Damascus: The last thing Lebanon needed was a diplomatic standoff with Russia, triggered last week over a statement by Foreign Minister Abdullah Abou Habib, who on February 24 condemned the Russia attack on Ukraine.
The statement triggered an immediate response from the Russian Embassy in Beirut, which described it as “shocking” and contradictory to Lebanon’s declared policy of neutrality.
Hezbollah was the first to condemn the statement, via its MP Hasan Fadlallah, who said that any future foreign policy position ought to be decided by the Lebanese government as a whole, and not just by the Foreign Ministry.
The pro-Hezbollah daily Al Akhbar went further, claiming that Abou Habib’s statement was originally intended to be “grey” and “neutral.” It was changed at the very last moment by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, under pressure from US Ambassador Dorothy Shea.
Ripple effects of Ukraine crisis
Meanwhile, members of the Lebanese Greek Orthodox community are mulling their choices ahead of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for next May. They are affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church in Moscow and are generally sympathetic to President Vladimir Putin.
They make up 22,000 of expatriate voters — with many of them living in Russia — and hold 20 out of the 65 Christian seats in the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies (parliament).
Since Russia entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, Lebanese Greek Orthodox have been eying a greater role for Moscow in Lebanese affairs, given its proximity to Syria. They are yet to come up with a unified statement, but that is being delayed, so as not to provoke the United States or the rest of Europe.
The unfolding crisis in Europe threatens Lebanon’s already razor-thin wheat reserves, since 60 per cent of the country’s wheat supplies come from Ukraine. If this supply gets affected, it would deal a heavy blow to Agriculture Minister Abbas Al Hajj Hasan, a member of the Amal Movement that is affiliated with Hezbollah.
And its affects could be strongly felt against Amal in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
In March 2019, President Michel Aoun visited Moscow for talks with Putin, discussing repatriation of Syrian refugees, military cooperation, and economic relations. Earlier in mid-2019, Defence Minister Yaacoub Sarrouf travelled to Moscow with the aim of signing a military agreement that has been on the table since early 2018, calling for the opening of Lebanese airspace, airports, and naval bases for the Russian military.
The Russian proposal, put forth by Putin, offered Lebanon 15 years of interest-free delivery of Russian arms, worth $1.5 billion, along with intelligence sharing, and training of Lebanese troops on counterterrorism.
That agreement was never signed, however, at the urging of then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who feared it would strain his relations with the US.
Hezbollah MP Nawaf Al Mousawi famously stood up for the military pact with Russia, saying: “Why don’t we head towards Russia and China and get arms from these great countries? Why is the Lebanese government hesitating in signing the agreement with Russia? Syria has a relationship with the Russian Federation, so why doesn’t Lebanon get included underneath Russian air cover as well?”
He then added: “If the Russians want military bases and airports, why don’t they use Beirut and Riyak (in the Bekka Valley)?”
Military cooperation aside, the two countries were already struggling to upgrade economic cooperation, long before the Ukraine crisis. Before Lebanon’s economic collapse in 2019, Russian exports to Lebanon stood at $900 million. Eighty-nine per cent of those exports were oil and hydrocarbons.
In 2019, the Russian-owned firm, Rosneft, was granted a 20-year licence to manage and upgrade an oil storage facility in Tripoli.
Earlier, Russia’s Novatek joined France’s Total and Italy’s ENI in drilling for oil in the eastern Mediterranean. That project was put on hold due to disagreement between Lebanon and Israel over disputed territorial waters.
Aoun has appointed Amal Abu Zeid as a special adviser on Russian affairs, and since 1998 the two countries have had a joint economic committee, which only began meeting regularly in 2011.