Russia’s Wagner Group Plans to Send Air Defenses to Hezbollah, U.S. Says

Russia’s Wagner Group Plans to Send Air Defenses to Hezbollah, U.S. Says
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Wagner Group, the Russian paramilitary organization, plans to provide an air-defense system to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, U.S. officials say, citing intelligence.

The Russian SA-22 system they plan to send uses antiaircraft missiles and air-defense guns to intercept aircraft.

One U.S. official said that Washington hasn’t confirmed that the system has been sent. But officials are monitoring discussions involving Wagner and Hezbollah, and officials say the potential delivery is a major concern.

The Russian Embassy didn’t respond to a request for comment, but a U.S. spokeswoman expressed concern Thursday night about the potential weapons transfer.

“The information that was reported by The Wall Street Journal is concerning,” said Adrienne Watson, the spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council. “We know that Russia has refused to condemn Hamas for its horrific terrorist attack on Israel and they recently hosted Hamas officials in Moscow. This comes as Russia is continuing to commit atrocities in Ukraine.”

In Syria, Wagner troops have played an important role in shoring up the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The intelligence comes amid broader concerns that Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia, may open up a northern front against Israel. The U.S. has positioned an aircraft carrier in the Eastern Mediterranean to try to deter Hezbollah and Iran.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah is expected to give a speech on Friday, which will be his first public comments since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and Israel’s forceful military response. That speech will be studied for clues on whether the militant group plans to enter the war. 

Wagner has personnel in Syria, where Hezbollah fighters have also been present to support Assad in his campaign against the Syrian opposition.

The Russian SA-22 system has been provided to Syria and would be sent to Hezbollah with Assad’s concurrence if the delivery goes through, according to one person familiar with the U.S. intelligence reports.

The potential arms delivery to Hezbollah comes amid concerns about Moscow’s role in the region and Russia’s tightening relationship with Iran.

Iran has become a major supplier of one-way attack drones that Russian forces have used to support their invasion of Ukraine. The two nations are also collaborating on the construction of a factory in Russia that could make thousands of the drones for Moscow’s war effort.

The provision of a Russian air-defense system to an Iranian-backed group like Hezbollah could be a way to reward Tehran for that assistance, some foreign-policy analysts say.

The SA-22 air-defense system, also called the Pantsir, is mounted on a wheeled military vehicle. The system was designed by Russia to intercept aircraft, drones and enemy precision guided munitions.

Though the Wagner Group was established as a private military organization, the Kremlin has moved to take over many of its assets since its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a plane crash in August.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress on Tuesday that the growing bonds between Moscow and Tehran were affecting security in the Middle East, though he did not mention Wagner’s role.

“The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East have clear links,” Blinken told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Since we cut off Russia’s traditional means of supplying its military, it’s turned more and more to Iran for assistance. In return, Moscow has supplied Iran with increasingly advanced military technology, which poses a threat to Israel’s security.”

Those remarks were intended to buttress the Biden administration’s request to Congress to provide military support to both Israel and Ukraine.

Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine and its relative economic isolation have made it harder for it to shape events in Israel and Gaza, but it is not without some influence.

In the diplomatic arena, Russia and China last week vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for a stop to arming Hamas, pauses in fighting to facilitate aid deliveries and the protection of civilians. Russia’s U.N. ambassador complained the measure wouldn’t block an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza.

Russia also hosted a delegation of Hamas officials in Moscow late last month, a move that drew protests from the Israeli government, which accused the Kremlin of giving legitimacy to the group.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the meeting was arranged because of Moscow’s concern over hostages held by Hamas and the fate of foreign citizens who are trapped in Gaza.

At least eight dual national Russian-Israeli hostages were taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 assault. They have yet to be released.

The crisis in the Middle East has worked to Russia’s advantage by providing Moscow with an opportunity to strengthen ties with countries critical of Israel.

The Russians “are the ones who benefit most from the current scenario,” said a European official who added that Moscow’s antics at the U.N. are “muddying the waters.”

Russia also has longstanding military ties with some Iranian-backed groups in the region.

The Russian military and particularly its special operations forces have developed a “very close operational bond with Hezbollah over the past years in Syria,” said Charles Lister, the director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It’s no secret that that relationship continues.”

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