The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, to Lebanon might have been a usual and bland occurrence had it not been for its timing and agenda.
Bogdanov is the most prominent Russian official to visit Lebanon since Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov visited the country during Saad Hariri’s tenure as prime minister. But the difference between the two visits is fundamental, for Bogdanov’s visit will transcend the purely formal to encompass meetings with political personalities, factions and parties, as well as religious authorities. It will further be characterized by meetings with representatives of Christian Orthodoxy, most importantly Patriarch Yohanna X Yazigi of Antioch.
A knowledgeable European diplomat said that Bogdanov, who is coming to Lebanon through the Iranian gate, carries with him significant messages:
First, that Russia is an important player in the Middle East, having an effective presence and vital interests there, including in Lebanon, which falls within Russia’s national security arena in the region.
Second, that Lebanon is now at the center of Russia’s focus, more so than at any time before, which pushes the country to the top of Moscow’s list of priorities.
Third, that Russia appreciates Beirut’s dissociation policy and does not want Lebanon to become a faction in the Syrian crisis, while advising that the country be shielded from the crisis. This would thus prevent Lebanon from being dragged into circumstances that surpass its capacity to cope, and would have adverse effects on its security and stability.
Fourth, that Russia backs Lebanon’s request for international support in dealing with the crisis engendered by Syrian refugees, who now number close to a third of the total Lebanese population; Russia recently sent two planeloads of aid for the refugees.
Fifth, that Russia insists that Lebanese sovereignty be respected, and that Security Council Resolution 1701 be fully complied with, including putting an end to Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty.
Sixth, that Russia considers itself not only a concerned party, but also a serious partner in the exploitation of the Lebanese-Israeli-Cypriot oil and gas triangle, as well as Syrian oil and gas later on.
Seventh, that Russia looks upon Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon with great regard. Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, had repeatedly acknowledged and shown appreciation for Hezbollah’s insistence on safeguarding Lebanon’s stability. Additionally, the Russian leadership has informed the party that it trusted it and respected Lebanon’s right to liberate its land. It also has high regard for Hezbollah’s resistance movement, for it had managed, with modest means, to accomplish what the Arabs failed to achieve throughout 50 years of conflict with Israel. As such, Russia was unwilling to characterize Hezbollah’s resistance as terroristic, unless European, Russian and American resistance to occupation was viewed as terroristic as well.
Eighth, that the visit has a decided Orthodox aspect to it, as evidenced by the numerous meetings with spiritual, political and civic Orthodox personalities and authorities. These are aimed at delivering a clear Russian message that “if the West has decided to abandon the Christians of the East, then ‘Mother Russia’ would safeguard Orthodox Christians and Christians in general throughout the Middle East.”
The same diplomat added that Bogdanov’s visit carries additional regional messages. The most important message is that Russia will continue to defend its strategic, vital and other interests in Syria regardless of the cost. Therefore, the Syrian regime will not be allowed to fall, and Syria will remain united. Furthermore, the Syrian people alone are to decide their country’s fate and no foreigners are to be allowed to impose their will there by force.
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