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 24th 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. All information regarding Russian sales was based on U.S. intelligence reports.
Putin not only denied sales to Iraq, but also went on to accuse the U.S. of selling deadly military equipment to countries that may support international terrorism. The Associated Press and other media reports described the exchange 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, opposing a resolution that would have authorized use of force to disarm Saddam.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, also exchanged tough words, but stated 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 claimed that the company in question did not exist.
There was little new in the fact that Russian companies were accused of selling high tech equipment to Iraq. FOX News reports, coming as early as January 2003, indicated that Russia had sold GPS jammers, and that Saddam would use the civilian casualties, which could mount as a result of stray bombs or missiles, for his own propaganda purposes. And, according to Paul J. Saunders and Nikolas K. Gvosdev, writing In the National Interest, a Kuwaiti newspaper disclosed a sale of this type by the Russian military equipment company Aviakonversiya as far back as 2000. Night goggles, which are readily available for sale in Russia, are even more dangerous, as they give the Iraqi military the ability to operate at night.
U.S. officials are careful to point out that they do not view the sales under dispute as 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?
As the U.S. provided the Russian authorities with names, addresses, telephone numbers and even shipping details, and went to a great lengths to declassify its intelligence information in a good-faith effort to gain Russian cooperation to stop the sales, the Kremlin cannot feign surprise.
The dispute highlights the bag of tricks 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" --not finished goods -- and their assembly in Iraq, Aviankonversia President Oleg Antonov claimed, his company circumvented both the U.N. sanctions and Russian government regulations. If this is the case with Iraq, what about 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 demonstrates how a Russian company can be penny-wise (the whole transaction, which involved six GPS jammers was under $500,000) but the Russian state can become pound-foolish, losing the goodwill of the U.S. government, which could 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 demonstrates how fragile the relationship between Moscow and Washington has really become after 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, multi-faceted matrix of ties, repeatedly termed "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 (NPTR), 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 stop acrimony over Iraq and focus on the future. To achieve this, the Putin Administration must "clean house" and take the culprits who sold banned weapons to Saddam to task. 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 should also reflect on how breaching the U.N. Security Council sanctions banning weapons sales to Iraq make its own accusations of violating "international law," heaped on the United States by the Russian Foreign Ministry, ring hollow.
Most importantly, the two countries should not lose sight of the strategic imperative of fighting global radical Islamist terrorist networks. In that struggle, the survival of tens of thousands of Russians and Americans is at stake.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Shelby and Kathryn Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.