Volume I, No. 4

Russian Gun-Running Comes to Light

by Professor Stephen Blank

Recently, Nigerian authorities detained a Russian ship carrying weapons, but Russian diplomats apparently persuaded them that the ship was not smuggling weapons. (1)   In other such cases,  however,  Russia was not so fortunate.    On October 10, Turkish authorities intercepted and forced the landing of a Syrian bound plane coming from Moscow and apparently carrying munitions.  Although Russian officials denied that the plane carried arms, Turkish authorities and the US government have stated otherwise. (2)  Moscow finally had to admit that it was carrying “radar gear.” (3)  This episode is not as unusual as the press it garnered would imply.  It obviously goes beyond the boundaries of ongoing Russian weapons sales to Syria — sales that Moscow has said would continue, as they are not illegal.  As counterpoint, Moscow now complains that the US is “coordinating” arms deliveries, particularly of Stinger anti-air missiles, to the Syrian rebels. (4)  The situation in Syria is not unique — Russia has fully and repeatedly incorporated gun-running to terrorist  movements and states into its strategy, often for reasons that essentially involve striking at the US, its interests, and its allies.

To be sure, other governments run guns to their clients.  It is the character of Moscow’s clients that set them apart.  Previous sales of Russian weapons to Syria often have been transferred, possibly with Russian foreknowledge, to Hamas and Hezbollah. These arms sales fortified the Irano-Syrian connection, which threatens Israel and US allies in the Gulf; it also benefitted Moscow by confirming Syrian and Iranian dependence upon Russian arms sales, a dependence that Moscow in turn uses to strengthen its role in the region.  By 2005, Syria already had 1000 Russian Kornet Anti-tank RPGs. Russia also sold a significant quantity of RPG-29 Vampirs with tandem HEAT (high explosive anti-tank) Pg-29V warheads, hundreds of Metis-M anti-tank missile systems and Sagger AT-3 and Spigot AT-4 anti-tank wire-guided missiles.  In 2005, Syria and Russia then signed a $70 million deal for 20 SA-18 Igla man-portable infrared homing SAMs leading Syria to commence discussions for Iskander-E-SS-21q and even S-300PMU long-range SAMs.  All these weapons plus the Spandrel-AT-5 anti-tank missile eventually ended up in the arsenals of Hezbollah and Hamas and then were used by them in 2006 and 2008-09.  For months, Moscow stridently denied transferring these weapons but certainly did nothing to enforce strict Syrian control over its weapons.  Many attribute Hezbollah’s performance in its 2006 war with Israel to Russian military advisors.  Thus, Moscow also uses Middle East wars as laboratories for its weapons. (5)


Russian arms sales to Iran are the most dangerous of all its arms sales due to Iran’s nuclear programs and global support for terrorism, as well as for “rogue states,” such as North Korea and Venezuela (e.g. Tehran’s support for Venezuela’s quest for domestic uranium).  Iran’s unstinting assistance to Hamas, Hezbollah, and terrorists in Latin America is also a matter of public record, as was Israel’s 2010 capture of a ship laden with Iranian weapons earmarked for Hezbollah.  Interestingly enough, the ammunition boxes found on board the ship displayed Spanish writing, suggesting another possible connection with Venezuela. (6)

Other reasons for concern pertain to non-nuclear related Russian arms exports through 2010.  Iran already has reached the point where it can appeal to China for defense exports (ironically, probably Russian knock-offs).  Thus, Iran raised hints that if it does not get the S-300 SAM for which it signed a contract with Russia in 2007, it might turn to China.  This would serve as another example of Russia’s reckless arms sales to China coming back to haunt it. (7)  Second, the 2009 incident of the Arctic Sea (a ship that left Russia and purportedly was hijacked by pirates in the Baltic Sea, then disappeared until the Russian Navy tracked it down in the Cape Verde Islands), illustrates that the cancer of corruption in the arms trade apparently has infected Russian arms sales to Iran.  More and more it appears that this ship was chartered to run Russian missile parts to Iran, indicating a chain of corruption throughout Russia’s arms sales and military industrial establishments.  Allegedly the Mossad discovered this sale and alerted Russian intelligence so as not to embarrass Russia. (8)  This situation embodies the dangerous link between Russia’s arms mafia and the government, including corrupt officials and middlemen.  As an Israeli columnist wrote then,  “In modern-day Russia, there really does exist a symbiosis between the state and the weapons mafia.  In this situation, the mafia does not always have to act in circumvention of the state machine to supply weapons to pariah states.  The mafia — and this might be the most important conclusion to be drawn from the story of the disappearance of the notorious freighter [Arctic Sea-author] – can be used as a weapon for state policy.  Clearly, the Russian government will not dare use official channels today to supply missile systems to Iran.  However, when it is the mafia illegally selling these systems, well, what can the government do, especially when it is certain that only lumber is being exported from the country?” (9)

