In a medium-sized van with no bodyguards, on a rainy March 15, 2021, a Hezbollah delegation quietly walked into the Russian Foreign Ministry building in Moscow. On that same day, the skyscraper that stands in Smolenskaya Square also hosted the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director General for Strategic Affairs Joshua Zarka. The simultaneous meetings in Moscow of two archenemies reflect how Russia is flexing its diplomatic muscles. They also point to how Hezbollah is at the forefront of three key issues in the Levant: military operations in Syria, tensions with Israel, and the complications of Lebanese politics.
The Hezbollah delegation, which was led by the US-sanctioned head of its parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad, visited Moscow March 14-17 and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, representatives from the State Duma and the Council of the Federation, and Iranian ambassador to Russia Kazem Jalali. This was only the second trip to Russia in a decade by a Hezbollah delegation in an evolving relationship that has come a long way from 1985, when Hezbollah kidnapped four Soviet diplomats and the KGB responded brutally to secure the release of three of them. Since the last time Raad visited Russia ten years ago, much has unfolded on the political and security levels, most notably the Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015. In October 2011, Hezbollah was invited by the Russian parliament and its delegation met only with Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov with little to no media exposure. This time around, the Russian Foreign Ministry extended the invitation and the delegation met with Lavrov in a publicized visit.
The Hezbollah delegation represented the old guard or the founding generation of the political wing of the party. In addition to Raad, the delegation included the party’s head of Arab and international relations, former Minister Ammar al-Mousawi, and his aide for international affairs Ahmad Mhanna, as well as the media advisor Ahmad Haj Ali. The makeup of Hezbollah’s delegation reflected the political nature of the visit as the meeting with Lavrov lasted 40 minutes and was attended by Bogdanov, who also serves as President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for the Middle East. Bogdanov, who had a separate lengthy meeting with the Hezbollah delegation, met the next day (March 16) with Iran’s Ambassador Jalali; for his part, Lavrov visited Iran on April 13 where he criticized European sanctions on the Islamic Republic. In an interview1 with al-Mayadeen TV, Mousawi noted that Hezbollah’s relationship with Russia “has reached the level of common blood that spilled against terrorism in Syria.” Hezbollah and Russia are reportedly considering the idea of opening a representative office for the party in Moscow. Since 2015, Russian officials have publicly affirmed that Hezbollah is a “legitimate force” and “we do not consider them a terrorist organization.” Moscow’s interaction with Hezbollah largely depends on and is an integral part of Russian-Iranian relations, which might grow closer during the Biden Administration.
Moscow’s interaction with Hezbollah largely depends on and is an integral part of Russian-Iranian relations, which might grow closer during the Biden Administration.
Russia and Hezbollah-Israel Tensions
Israeli diplomacy was on alert when the Hezbollah delegation visited Moscow for two main reasons: to relay a message to the party through the Russian channel and to make sure Hezbollah does not have any significant influence on the Russian approach in Syria. Zarka, the Israeli official, met with Russian foreign ministry officials ahead of the visit of Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to Moscow on March 17. Zarka handles issues related to the Iran nuclear deal, which is the primary focus of the Israeli delegations; however, relaying an Israeli message to Hezbollah was also on the agenda. On March 15, as the Hezbollah delegation was in Moscow, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned from Israel: “We’re prepared for every scenario on the northern front. I’d recommend that the Lebanese side not test the IDF’s abilities.” On a visit to France on March 18, Israel’s military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi noted that “Hezbollah currently holds thousands of missiles and rockets located at the heart of a civilian population. We will not hesitate to attack forcefully on command, wherever such weapons are found.” The Israeli security establishment believes Hezbollah still plans to avenge the killing in July 2020 of one of its operatives, Ali Kamel Mohsen, by an Israeli air strike outside Damascus. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said in August 2020 that “Israel needs to understand that when they kill one of our mujahideen, we will kill one of their soldiers. This is the equation.” Western diplomatic sources reportedly confirmed that the Israeli messages were relayed to Hezbollah.
Moscow plays a balancing act between Israel and Hezbollah. On the one hand, Russia does not actively restrict Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah assets and operatives in Syria; on the other, it takes public stances against Israel when needed. Last December, the Russian ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, told The Jerusalem Post that “the problem in the region is not Iranian activities” and that “Israel is attacking Hezbollah, Hezbollah is not attacking Israel”—a statement that earned a reprimand from Ashkenazi. In his interview with al-Mayadeen, Mousawi noted that there was “a clear Russian position in terms of denouncing Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty”; however, he did not mention Israeli air strikes on Hezbollah targets in Syria. The trust gap on dealing with Israel hangs over the interactions between Russia and Hezbollah.
Russia and Hezbollah in Syria
When it comes to Syria, there are three main issues of concern for Russia and Hezbollah: how to continue running the daily military operations, the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the normalization of Lebanese-Syrian relations. The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah, reported that Russian officials have asked Hezbollah to remain in Syria militarily and politically. This is hard to imagine given how Russia has been approaching the conflict. Even if not the case in the short term, the deployment of Hezbollah militants in Syria may ultimately be a contentious point between Moscow and Tehran. By hosting Hezbollah, Russia might be sending a message to the Biden Administration that it has cards to play in Syria, and beyond, if Washington continues its pressure on Moscow.
