Moscow Considers Troops for Lebanon

As the United Nations cobbles together a peacekeeping force for Lebanon, debate is heating up in Moscow about whether to send troops to the Middle East.

A growing consensus of Defense Ministry officials and military analysts oppose sending ground forces. But a handful of political observers counter that the situation offers Russia an opportunity to restore some of its Soviet-era prestige.

"We are examining the situation," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Friday, Interfax reported. "The peacekeepers' status and their rights are not clear, as well as what they will do there and what kind of mandate they will have."

Ivanov, who was in Magadan, added: "No decisions about any Russian military contingent have been made yet. I think it would be premature to do so."

Ivanov's comments appeared to conflict with a report Friday in Kommersant that the Defense Ministry was prepared to send a 2,000-man brigade stationed in Samara to Lebanon.

A Defense Ministry spokesman declined to comment about the report Friday.

Mikhail Margelov, head of the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced skepticism about sending troops. "That a number of nations have refused to participate in this operation is an alarm signal for me," Margelov said, according to Interfax.

And Valery Manilov, a former deputy chief of staff of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, said sending troops now would be premature. "As the confrontation unfolds according to Washington's specifications, and as Israel continues to ignore UN resolutions, the presence of our peacekeepers, with their status and duties still unclear, is hardly warranted," he said.

Margelov warned that if President Vladimir Putin decided to send troops to Lebanon, it would prompt heated debate in the Federation Council. By law, the president must get the approval of the upper house of the parliament to send troops abroad.

During last month's Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Putin said Russia might participate in a Lebanese operation if the UN Security Council opted to send a peacekeeping mission there. Since then, the president has not said anything about Lebanon.

The UN-sponsored cease-fire took effect Aug. 14 after 34 days of fighting, which claimed the lives of nearly 1,200 people in Lebanon and about 150 Israelis. The conflict broke out after Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.

On Friday, Ivanov also dismissed claims that during the fighting Hezbollah used Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles. Israel sent a delegation to Russia last week to complain about the missiles.

"No kind of evidence of Hezbollah having such equipment has been presented to us," Ivanov said, Interfax reported.

Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center of Political Technologies, said Russian participation could boost the country's prominence in a region where the Soviet Union once wielded considerable influence.

"If Russia distances itself from this situation altogether, that will mean Russian has abandoned the geopolitical position it inherited from the Soviet years," Makarkin said.

But Makarkin added that Russia must determine exactly what its responsibilities would be before sending any troops, Makarkin said.

Dispatching troops to Lebanon would give Russia a useful argument to respond to accusations that Russian peacekeepers have been anything but in the breakaway Moldovan province of Transdnestr and the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a Kommersant article said.

Both Moldova and Georgia want the Russian troops to leave.

Russia participated in peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone. It is currently taking part in missions in Liberia, Burundi and Sudan.