Even more serious charges have surfaced in a report by the leftist forum.msk.ru newspaper, alleging that the Russian government, operating through the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye), led at the time by General Valentin Korabel’nikov, put together a decade-long  program of clandestine weapons sales to Iran to keep Israel and Washington guessing as to Iran’s true capabilities.  This gray and black market program reportedly also enlisted the cooperation of Algeria and Syria, the arms brokers Viktor Bout (currently serving 25 years in the US for arms smuggling) and Munzer al-Kassar (who was arrested in Spain in 2007 and extradited to the United States where he died in 2009), Russian organized crime figures in Spain, along with certain members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) who have bases in Iran and engage regularly in arms trafficking.  In other words, Moscow apparently orchestrated a long-running program of illicit and clandestine arms sales to Iran, involving terrorists, criminals, and complicit governments until the network broke down with the arrests of the Kurdish contact Zakhar Kalashov (currently jailed in Spain after conviction on money laundering charges).  That initial arrest led to other arrests, Algeria’s return of Russian weapons (allegedly because they were defective), the sacking of General Korabel’nikov, the break up of the network with the arrests of the two arms brokers, and an abortive last attempt, using the Arctic Sea, to run weapons to Iran in 2009. (10)  If these reports are true they represent the depths of corruption to which the arms trade has brought the government in its linkages with organized crime and illustrate the dangers this trade poses to Moscow, as well as to international security more generally.

Since Iran then re-exports these weapons, including possibly Shahab-3 missiles to rogue states like Syria (among others), this amounts to playing with fire. (11) This urge to play with fire and also to be on both sides of the action in the Middle East is not new.  We saw it earlier in Iraq.  In the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Russia simultaneously sought partnership with Washington and friendship with Iraq.  It was prepared to “play ball” with the US as long as Washington acknowledged Russian interests in Iraq, and more broadly the Gulf, because its interests there were both economic and political in nature and because they served to enrich key political elites in Moscow.  The fact that working with Washington also validated Russia’s stance as a legitimate actor with respect to Iraq’s destiny provided an added bonus.  Russia’s interests in Iraq included large debts of $7-8 billion, large-scale energy contracts to develop Iraqi oil fields, and large-scale trade in Russian goods under the notoriously corrupt oil-for-food program that, as we now know, enriched many members of Russia’s elite.  In broader perspective, the Gulf States in general were, and are, regarded by Russia’s defense industry and the Ministry of Atomic Affairs (Minatom) as fertile hunting grounds for large profitable sales. (12)   Meanwhile, Russian intelligence was  furnishing Saddam Hussein with the results of Western conversations about Iraq and running weapons to Iraq, again indicating Moscow’s desire to keep a foot in both camps. (13)

For over a decade Moscow was a major provider of external support for Iran’s missile, air defense, space, and naval programs. (14)  In 1998, Yevgenia Albats outlined Russo-Iranian collaboration in helping Iran build nuclear missiles for use as a future IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missiles) that could target Israel and Turkey.  There is speculation that Iran also hopes to build an ICBM to target the United States and Europe.  Albats detailed the conscious participation and coordination of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the State Commissions on Non-Proliferation, and on Science and Technology, Yevgeny Primakov’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and probably the Ministry of Defense in projects to send Russian scientists to Iran to transfer nuclear know-how as Iran aims to develop IRBM’s and then ICBMs. (15)  The large number of Russian scientific-technological institutions helping Iran develop its programs strongly suggests governmental involvement in coordinating this interaction, especially as many of them either had close connections with the government, or were under its authority, or claimed to have informed the government of what they were selling to Iran. (16)  Indeed, the Russian press publicly acknowledged that the Shahab-3 is built with the latest Russian technology.  (17)

