The Case Russia Forgot

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William C. Potter
New York Times Op-Ed
April 3, 1998

There is growing bipartisan support in Congress to compel Russia to halt missile exports to Iran. In an effort to defuse the issue, the Russian Government has denied involvement in the transactions and has introduced new controls on the military exports.

The problem, however, is not the lack of Russian regulations, of which there are dozens, but the failure to enforce them. A recent decision by the Russian Government not to prosecute those responsible for exporting missile and technology to Iraq is indicative.

Although the details of the case have yet to be made public, the facts that are known raise questions about how seriously the Russians are taking their nonproliferation obligations.

In November 1995 the Jordanian Government intercepted a shipment to Iraq of Russian missile guidance equipment, including gyroscopes. The next month, inspectors for the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq recovered more gyroscopes from the Tigris River near Baghdad. These were not ordinary gyroscopes, but came from dismantled submarine-launched ballistic missiles, weapons designed to deliver nuclear warheads to targets more than 4,000 miles away.

The Kremlin initially denied that the gyroscopes were of Russian origin. After the commission’s leader at the time, Rolf Ekeus, visited Moscow in February 1996, Russian officials admitted the shipment had come from Russia but said the Government was in no way involved. On April 4, 1996, the Russian Government began a criminal investigation into the matter.

Yet that investigation was abruptly closed in October 1997. No prosecutions were recommended. The official explanation from the prosecutor’s office was that it could not establish that a felony had been committed, since the gyroscopes, which had been removed from decommissioned missiles, were technically being stored as scrap metal. Exporting scrap metal, even to an embargoed country, was not worthy of further legal effort.

In fact the gyroscopes had not simply been taken from the scrap pile. At Iraqi insistence, samples of the gyroscopes were tested and “certified” at the Moscow manufacturing site, the Mars Rotor Plant, according to Russian journalists who have investigated the matter.

It is unclear whether the focus of the Russian criminal investigation included another piece of equipment found by the Jordanians, a rate table used to test guidance instruments. That item clearly was not scrap, and its export is supposed to be regulated under the Missile Technology Control Regime, of which Russia is a member. There also are indications that Russian technicians were scheduled to go to Iraq to recertify the equipment and to provide training once the shipment was received — notwithstanding the international trade embargo on Iraq.

Moscow’s disavowals regarding the Iraq exports resemble its recent statements on the Iran exports — yes, the equipment appears to be of Russian origin, but the Government had nothing to do with it. Yet the failure to prosecute those involved in the Iraq cases suggests that the Government was not an innocent bystander.

That interpretation is reinforced by the fact that, beginning in 1993, Iraqis have repeatedly visited Russian military-industrial sites. According to Russian accounts, some of those visits were of an official nature and involved substantial delegations of Iraqis.

These visits, which generated a variety of defense contracts, would have to have been sanctioned by Russian Federal Security Service personnel, who are at all sensitive military-industrial sites. Given the extended nature of these contacts and contracts, it is hard to imagine they did not involve some level of Russian Government acquiescence.

Congress is correct to insist that Russia honor its nonproliferation commitments. But it should be skeptical of decrees issued in response to American entreaties that promise more restrictive export regulations and more severe penalties for violators.

The true test of Russia’s commitment is the enforcement of existing export control laws. Until flagrant violations are prosecuted and prescribed punishment involving hefty fines and imprisonment is administered, there will be no interruption in the illegal flow of sensitive military material, technology and know-how.

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