The skill of Russian manufacturers has rarely been perceived as a direct threat to the United States. But with thousands of Americans risking their lives on battlefields in Iraq, and the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush issuing angry protests at alleged illegal arms shipments to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the quality of Moscow's antitank missiles, electronic jamming equipment, and night-vision goggles is suddenly seen as too high for them to be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.
The scandal broke on 22 March, when U.S. diplomats delivered a formal protest to the Russian Foreign Ministry for failing to take action against three Russian firms for alleged military hardware shipments to Iraq in violation of UN sanctions, The Washington Post" reported the next day. U.S. officials claimed their Russian counterparts have done nothing despite clear evidence that illegal shipments were taking place. U.S. indignation, which had simmered for months behind closed doors, broke out into the open with the start of hostilities in Iraq. An unidentified U.S. official told "The Washington Post," "The stuff's there, it's on the ground, and they're trying to use it against us." Another source told the newspaper that a Russian firm even had personnel on the ground in Iraq to show the Iraqis how to use and repair its equipment.
A blistering 29 March editorial in "The New York Times," which had assumed a cautious stance on Iraq-related matters before combat began, showed just how much war changes the picture. Under the headline "Supplying The Enemy," the editors stressed that the equipment involved poses no trivial threat: "Russian missiles can knock out the mighty Abrams tank, and smart weapons can be sent astray with the jamming device." They closed with a stark warning: "Many Americans may share the Russian objections to this war, but no Americans will tolerate or forgive having an American tank blown up by a Russian missile."
Moscow and Baghdad have a long history of well-armed friendship. Between 1958 and 1990, the Soviet Union concluded arms contracts with Iraq to the tune of $30.5 billion, "Izvestiya" reported on 25 March. Exports included: 4,630 tanks, 2,810 armored fighting vehicles, 2,714 armored personnel carriers, 3,279 pieces of artillery, 725 antitank rocket complexes, 325 antiaircraft rocket launchers, 1,593 portable Igla antiaircraft missiles, 1,145 military and transport aircraft, 348 helicopters, and 41 warships. Official cooperation came to an end in 1990 with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent imposition of UN sanctions.
The latest allegations centered on two companies: Moscow-based Aviakonversiya and the Tula-based Instrument Design Bureau (KBP Tula). Both were quick to deny the charges. KBP Tula Director Vasilii Knyazev told "Vedomosti" on 25 March that his firm never supplied Iraq with antitank missiles. Knyazev did note, however, that KBP Tula-designed Kornet and Metis antitank missile systems were shipped to Syria in 1998-99, triggering U.S. sanctions that are still in effect. Aviakonversiya Director Oleg Antonov told "Vedomosti" that GPS jammers numbering in the "tens" had been delivered to "countries in the region." While he wouldn't rule out their subsequent resale to other countries, he stressed that the numbers involved were insufficient to pose a threat to the U.S. military.
Reports in the Russian press were quick to point out that, official denials aside, military-hardware flows from producer to purchaser through a number of channels, not all of them easy to track. Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who has often cast a critical eye on the Russian military establishment, detailed some of those channels in a 27 March article in "Novaya gazeta." Felgenhauer writes that in the 1990s Iraq allegedly purchased new armaments and spare parts for existing weapons systems through a Bulgarian firm called Kintex that coordinated "illegal weapons shipments to hot spots all over the world."
Felgenhauer notes that economic necessity spurred hard-pressed Russian specialists to keep their Baghdad contacts current. The author recalls that a designer from a "large Russian weapons firm" told him: "What do you want? The Russian government doesn't pay us anything, so we have to go to Baghdad to earn money to survive." After quoting a source in the Foreign Ministry that recent public allegations are "only the tip of the iceberg, no more than a third of what's really going on," Felgenhauer wonders what U.S. forces will find when they take Baghdad. He concludes, "No wonder our guys are so stubbornly opposed to the idea of violently deposing Hussein."
Despite their insistence that they are not themselves responsible for any direct shipments of military hardware to Iraq, Russian arms manufacturers' proud declarations of confidence in their creations seemed to lend credence to U.S. concerns. After a de rigueur denial of contacts with Iraq, Aviakonversiya's Antonov shared the following with "Vremya novostei" on 25 March: "We exhibited our first [GPS jamming] transmitter at the Zhukovskii air show in 1997. The Americans were horrified. End of story, as they say -- their high-precision weaponry can be wrecked quite simply."
How effective are the jamming devices? "Aviation Daily" reported on 22 September 1997 that, according to FAA spokesman Hank Price, "the type of device being marketed by Moscow-based Aviaconversia is 'nothing new,' and there are 'hundreds of these devices' on the market." A 17 November 2000 article in "Defense Daily" reported that U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin was sufficiently concerned, however, to develop a system to counter GPS jammers. The article went on to explain: "Russia's Aviaconversia currently markets a four-watt GPS jammer that only weighs about 19 pounds [8.6 kilograms] but can deny GPS reception for about 125 miles [201 kilometers]." Avoiding further specifics, "Defense Daily" merely noted that Lockheed Martin's G-STAR antijamming system ended its development phase and entered testing in 1999.
Few in Russia were inclined to cast doubts on the jammers' effectiveness. In fact, a 25 March article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argued that it was the jamming systems' efficacy that sparked protests from the stunned U.S.-British coalition. Citing anonymous "experts," the newspaper claimed that the Iraqis' use of jamming technology "came as a complete surprise to the attackers, who above all else feared chemical and biological weapons." The effects on the coalition's weaponry were even more surprising, as "instead of high-precision direct hits, in a number of cases 'smart' bombs and Tomahawk cruise missiles struck civilian targets far from where they had been aimed."
Mikhail Leontev, an anti-Western commentator on the state-run ORT television channel, assembled the story's parts into a tidy political package for viewers of the evening news on 26 March: "The U.S. State Department has accused two Russian firms of violating UN sanctions and providing Iraq with weapons, specifically, equipment to create radio interference for aviation and missiles. The Americans are making it clear that this equipment is to blame for the glaringly obvious inaccuracy of their so-called 'smart bombs' and guided-missile strikes against Baghdad."
Carefully noting that Iraq must have obtained the jamming equipment through third parties, Leontev returns to the same air show that Aviakonversiya head Antonov described so glowingly to "Vremya novostei": "Since 1997, when our jammers were shown to the public in Zhukovskii, the Americans have been fully aware that these instruments are a quiet death sentence to the Pentagon doctrine of high-precision weaponry. As for the fact that the Americans deluded themselves about the Iraqis' willingness to fight each other and about the guaranteed delivery of guided missiles to Saddam's bedroom window -- they can, of course, blame that on two private Russian companies, but that won't make the consequences of this delusion go away."
Far from the politically charged airwaves of state-run television, Sergei Oznobishchev, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, cautioned against taking the matter too seriously. In a 25 March comment to "Vremya novostei," Oznobishchev argued: "This is a one-day scandal, an isolated incident. This always happens when political relations are strained."
Political prognostication aside, the issue of Russian military shipments to Iraq unexpectedly raises the broader question of innovation in business. Imagine a computer-industry magazine writing that "Russian software can outperform the mighty Microsoft Office." Inconceivable. Impossible. Preposterous.
Perhaps. But just as the war in Iraq will eventually take its place as merely one episode in the continuing saga of U.S.-Russian relations, so could the Soviet Union's outsized military-industrial complex emerge from its post-Soviet travails as a balanced technology sector that serves as the innovative engine for a competitive Russian economy.
(By Daniel Kimmage, RFE/RL)