Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sanctions Busting Skeletons

Is Russia supplying Saddam Hussein with illegal weapons in violation of UN sanctions? Last Saturday, Russian Ambassador to the United States Yury Ushakov was called to the State Department and handed an official protest. The story was also immediately leaked to the press.

The Russian authorities replied with a barrage of denials. The Kremlin announced that President Vladimir Putin had told President George W. Bush the allegations were "unproven" and "could only damage relations between the two countries." Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told journalists that "for the last 12 years Russia has not sold Iraq any equipment, including military equipment, in violation of the sanctions regime."

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

State Duma Deputy Andrei Kokoshin, a former secretary of the Security Council and first deputy defense minister, told reporters Monday: "There have been no deliveries officially authorized or made by official Russian institutions. If any arms were delivered, they are likely to have been Soviet-made. There are plenty of such arms in other former Soviet republics too, starting with Ukraine."

Kokoshin, who was in charge of arms export control inside the Defense Ministry for several years, is clearly guarded in the wording of his denial. Maybe this can be partially explained by the fact that in 1997 I told Kokoshin I had evidence Moscow was constantly and massively breaching the arms sanctions regime on Iraq. (In 1997 Kokoshin did not confirm, comment on or deny the allegations.)

In September 1990, after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the Soviet government issued executive order 1422 that banned all arms and military technology trade with Iraq "in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution." Some 80 percent of the hardware of the Iraqi military is Soviet-made. If sanctions had indeed been watertight since September 1990, today there would not be a single Iraqi jet or helicopter flying, tank rolling, or radar or SAM battery operating due to a lack of spare parts and adequate maintenance. Hussein's army and Republican Guard would long ago have disintegrated.

There have been large-scale breaches of the sanctions regime all these years. These violations are the main reason that today so much force is needed to dislodge Hussein.

In January 1997, I received reliable information that in 1995 and 1996 Iraq acquired some 20 Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters in clear violation of the sanctions regime. A Bulgarian trading company called Kintex apparently shipped the Hinds in containers into Iraq.

The country of origin of the Hinds may have been Russia or Ukraine. In 1997, the CEO of the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant told me that he had sent technicians from Moscow to Baghdad in 1996 to assemble the choppers and get them into working order. In 1996, Hussein may have used the Hind gunships during an attack on Erbil in northern Iraq. Iraqi forces later withdrew from Erbil after massacring many Kurds.

A Moscow banker (a former military officer and professional arms trader in Soviet times) who had been involved in financing arms export deals told me in 1997 that spare parts for Russian-made Iraqi weaponry had been shipped into Iraq with the help of Bulgarian and Turkish intermediaries. The main sources of illegal weapons were Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland were also mentioned as black market arms hubs.

Russian government export controls are easily bypassed by writing false end-user certificates. And now Washington alleges that KBP of Tula has sent a substantial amount of modern Kornet guided antitank missiles to Iraq, using Yemen as a false end-user destination. Such a pattern would seem to fit the pattern of Russian "black" arms exports.

A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official involved in arms export control told me that the Hind deal I researched in 1997-98 and more recent disclosures of Russian sanctions-busting were only "the tip of the iceberg."

Russian arms producers and Hussein's regime were indeed closely intertwined.

It's possible that adamant Russian opposition to regime change in Iraq was fueled by fears that if Hussein goes, the extent of his cooperation with Moscow will be disclosed. The French may be troubled by the same concerns. After the fall of Baghdad many unwanted skeletons may come tumbling out of the closet.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.