President Vladimir Putin has one consistent response to Israel's complaints about Russian arms reaching Hezbollah: denial.
Whenever Putin talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – roughly every week-to-ten days - he denies what his country is doing. The issue is also raised without results by Israeli officials on trips to Moscow, including the visit by Yossi Cohen, Director of the Mossad, to the Russian capital on July 1.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu persisted in complaining again about the Russian arms reaching the Lebanese terrorist group in his latest phone conversation with Putin two days ago, on Saturday, July 23.
He made the call, DEBKAfile military sources say, primarily to raise another topic at issue: the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) flights from Syria into Israeli airspace on July 17.
After their conversation, the Kremlin issued a bland statement saying that the two leaders discussed issues related to the war on terrorism, and that both agreed to continue the ties between the countries at “various levels.”
Our military sources report that the conviction gaining ground now among IDF intelligence (AMAN) and Air Force chiefs is that the drone was not Iranian or Hezbollah's; it was Russia's.
They take a grave view of the episode - especially when the unmanned aircraft, which hovered for some hours over the Golan and northern Israel, appears to have been a “Searcher,” the reconnaissance drone developed by Israel and manufactured by Russia as “Forpost” under Israeli license.
Moscow is making use of the sophisticated Forpost UAV for surveillance and intelligence-gathering in Syria, Ukraine and terrorist targets in the Caucasian mountains.
If IDF chiefs are correct, then a Russian drone developed by Israel was used by to spy on Israel after it was launched from an Iranian or Hezbollah base in the Syrian Qalamun Mountains. This action crossed more than one Israeli red line.
Adding insult to injury, the drone’s electronic jamming devices were activated to disarm the missiles and aircraft Israel scrambled to intercept it.
This issue is a further irritant on top of the Russian arms supplies to Hezbollah, which elude Israel’s efforts to interrupt them by two covert tactics:
1. Russia sends weapons consignments to the Syrian army that are in excess of its requirements; the surplus is secretly diverted to Hezbollah.
Israeli air strikes only smash the Iranian and Syrian weapons convoys known to be heading out of Syria to Lebanon on the strength of data provided by Israeli military intelligence (Aman). But the traffic missed by Aman goes through to its destination.
By this tactic, our military sources report, Hezbollah has succeeded in basing most of its fighting units not only in Syria, but also in Lebanon. It did so with Russian weaponry - last year, at a battalion level; by June 2016, at company level. Hezbollah's Russian hardware is not limited to personal side-arms from Russia, but also anti-aircraft and anti-tanks missiles.
2. Where do they come from? The Russian military industry is the main supplier of raw materials for Syria’s arms manufacture, including missiles. Without this assistance, the Assad regime would not have been able to manufacture the Scud C mid-range ground-to-ground missiles or the Fateh-110 missiles. Some of these made-in-Syria missiles are quietly consigned to the Hezbollah.
Our sources have found that Putin habitually acts surprised and feigns ignorance whenever Netanyahu raises the issue of the Russian weapon supply to the Hezbollah. He then promises to look into Israel’s complaint and get back to him with an answer. Weeks go by and the Russian president informs the prime minister that the thorough examination he ordered found no evidence of any Russian military or civilian body supplying Hezbollah with weapons.
Netanyahu shows his disbelief and continues to raise the issue each time he speaks with Putin. Meanwhile, the Russian arms supply to Hezbollah goes on with Israel constrained from interfering.
DEBKAfile: These occurrences demonstrate that the military and intelligence relations between Israel and Russia are in fact a far cry from the entente cordiale presumed in Israel and Western capitals. Indeed, working relations are handicapped; these incidents are eroding even the limited understanding the two leaders reached to coordinate military intelligence and air force operations in the Syrian arena.
This is a lightly edited version of the original article published by DEBKAfile at http://debka.com/article/25566/Russian-arms-for-Hizballah-cross-Israel%E2%80%99s-red-line