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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Friends Can Bust Sanctions

The United States has accused Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma of flouting UN sanctions by selling a sophisticated radar system to Iraq that could threaten the safety of U.S. and British pilots. As punishment for the alleged deal, Washington has suspended aid to the government in Kiev. This week a group of British and U.S. experts arrived in Ukraine to investigate the allegations, which Kuchma and his government have steadfastly denied.

The Kolchuga (Russian for chain mail) system detects radar signals and other electromagnetic emissions from warplanes flying hundreds of kilometers away. It is a passive system, i.e. it does not emit any signals of its own and pilots do not know they are being tracked.

A former bodyguard of Kuchma's, Mykola Melnichenko, secretly taped a conversation in July 2000 in which the Ukrainian president apparently approved the sale of four Kolchuga systems to Iraq through a Jordanian intermediary for $100 million. The U.S. authorities have declared the tape authentic and have announced that they have indications that the Kolchuga radar systems have indeed reached Iraq.

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But can a tape -- even if authentic -- be in itself sufficient proof that an illegal transaction went through? Surely the U.S. authorities should have got corroborating evidence before openly accusing a previously friendly government of sanctions-busting.

For those who follow the dealings of the shady international arms market, sanctions-busting vis-a-vis Iraq is not news. UN sanctions barring any arms sales to Saddam were imposed in September 1990. If they had indeed been watertight for the past 12 years, there would not be a single Iraqi jet or helicopter flying, tank rolling, or radar and SAM battery operating today, due to the lack of spare parts and adequate maintenance. Saddam's army and even his Republican guard would resemble rebel forces from the Congo or Somalia.

Obviously the UN arms sanctions are a sham. A Moscow banker, former military officer and professional arms trader who worked for the state arms export agency in the Middle East told me in 1997 (when I was investigating sanctions-busting) that spare parts for Russian-made Iraqi weaponry have been shipped into Iraq with the help of Bulgarian and Turkish intermediaries, mostly via Jordan. Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland have also been mentioned as black market arms hubs. The East European black and gray arms trading network was established in the 1990s to supply arms to warring factions in former Yugoslavia and later turned to serve other clients such as Iraq, Ethiopia, and the Congo.

A retired colonel and former official Russian arms trader, who switched to become a freelancer, told me how the system works. If a client appears with cash to put up front, an intermediary in Eastern Europe or the Middle East takes the deal and contacts "friends" in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan or Russia -- all countries with massive surpluses of modern weapons. A package deal is put together that can easily include mercenary pilots, mechanics and other specialists, if the client wishes. This network is well established and can cut through government red tape in no time by means of bribes. Of course, many government officials and local intelligence services are privy to these illegal deals.

In 1997, I discovered solid evidence that in 1996 Iraq illegally acquired some 20 Mi-24 armored helicopter gunships. A Bulgarian company apparently masterminded the deal, the choppers were shipped from Ukraine or Russia, but it was Russian technicians, an official source told me, that traveled to Baghdad in 1996 to get them into working order.

A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official involved in arms export control, whom I asked to investigate this incident, not only confirmed that Russia is breaking the embargo, but that in the UN secretariat in New York and, apparently, in Washington these facts are well known, but they are hushed up.

Of late, Washington has accused leaders it doesn't like -- Kuchma and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko -- of smuggling arms to "rogue" states, including Iraq, while "friendly" regimes in Russia and Kazakhstan have been spared. However, if in the coming days Moscow vetoes a U.S.-sponsored anti-Saddam resolution in the UN Security Council, some major Western media outlet may come out with an anti-Russian arms smuggling scoop. If Russia abstains, Kuchma and Lukashenko may remain as the only ones in the dock.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.