Russia insists arms sales to Syria not altering "balance of forces in the region"

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaks with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 7, 2012.

LONDON Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed Friday that Moscow continues to supply the Syrian government of Bashar Assad with "mainly defensive weapons, air defense system."

Without clarifying reports on exactly which weapons systems Russia had most recently delivered to Syria, Lavrov insisted Friday in Sochi, Russia, that Moscow was honoring its previous arms sale agreements without altering the "balance of forces in the region."

The New York Times reported Friday, just before Putin spoke in Sochi, that Russia had sent a shipment of upgraded Yakhont cruise missiles to Syria, in accordance with a previous sale agreement. The Times' report did not say whether the shipment had already been delivered, or how large it was.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata reports that, according to the Times article, the Yakhonts are an upgraded version of a system that Russia has been supplying Syria for years, with improved radar guidance systems. The weapons could raise Syria's capability to strike ships off its coast or attack vessels used to support any theoretical no-fly zone, weapons experts told the Times.

D'Agata reports that Russia has increased the number of warships in the region, meanwhile, to patrol its own naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

It all comes in the wake of a flurry of diplomacy that saw Secretary of State John Kerry agree with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, to convene a Syrian peace conference -- a fresh effort to get Assad's regime and the opposition to negotiate a peaceful end to the two-year war.

Lavrov and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon agree Friday in Sochi that the summit should be held as soon as possible, but as yet, no firm date has been set. Kerry said this week it would likely take place in June.

While there has been little indication that the U.S. or other nations opposed to Assad are considering a military move like a no-fly zone, it has been a consistent demand of Syria's opposition since Assad began using the full might of his air force in heavily populated areas of his own nation.

In similar remarks made a week ago in Poland, the French news agency AFP quoted Foreign Minister Lavrov as saying the weapons systems being delivered to Syria were meant to give its government, "an opportunity to defend itself from air strikes which, as we know, is not a completely fantastical scenario."

Lavrov's comments in came just days after Israeli air strikes destroyed a Syrian weapons warehouse where Iranian missiles were kept, allegedly destined for the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad's forces in the Syrian war.

The White House didn't comment directly on the Israeli strike, which Israel's government never confirmed, but President Obama has said in the past "the Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah."

While unconfirmed, there has been little doubt as to who was behind the air strike. Hezbollah militants have battled the Jewish state for decades from their homeland in neighboring Lebanon, including a month-long war in 2006.

Russia is adamant that its ongoing transfer of "defensive weapons" -- honoring sales agreed to prior to the deterioration of the Syrian crisis into a bloody civil war -- is in accordance with international law.

Last week, after reports that Russia was poised to transfer new S-300 ground-to-air missile batteries to Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned that the move would be "destabilizing" for Israel's security.

According to Russian media, the state-controlled arms company postponed its transfer of the S-300s to Syria in December 2012, but those reports were never confirmed by the Kremlin.

Asked Thursday by a Lebanese television network about the previously agreed weapons contracts with Syria, Lavrov said, "we shall fulfill them. We have partially done so, and we will continue to honor the rest. There should be no reason for concern on the part of those who do not intend to commit aggressions against a sovereign country. They should know that air defense systems are purely defensive, as their name suggests."

He added in the Thursday interview that Russia, "would not want to lose our reputation as a responsible weapons provider."

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.