By hosting Hezbollah, Russia might be sending a message to the Biden Administration that it has cards to play in Syria, and beyond, if Washington continues its pressure on Moscow.
Another challenge for Russia and Hezbollah is the Assad regime. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily newspaper, reported that the Hezbollah delegation might have asked about the Russian stance on Assad’s future, given that Moscow might be considering setting up a joint Syrian “military council” that would include the military officers who defected to the Syrian opposition. The question therefore arises: would Russia relinquish its support of Assad in the current context of US-Russian relations without a clear road map? During its first visit to Moscow in 2011, Hezbollah had tested the extent of Russia’s commitment to provide support to the Assad regime; this time around, Hezbollah might also have been interested in exploring Russia’s ambiguous policy on this matter. However, such a critical issue was beyond the portfolio of the Hezbollah delegation that visited Moscow. On March 9, Lavrov went on a Gulf tour that included Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Doha, indicating Russia’s interest in warming relations with these regimes. In addition, Iran might be concerned that Russia is edging closer to Saudi Arabia. Moscow probably knows that an eventual final settlement of the Syrian conflict would at least partially come at the expense of Iran.
Both Russia and Hezbollah want to secure the return of Syrian refugees to their home country to indicate that the conflict has ended and a new status quo has emerged. In his interview with al-Mayadeen TV, Mousawi noted that the discussions with Russian officials about Syria tackled “the issue of the displaced and the need for their safe return,” as both sides “agree that the main task is to resume liberating Syrian lands and reconstruction.”
US pressure prevents Lebanon from going down the path of normalization with the Syrian regime despite Hezbollah’s attempts to restore relations between Beirut and Damascus. Given that Lebanese President Michel Aoun and caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab do not want to directly engage the Syrian regime, the caretaker public health minister, Hamad Hassan, who was selected by Hezbollah, went to Damascus on March 24 to request emergency oxygen supplies to address COVID-19 complications. The Assad regime provided 75 tons to Lebanon. While Russia and Hezbollah agree in the short term on the need for engagement between Beirut and Damascus and for the expansion of Russian influence in Lebanon, US pressure continues to limit the potential of these two policy options.
The Political Impasse in Lebanon
The Hezbollah delegation’s Moscow visit comes at a crucial time. Lebanon remains in a political stalemate in forming the cabinet while dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and confronting a deep economic and financial crisis. In recent weeks, Russia has been a center of attraction for Lebanese politicians: after the Hezbollah delegation’s trip to Moscow, Lebanon began administering Russia’s Sputnik V vaccination on March 30, with the first batch flown to Beirut from the United Arab Emirates.
More importantly, however, are the talks on the political level as rival Lebanese politicians are looking for international support to advance their interests in the government formation crisis. On March 9, Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri met with Foreign Minister Lavrov when the latter was on an official visit in Abu Dhabi, potentially to ask Moscow to pressure Hezbollah to play a more active role in persuading President Aoun to concede on the government’s formation. Moreover, Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov met in Moscow on March 31 with President Aoun’s advisor, Amal Abou Zeid, who noted2 that during a previous visit to Moscow (in February 2021), he explained to Bogdanov that the Lebanese president “has the right to name Christian ministers, and it is unacceptable to impose names on his Excellency and he does not agree to them,”—in reference to Aoun’s constitutional feud with Hariri on who forms the Lebanese government. On March 18, the Russian embassy in Beirut had to release a statement3 following the Hezbollah delegation’s visit to Moscow to deny reports that Russia is closer to Hariri and is against giving Aoun the one-third blocking majority in the next government. Indeed, Russia has been resisting calls to take sides in Lebanese politics.
Moscow is obviously interested in playing a role in Lebanon; however, Hezbollah does not seem eager to expand Russian influence into the details of Lebanese politics.
Russia is primarily concerned that the economic collapse in Lebanon could continue to spill over into Syria, but there is no concrete Russian mediation plan between Lebanese parties. Moscow seems to be standing behind the French initiative by urging the formation of a Lebanese government, as both Moscow and Paris want to preserve the status quo or the existing political dynamics in Lebanon. Moscow is obviously interested in playing a role in Lebanon; however, Hezbollah does not seem eager to expand Russian influence into the details of Lebanese politics, most notably if it were to support Hariri at the expense of Aoun. In an interview with al-Mayadeen TV about his visit to Moscow, Mohammad Raad explained that “what is required of Russia is not to form the government in Lebanon but rather to urge the conditions for its formation.” This hints at the idea that Hezbollah bets on Russian diplomacy in Syria rather than Russian mediation in Lebanon.
With this visit by Hezbollah, Moscow is standing its ground and showing those concerned that it has regional cards to play if needed. Russia is steadily seeking to increase its influence in Lebanon and has aligned its security interests in Syria with Hezbollah. There are limits to what Moscow can achieve, however, considering the existing tensions with the Biden Administration. More importantly, given the diverging interests on dealing with Israel, resolving the Syrian conflict, and engaging in Lebanese politics, the Russia-Hezbollah relationship is far from being an alliance.