphoned off by the government along with its Syrian friends. Today, however, any Russian policy – domestic, foreign, security-related – primarily involves siphoning off money from the budget.
Both Moscow and Tel Aviv have said that Leiderman’s expulsion will not lead to any long-term or serious complications in relations. Indeed, our military needs Israeli technologies, and, of course, there is also private interest in drone transactions, although not on the Syrian scale. Obviously, the demonstrative deportation of Leiderman isn’t so much a cause for a radical political shift in Russia’s foreign policy as it is a private initiative by concerned individuals, as has usually been the case in Russian security structures lately. Israel also hopes that developing relations in military technical cooperation will make it possible to realign Russia’s actions in the Middle East for the better in the future. But the core problem – Russia’s continued supply of modern weapons to Syria – hasn’t gone away, which means tensions in relation with Israel will only increase.