Jamming the Russian-American Relationship

March 26, 2003 Topic: Security Tags: BeslanHeads Of State

Jamming the Russian-American Relationship

 Recent revelations of Russian sales of weapons and other military equipment to Iraq have raised new questions about the future of a relationship already strained by sharp differences over the U.


 Recent revelations of Russian sales of weapons and other military equipment to Iraq have raised new questions about the future of a relationship already strained by sharp differences over the U.S. military intervention there.  Yet-notwithstanding the serious nature of American concerns that Russian firms are supplying Saddam Hussein with troublesome hardware while U.S. forces are fighting their way to Baghdad-there are signs that the Bush Administration has been successful in getting the Kremlin's attention and that Russian officials are beginning to understand that effective action is necessary if they seek to maintain a constructive relationship with the United States.

The Administration has expressed considerable concern about intelligence information suggesting that Russian companies have provided Iraq with electronic systems designed to jam the Global Positioning System (GPS) signals used to guide many U.S. precision weapons as well as Kornet anti-tank missiles and night vision gear.  Importantly, however, American officials have not suggested that the sales are a matter of official policy.  On the contrary, the sales of the GPS jammers and the Kornet missiles seem to be the actions of individual firms determined to evade Russian export controls.  Night vision goggles are not a restricted item and are available freely in Russia, including at the open-air market in Moscow's Izmailovsky Park. 


Considerable information is already available about the case of the GPS jamming system produced by Aviakonversiya Limited, a medium-sized technology company based in Moscow.  Allegations that the system had been sold to Iraq surfaced nearly three years ago in a Kuwaiti newspaper, which implied that the transaction had been facilitated by the clownish ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is known (among other things) for his frequent meetings with Saddam in Baghdad.  In 2000, both a Zhirinovsky spokesman and Aviakonversiya director Oleg Antonov denied that Iraq had purchased any of the six-pound transmitters, then priced at $40,000. 

Antonov reiterated denials that the GPS jammers had been sold to Iraq almost immediately after the most recent charges were made public.  Tellingly, however, in a statement that was simultaneously too honest and not honest enough, he admitted that his firm does work around Russian export controls to sell the jammers abroad; according to Antonov, Aviakonversiya does not ship completed systems but only parts-not classified as military equipment-and then assembles the systems when they reach their destination.  "We created our equipment that way, so as to avoid its components being subject to restrictions," he said.  "We worked it that way in order to avoid any difficulties with its export."  This may explain the reports about the presence of Russian "technicians" in Baghdad, which Antonov denies.  Also of interest: at least one media report noted that a scientist involved in developing the system no longer works for Aviakonversiya.  Though less information is available in the media about the Kornet anti-tank missiles, at least one published report suggests that their producer, KBP Tula, filed papers claiming that the missiles were destined for Yemen rather than Iraq.  (This is a favorite tactic-to sell technology and armaments via third-party transfers.) 

The Russian government is less to blame for the fact of the sales-after all, the Kremlin cannot even stop Russian officers, let alone Russian companies, from selling weapons to Chechen separatists-than for what seems to have been a slow response to U.S. concerns.  One might also fault a certain laissez-faire attitude within some of the law-enforcement bodies that were content to allow Russian firms to sell equipment-legally-to countries such as Belarus or Ukraine (outside of Russian jurisdiction) which was then reshipped to less legitimate purchasers in Asia, Latin America or Africa.  Nevertheless, developments since the sales were reported in the American media suggest that Russia is finally taking the matter seriously.  Most significant is the fact that contrary to some published reports, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who called President Bush-not the other way around.  Mr. Putin is said to have offered Russian cooperation in investigating the American allegations and halting any inappropriate activity.  And after the conversation between the two presidents, a senior Russian official personally telephoned Aviakonversiya's Antonov to pursue that element of the problem.  [Interestingly, Yevgeny Verlin reports elsewhere in this issue that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov admitted recently to a Russian audience that "it is possible a private company [did something illegal], but this would be an exception."  Secretary of State Colin Powell also indicated that the Bush Administration has provided Moscow with additional specific information to back up U.S. claims and facilitate Russian inquiries. 

More generally, Russian officials seem to want to move beyond U.S.-Russian differences over Iraq.  After having spoken their minds-Putin characterized the start of military action as a "big political mistake" while Ivanov termed it "illegitimate" under international law (1)-the prevailing attitude seems to be that disagreements over Iraq need not interrupt productive and mutually beneficial cooperation in other areas.  In fact, the Russian President and Foreign Minister have both stressed this in their public statements.  And many issues remain on the agenda: Afghanistan is unsettled; Al-Qaeda is still active; organized crime, drug trafficking and smuggling are prime threats both to the security of Russia and the West; and a new energy partnership could reduce Western dependence on the Middle East while providing fresh sources of investment and technology to the Russian economy. 

Other than in some extremist circles, there is little sympathy for Saddam in Russia.  Few tears will be shed upon his departure.  At the same time, there is still some incredulity that the United States would risk not only its military forces but even its standing in the world to remove this particular dictator, especially when containment was still an option.  As with the reaction to American missile defense plans, many Russians seem to believe that if the United States wishes to pay the price in blood and treasure (especially since it now appears that the war will not be a swift or clean matter), then that is Washington's affair. 

But not Russia's.  Moscow picked up very early on to the signals being broadcast by the Bush Administration that it was going to lead a "coalition of the willing" to deal with Iraq whether or not there was a UN Security Council resolution.  (Presidential advisor Karl Rove confirmed before the beginning of military operations that the administration did not believe it needed a new resolution, but was seeking one to provide political cover for potential coalition partners).  So, if the United States was going to act in any event, Russia had nothing to lose by formally opposing a new resolution, and much to gain, especially in terms of cementing its ties to France and Germany. 

"We can disagree without being disagreeable" seems to be the Russian attitude.  (Foreign Minister Ivanov has gone so far as to say that the dispute over Iraq demonstrates the considerable progress in the U.S.-Russian relationship.)  It remains to be seen, however, to what degree the Bush Administration will view a country's position on Iraq as a litmus test in determining its friends and partners.  Much will depend on two things-the degree to which Moscow decides to crack down seriously on the leakage of sensitive technologies to the "states of concern" and whether Russia (along with France and Germany) works to support, rather than hinder, a U.S.-led reconstruction of Iraq.  It does appear that at least some in the Bush Administration may be willing to forego the other benefits that may accrue from closer relations if Moscow continues to thwart Washington's plans for Iraq.  Congress and the American public are also increasingly skeptical.

Russia's continuing corruption is not an excuse for failing to stop illegal arms sales when American soldiers are at war.  If Moscow genuinely wants a productive relationship with Washington, Russian officials must act.

(1)    One must keep in mind that Ivanov has been a major proponent of the role of the UN Security Council in the international system; in his recent book, The New Russian Diplomacy, he put forth his vision of a Security Council that finds consensus among the five permanent members to jointly address problems of global security. 


Paul J. Saunders is director of The Nixon Center.  Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.