An advanced Soviet- designed radar system that can surreptitiously detect American aircraft may now be in Iraq.
The United States is accusing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma of authorizing the illegal $100 million sale of four Kolchuga radar stations to Iraq in violation of UN sanctions. Unlike conventional radars, the Kolchuga emits no radio pulse, but works by passively scanning the electronic signals given off by incoming aircraft. The US fears the units could help Iraqi air defenses survive an attack, because American antiradar weapons work by homing in on radar beams.
The alleged black-market sale to Iraq highlights a larger problem in the fight to combat terrorism, say Russian experts. Most of the USSR's massive arms stockpiles have already been sold off legally and illegally and poorly supervised war factories around the former Soviet Union may still be providing criminal groups and rogue regimes with conventional weapons and the means to make biological and nuclear arms.
"All former Soviet republics inherited stockpiles of sophisticated weapons, and leakage is possible in a majority of these cases," says Alexander Pikayev, a military specialist with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "Under the circumstances, I think it's surprising that there are so few allegations going around."
Last month the United States suspended $55 million in aid to Ukraine, charging that tape recordings made two years ago by a former bodyguard of Mr. Kuchma show the Ukrainian leader authorized the sale of radar stations to Iraq. On Monday, Kuchma denied the charges.
The US allegations are having the effect of reinvigorating Ukraine's long-dormant opposition movement; 20,000 people took to the streets of Kiev last weekend to demand Kuchma's resignation. The same tapes that seem to show Kuchma approving the Iraqi sale also contain evidence that he plotted the murder of a dissident Ukrainian journalist, attempted to fix local elections, and engaged in a variety of corrupt transactions. "The Ukrainian opposition took it as a clear signal from Washington that Kuchma should be overthrown," editorialized the liberal Moscow daily Kommersant Wednesday. "The fact that declarations by US officials went together with rising opposition in Ukraine is probably no coincidence," says Valentina Guidenko, an adviser to the Russian State Duma. "The Americans are clearly supporting the opposition to Kuchma."
This week a US and British arms control team arrived in Kiev to investigate the alleged Kolchuga sale, and a Ukrainian appellate court judge opened a criminal probe into the specific charges against Kuchma.
"Ukraine has a very marginal place in the world arms market, so it might have gone looking for marginal partners," says Maxim Pyadush-kin, deputy director of the independent Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis in Moscow. "And the price sounds right. These units should normally sell for around $5 million each, so $100 million for four of them would be attractive."
But experts also say the US may be trying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted. "Iraq has had a constant flow of spare parts for their hardware, despite 12 years of a supposedly tough embargo," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert in Moscow. "Saddam Hussein still has radars that work and planes that fly, and that couldn't happen without regular maintenance. This arrives in Iraq through a complicated network of middlemen, but the materials and expertise come from the former USSR. There is little doubt that top officials in many former Soviet countries know what's going on, and probably take cuts from the sales."
Mr. Felgenhauer says he has researched one late 1990s case in which two dozen Mi-24 helicopter gunships from former Soviet warehouses were disassembled and shipped to Iraq through Middle Eastern and African smuggling routes. In another well-known example, UN weapons inspectors in Iraq found gyroscopes from dismantled Soviet strategic nuclear missiles hidden in the Tigris River in the mid-90s.
The largest sources of weaponry for black marketeers are the vast Soviet strategic arms stockpiles. Another is the massive arsenal brought back by Soviet forces when they withdrew from Eastern Europe after 1989, and deposited mainly in the republics of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.
A 1998 Ukrainian parliamentary commission concluded that about one-third of former Soviet stockpiles of guns, armor, missiles and munitions left in Ukraine after 1991 $32 billion worth had been stolen and peddled on illicit arms markets worldwide.
And Kazakhstan has sold MiG fighters to North Korea and remains a major source of small arms and munitions for arms smugglers, experts say. The impoverished Central Asian republic was also a major site for Soviet-era biological warfare production and atomic weapons testing. "It's a very big worry that Kazakh biological warfare expertise could leak into the wrong hands," says Mr. Pikayev. "Some work has been done to deal with this threat, but not nearly enough".
Another danger is the number of poorly supervised defense factories in various ex-Soviet republics, which could upgrade older weapons to create a new technological threat. The Kolchuga radar system is an example of a Soviet-era design that was improved by the cash-strapped Ukrainian Topaz company, which then sought to market it internationally.
Only Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus inherited significant military production facilities from the USSR, although several republics can still make small arms and Kazakhstan produces conventional torpedoes for the Russian Navy. Ukraine is able to build armored vehicles, Antonov cargo planes, and electronic systems such as radars. Kiev earns about $500 million annually from legitimate global arms deals, but some estimates say black-market sales are as much as three times higher.
Most experts say the Russian arms industry has largely been brought under control by President Vladimir Putin, who amalgamated weapons exporters into a single state-run agency and cracked down on the corruption and smuggling that thrived in the 1990s under former President Boris Yeltsin.
Belarus remains a big question mark. The country has a great deal of advanced Soviet weaponry, and its industries can build subsystems for strategic missiles, air defense systems, and armored vehicles. "Belarus is under [President Alexander] Lukashenko's strict control, so any arms sales would be deliberate," says Pikayev. "Lukashenko has his own ideological agenda. He is isolated from the West, and even from Russia. He has plenty of technology. It's something to worry about."