Balkans and Latin America

There is a long, complicated history to Russian involvement in the Balkans.  Recently, it appears that a lucrative trade has emerged using the Balkans for transshipment of weapons.   Perhaps the most egregious example arises from the corruption of Montenegro by Russian money and criminal organizations (with possible links to the government), including the fact that since 2010, 39 suspicious flights have been recorded leaving Podgorica airport in Ilyushin 76 planes bound for Armenia’s Erebuni military airport apparently with arms intended for Nagorno-Karabakh, which has subsequently seen an increase in border incidents within the same time frame. (18)  The use of these Russian planes and the link to the long-standing, large-scale arms trafficking between Russia and Armenia immediately raises suspicions of Russian governmental involvement, if not orchestration of this program.  Whether or not it is criminal, it could not have come about without the collusion of Montenegrin officials at the airport, in the customs service, etc.

In Latin America, Moscow operates primarily through Venezuela, which has been a major provider of Russian weapons to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) in Columbia. (19)  In 2008, it was clear that Russian policymakers such as Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, then Premier Putin’s right-hand man, apparently wanted to conduct a Latin American policy of destabilization, working against US interests regardless of the consequences.  Sechin reportedly promoted economic deals and arms sales to Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua and the formation among them of an alliance as “Moscow considers the formation of such a union a worthy response to U.S. activity in the former Soviet Union and the placement of missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.” (20) Not surprisingly, Sechin advised Putin that Moscow should upgrade its relations with these countries, in particular, and Latin America in general. (21)

Deputy Prime Minister Sechin appears to have encouraged Hugo Chavez to develop a nuclear program, and Sechin negotiated the transfer of nuclear technology and weapons to Venezuela. In July 2009, he also arranged a deal with Cuba that allowed Russia to conduct deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. (22)

Soon afterward the US Drug Enforcement Agency arrested Viktor Bout, the alleged international arms seller (who had enjoyed Moscow’s protection), in Bangkok during a sting in which Bout was lured into thinking he would be selling weapons to the FARC.  As many press reports have linked Bout to Igor Sechin and as it seems that the Russian government has been anxious to obtain his release, it is at least worth inquiring if Bout might have been part of Sechin’s plan for a Latin American, anti-US alliance and could, therefore, have compromised Russian policy.  (34) Whatever the answer, Moscow, despite its claims that its arms sales rules are the strictest in the world, has long since made it an act of high policy to sell weapons to thuggish characters as long as they work against US interests and allies. (24) Clearly, such arms sales are now, and for some time have been, an established component of Russia’s strategy.

By Professor Stephen Blank

Strategic Studies Institute

US Army War College

Not for citation or quotation without consent of the author

The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the US Government.

Copyright © 2012 resides with individual authors.  All rights reserved.  Send requests for permission to EurasiaAnalyst@gmail.com

End Notes:

(1) “Russian Ship Not Involved in Arms Smuggling,”-MFA www.panarmenian.net/eng/news/129097, 24 October 12.

(2)  “Russia Demands Answers After Turkey Forces Down Syrian Plane,”  St. Petersburg Times, 11 October 12, http://www.sptimes.ru/index.php?action_id=2&story_id=36341; Moscow The Moscow Times Online, in English, October 22, 2012, Open source Center, Foreign Broadcast Information Service  Central Eurasia  (Henceforth,  FBIS SOV), 22 October 12.

(3)  “NHK – Russia Admits Syria Plane Carried Radar Parts,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-C_a-GhKsJI, 13 October 12.

(4) Russia: U.S. Coordinates Weapon Deliveries to Syria Rebels,” Defensenews.com, http://www.defensenews.com/article/20121025/DEFREG02/310250006/Russia-U-S-Coordinates-Weapon-Deliveries-Syria-Rebels, 25 October 12.

