President George W. Bush urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 24 phone call to rein in private Russian companies that the United States has implicated in illegal arms deals with Iraq. Putin denied that Russian companies are guilty—an answer the Kremlin has been giving Washington for nearly a year and which has not satisfied the Bush administration.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters March 24 that the United States has “credible evidence” of Russian companies supplying Iraq with weaponry prohibited by a 1990 UN arms embargo. Night vision goggles, anti-tank missiles, and equipment to jam U.S. global positioning systems are the arms at issue.
Bush administration officials have not said exactly when the deals took place or whether some are still ongoing. Secretary of State Colin Powell, however, said in a March 24 interview with Fox News that, “in the last 48 hours, I’ve seen even more information that causes me concern.”
It also remains unclear whether the Russian government authorized the alleged transactions or has simply failed to prevent them. Speaking the same day as Fleischer, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted, “We don’t think that we have the kind of [Russian government] oversight and interdiction that we’ve been asking for.”
Powell said that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has pledged that Russia will act if provided proper and sufficient evidence. “Frankly, we believe we have given them more than enough information so that they should have been able to find out the truth of this,” Powell stated. The secretary added that he was “very confident of our facts” and described himself as “disappointed” in Russia’s response to date.
At least three Russian companies are reportedly suspected of engaging in the illegal deals, though the U.S. government has not named them. News accounts have identified two of the companies as Aviaconversiya and the Tula Design Bureau, which the United States sanctioned last August along with two other Russian companies for arms transfers to Libya, Sudan, and Syria.
The Bush administration has not decided whether to impose sanctions against the companies or on the Russian government, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner in a March 25 interview.
The U.S. allegations have been publicly aired after Russia failed to side with the United States during several weeks of intense and often bitter debate at the United Nations over Iraq’s disarmament.
Boucher gave three reasons to explain why the United States had not made its concerns public earlier. He suggested the United States has recently acquired more information on the alleged deals, that the issue became more “acute” as it became clearer U.S. forces might have to deal with the weapons on the battlefield, and there was a hope that Moscow would be helpful in exerting some control over the shipments or providing the United States with information.
Last fall, the United States blasted Ukraine for its possible transfer of an early-warning system to Iraq, though a joint investigation by U.S. and British experts was inconclusive. (See ACT, December 2002.) Washington also publicly identified Serbian arms companies in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Republika Srpska, part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as violating the UN arms embargo on Iraq. (See ACT, November 2002.)