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Role of Soviets Assessed

May 18, 1981
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— A Soviet naval squadron is cruising the eastern Mediterranean off the Lebanese coast but an Israeli expert said today that it was more a symbolic gesture than an act of deterrence in the current missile crisis between

Syria and Israel. A three ship U.S. Navy task force has turned up in the same area, though according to Pentagon sources it is there by chance and not in response to the Russian presence.

The Soviet squadron is headed by the 35,000 ton anti-submarine helicopter carrier Moskva. Dr. Amnon Sella, head of the Hebrew University’s Institute for Soviet Affairs, said on an Army Radio interview that the Soviets were sending several signals. One, he said, was directed to Syria as a show of solidarity and another to Israel as a warning and a third aimed at the Americans to show that the Soviets considered themselves partners in any possible solution of the present crisis.

Sella said the Russians are not interested in a full-scale war erupting between Syria and Israel at this time because they are aware that the balance of power favors Israel. If they could guarantee a limited, controlled confrontation that would bring them back as full partners in any Middle East negotiations, they probably would have opted for such a development by now, he said.

(Reports from Moscow yesterday quoted a senior Communist Party official, Leonid Zamyatin, as saying on a television interview that the “dangerous” situation in Lebanon “calls for patient negotiations and for peaceful means of solving this question.” Zamyatin, who heads the international information department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, gave the Russian public its first official Soviet assessment of the missile crisis. He blamed Israel for the tension, spoke in derogatory terms of American efforts to mediate but gave no hint of any Soviet involvement.)


According to Sella, Moscow is unhappy with a situation in which it has lost its power to initiate events in the Middle East. Its only allies in the region are Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, he said. The Soviets are determined, therefore, to prove to those two that they are reliable and can be trusted in an emergency.

“For the time being, the Soviets adopt a very low profile,” Sella said. He noted that even in the recently signed Soviet-Syrian friendship pact, the Soviets offered Damascus only limited backing. The Soviet Ambassador to Beirut, Alexander Soldatov, said over the weekend that there was no relationship between the missile crisis and the Soviet-Syrian treaty of friendship. “They (the Russians) don’t want to commit themselves for even the minimum provided for by the treaty,” Sella said.


Premier Menachem Begin said Friday that the Soviet naval presence in the area was an “international problem” rather than an issue for Israel. But the American force was seen here as a counter-demonstration of strength. It consists of the aircraft carrier Independence with 75 combat planes, the guided missile cruiser Harry E. Yarnell and the destroyer Charles F. Adams.

According to Pentagon sources, these vessels are on their way home from a tour of the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf where they have been replaced by another American force. The Pentagon did not say whether they would proceed to their home port of Norfolk, Va. or remain in the Mediterranean temporarily with the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

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