(5)  Alexander Nemets, “Moscow and the Middle East Wars,” Unpublished Manuscript.

(6)   Fernando Ariel Gimenez and Meir Javendanfar, “Is Iran Arming Venezuela,?” http://www/realclearworld.com/blog/2009/11/latin_american_destined_weapon.ht.

(7) “Russia ‘Losing To China On Iran S-300 Quest,’” PressTV, 9 May 09 via www.payvand.com/news/09/may/1109.html.

(8) “’Israel Link’ In Arctic Sea Case,” BBC, 9 September 09, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/h/europe/8247273.htm.

(9) Vitaly Portnikov, “The Phantom Ship and a Living Mafia,” Tel Aviv,  Vesti-2 Supplement, in Russian, 10 September 09,  FBIS SOV, 10 September 09

(10) “Global Alternative: The Logical conclusion of a major Failure of Russian Intelligence,” Moscow, www.forum.msk.ru, in Russian, 9 November 09,  FBIS SOV, 9 November 09.

(11) Jerusalem, DEBKA-Net Weekly Internet Version, in English, July 21, 2006,  FBIS SOV, 21 July 06.

(12) Cohen, “Russia and the Axis of Evil: Money, Ambition, and U.S. Interests”; Eugene B. Rumer, “Russia’s Policies Toward the Axis of Evil: Money and Geopolitics in Iraq and Iran,” Testimony to the House International Relations Committee, 26 February 03, wwc.house.gov/international_relations/108/rume0226; Celeste A. Wallander, “Russian Interest in Trading With the “Axis of Evil”, Ibid., wwc.house.internatonal_Relations/108/wall/0226.

(13) David Harrison, “Revealed: Russia spied on Blair for Saddam,” The Daily Telegraph, 13 April 03, www.telegraph.co.uk.

(14)  Nemets and Trofino, pp. 367-382; Alexander Nemets and Robert W. Kurz, “The Iranian Space Program and Russian Assistance,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies, XXII, NO. 1, 2009,  pp. 87-96.

(15) Moscow, Novaya gazeta Ponedelnik, in Russian, 16-22 March 98, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Arms Control, (Henceforth FBIS TAC) 98-076, 17 March 98.

(16) Kenneth Katzman, “Iran’s Long-Range Missile Capabilities,” REPORT of the COMMISSION TO ASSESS THE BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT TO THE UNITED STATES, July 15, 1998 Pursuant to Public Law 201, 104th Congress, Appendix III, Unclassified Working Papers, pp. 198-199, David Fillipov, “What US Calls Arms Proliferation, Russia Firm Calls Business as Usual,” Boston Globe, 19 August 98, p. 1.

(17) Moscow, Izvestiya in Russian, 18 July 00, FBIS SOV, 18 July 00.

(18) Joshua Kucera, “The Art of the Arms Deal,” Eurasia Insight, 27 September 12, www.eurasianet.org; www.statebusiness.tumblr.com.

(19) “The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of  ’Raúl Reyes’,” International Institute of  Strategic Studies, http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/the-farc-files-venezuela-ecuador-and-the-secret-archive-of-raul-reyes/?locale=en, 2011.

(20) Open Source Center, Open Source Committee, OSC Analysis, “Hard-Liner Sechin Spearheads Aggressive Russian Foreign Policy,” FBIS SOV, 24 September 08.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Richard Sakwa, “Russia’s Grey Cardinal, Open Democracy, 15 June 11, www.opendemocracy.net/print/59978.

(23)  There are numerous press accounts of Viktor Bout’s background, arrest, conviction, and connections, including “Profile: Victor Bout,” BBC News, 5 April 12 via http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11036569; Disarming Viktor Bout,” by Nicholas Schmidle, the New Yorker, 5 Mar 12 via http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/03/05/120305fa_fact_schmidle.  For information on Russian requests for his return, see, among others “Russia officially requests US to hand over Bout,” rt.com, 23 August 12 via http://rt.com/politics/russia-bout-request-us-400/.

(24) Moscow, Interfax-AVN Online, in English, 18 October 12,  FBIS SOV 18 October 12.

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