The Bush administration has accused Moscow of selling sensitive military equipment to Saddam Hussein, in violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions. During a March 24 telephone conversation, President George W. Bush discussed the sales of night-vision goggles, anti-tank Kornet missiles, and Global Positioning System (GPS) jamming equipment with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to the Russian website www.gazeta.ru, former Soviet generals have also admitted that, just days before the beginning of the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq, they received state awards from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. These are senior retired Soviet officers, General (three-star) Vladimir Achalov and General (also three-star) Igor Maltsev. Achalov, former Soviet deputy defense minister, participated in the failed putsch against then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. He was also the Soviet airborne-troops commander and the last Soviet commander-in-chief of the rapid-reaction forces. Maltsev, who is considered a leading authority in air defense, was the chief of the Main Staff of the Soviet Air Defense. He is also a pardoned 1991 coup plotter.
Russian defense sources in Moscow told NRO that both retired generals had to obtain permission from top-level Russian political and military authorities to perform their advisory roles. Thus Russia’s official denials that the Kremlin did not know about the “mission to Baghdad” can only sound hollow.
In the conversation with Bush, Putin not only denied sales to Iraq, but went on to accuse the U.S. of itself selling deadly military equipment to Iraq, and to other countries which may support (or have supported) international terrorism. The Associated Press and other media reports described the exchange between the two leaders as “tense.” These accusations are just a symptom of the state of U.S.-Russian relations, which have been deteriorating since Moscow sided with Paris in the U.N. Security Council.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, also exchanged tough words last week, but affirmed that both countries have a broader agenda to pursue. Before the matter became public, U.S. officials repeatedly raised the issue with their Russian colleagues — who typically stonewalled, often with the most ridiculous explanations. In some cases, they went so far as to claim that the companies in question did not even exist.
Of course, it was not entirely news that Russian companies were selling high-tech equipment to Iraq. FOX News was reporting as early as January 2003 that Russia had sold GPS jammers, and that Saddam would use the civilian casualties that could ensue as a result of stray bombs or missiles for his own propaganda purposes. Moreover, according to Paul J. Saunders and Nikolas K. Gvosdev in The National Interest, as far back as 2000, a Kuwaiti newspaper disclosed a sale of this type by the Russian military-equipment company Aviakonversiya. Night goggles, which are readily available for sale in Russia, are even more dangerous, as they give the Iraqi military a capacity for nighttime operations it would otherwise lack.
U.S. officials are careful to point out that they do not view the sales under dispute as having been officially authorized by the Russian government. The question is, did the Kremlin give the sale a wink and a nod, or just shut its eyes and look elsewhere? The Americans have provided names, addresses, telephone numbers, and even shipping details, and have gone to great lengths to declassify their intelligence information in a good-faith effort to gain Russian cooperation to stop the sales. At this point, the Kremlin can hardly feign surprise.
The dispute highlights the underhanded methods military-hardware companies and the Iraqi government use to acquire forbidden technology and circumvent the U.N. sanctions. According to the Los Angeles Times, by exporting “components” — rather than finished goods — which would not be assembled until they reached Iraq, Aviankonversia president Oleg Antonov claimed that his company violated neither the U.N. sanctions nor Russian government regulations. If companies have traded this way with Iraq, what have their dealings been with Iran, North Korea, or even terrorist organizations, which may be interested in military systems from the former Soviet Union or even Western Europe?
The case typifies how a Russian company can be penny-wise (the whole transaction, which involved six GPS jammers, cost under $500,000) even as the Russian state is pound-foolish, losing the goodwill of the U.S. government — which could in turn translate into in the loss of billions of dollars in Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and Export-Import (ExIm) bank credits.
This flap over arms sales only proves how fragile the relationship between Moscow and Washington has become since Moscow sided with Paris, Berlin, and most of the Arab world in opposition to the war against Saddam. Three small and shady arms deals are threatening a broad, multifaceted matrix of ties, repeatedly characterized as “strategic” by Presidents Bush and Putin. Numerous security, diplomatic, and business relationships — from multibillion-dollar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs (which deal with non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction) to abrogation of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment (which denied Normal Permanent Trade Relations, currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress) to billions of energy investment dollars — may be jeopardized if U.S.-Russian relations go south.
It is in the interest of both countries to end the acrimony over Iraq and focus on the future. To achieve this, the Putin administration must “clean house” and take to task the culprits who sold banned weapons to Saddam. Moscow should expand cooperation with the United States on prevention of sales of dual-use and military technologies to countries on the U.S. State Department terrorism watch list.
Moscow also needs to remember that breaching the U.N. Security Council sanctions inevitably makes its own accusations that the U.S. is violating “international law” ring hollow.
Most importantly, the two countries should not lose sight of the strategic imperative of fighting the global radical Islamist terrorist networks. In that struggle, the survival of both Russians and Americans is at stake.
— Ariel Cohen, an NRO contributor, is research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.