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.
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 said.
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.
On Syria, Putin said he could not be absolutely certain the plan for destroying Syria’s arsenal would be carried out successfully, but that he hoped it would.
“Will we be able to accomplish it all? I cannot be one hundred percent sure about it,” Putin told the crowd of journalists and Russia experts. “But everything we have seen so far in recent days gives us confidence that this will happen … I hope so.”
Putin, whose country has been the Syrian government‘s main ally in the more than two-year-old civil war, said he had strong grounds to believe that an August 21 chemical attack in Syria was staged by opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We always talk about the responsibility of the Assad government, if he was the one who used it (a chemical weapon). What if the opposition used it?” Putin said. “We have every reason to believe it was a cunning provocation.”
Russia and the United States brokered a deal last week to put Assad’s chemical arms stockpiles under international control to avoid possible U.S. military strikes that Washington said were intended to punish Assad for the poison gas attack.
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. He said the difference between Israel and Russia regarding nuclear weapons was that Russia is one of the five “Nuclear Weapons States” under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty and Israel is not.
Former Israeli ambassador to Russia Eli Magen said Putin’s statement followed two similar statements of senior Kremlin officials in closed conference sessions.
“Russia is dragging the Israeli nuclear issue into the Middle East negotiations, which the Russians are involved in,” 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.”
Putin’s statement is a new card in the Russians’ poker game against the Americans vis-à-vis Syria’s chemical weapons, he said. But the move may have implications regarding Iran as well. “Since Rohani’s rise to power he has been exchanging messages with the West, especially with the United States,” Magen said.
If Washington and Tehran open direct negotiations, the Russians will be neutralized in yet another Middle Eastern arena they had been active in, after the Israeli-Palestinian talks were resumed under American patronage without Moscow’s involvement, he said.
The Russians are trying to resume the dialog with Iran and are even proposing renewing weapons and materiel supplies (S-300 missile sytems and a new nuclear reactor), Magen said.
“But it seems this wasn’t 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 says.
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,” Naumkin said.
“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 the Syrian chemical weapons on dismantling the Israeli nuclear weapons.
“The chemical weapons will be removed from Syria unconditionally,” he said.