Last Friday, March 2, Ivan Safronov, a defense correspondent for Kommersant newspaper, fell to his death from a fourth-story window in his apartment block in central Moscow. The Moscow police are treating the death as suicide, but they still opened a criminal investigation to look into the possibility of foul play. Safronov (51) was a retired colonel of the Space Rocket Forces who had worked as a journalist since 1997. Friends and family said he did not have any health problems or other personal reason to commit suicide. He did not leave any suicide note (Kommersant, March 5). Safronov’s colleagues at Kommersant believe he was murdered.
Safronov’s journalistic work often brought him into conflict with the Defense Ministry and Russian intelligence services. Kommersant reports that the FSB security service had investigated Safronov several times, accusing him of disclosing state secrets. Last October Safronov printed a story about a new Bulava (SS-NX-30) sea-based ballistic missile that exploded 200 seconds after take off during a test launch from the Dmitry Donskoi submarine in the White Sea. The Defense Ministry attempted to hush up the embarrassing accident, but Safronov, using his connections in the military, disclosed the truth (Kommersant, October 26, 2006).
Other Bulava launches ended in mishaps or explosions soon after take off (see EDM, September 11, 2006; November 1, 2006). According to first Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, the first nuclear submarine of the new Borei class, the Yuri Dolgoruky, which will carry Bulava missiles, will be completed this year (Itar-Tass, February 13). If the Bulava is not ready for production and deployment on time, there will be no weapons to arm the new sub, rendering it useless and endangering Moscow’s plans for nuclear rearmament. After Safronov’s disclosure of the Bulava crash, top generals and government officials were forced to answer unpleasant public questions.
Kommersant reports that, before his death Safronov was working on a story that Russia had secretly signed contracts to sell new weapons to Iran and Syria. Iran would get new strategic S-300V anti-aircraft missiles and Syria the Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, Iskander ballistic missiles, MIG-29s, and Su-30 fighters. In 2005 Safronov made public a previous attempt to sell Syria Iskander missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin later confirmed that “our military was ready to sell the Iskanders to Syria,” but he personally had cancelled the deal (Kommersant, March 6).
The Iskander has a range of 280 kilometers and covers most of Israel. The Syrians already have Scud-B missiles of the same range, but the Scuds hit with an accuracy of a mile, while the Iskander has a warhead with a homing device and an accuracy of several meters. Iskanders launched from Syria could hit with precision sensitive targets in Israel. Therefore, supplying new long-range Russia missiles to Syria and Iran could destabilize the entire Middle East and lead to war.
I have known Safronov for a long time and have highly respected him as a fellow defense journalist. I knew that his sources inside the military and defense industry were first-class and always treated with utmost attention the stories he reported. It is likely that Moscow is indeed secretly preparing to sell long-range missiles, jets, and other weapons to Syria and Iran. Safronov had suggested that weapons shipments to rogue states could be channeled through Belarus to protect Russia from Western criticism and sanctions (Kommersant, March 6).
Russian arms trading practices are opaque. Last week (February 27) Safronov and I both attended the same press conference. I asked Mikhail Dmitriev, director of the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, how much money the Russian state budget receives from arms trade and how much does the state-owned arms trading monopoly Rosoboroneksport transfer? Dmitriev’s press conference was about the financial results of Russian arms trade in 2006, but he flatly refused to answer this legitimate question. Dmitriev stated, “A lot of money is transferred, but I will not give you any figure, because you will speculate and misquote.” Instead, Dmitriev announced that in 2006 $6.5 billion worth of arms were exported and $8 billions of payments arrived. But the share the Russian state received remains a secret, apparently because it is so small as to be an embarrassment.
Russian arms producers still use Soviet designs and equipment and Soviet-made components for assembly. Often entire Soviet-made weapons systems are repainted and sold as “newly Russian-made.” Illegal profits are sky-high and Rosoboroneksport has been at the center of this racket, stockpiling billions of dollars (see EDM, July 31, 2006; January 4).
To protect their illicit earnings, corrupt state officials and businessmen in Russia are ready to use violence. I know of one well-known Russian defense journalist, who in 2002 published a story about the arms trade that annoyed the Russian military. Military intelligence agents arrived at his apartment and badly beat and tortured him. The journalist survived, sustaining serious kidney damage, but I am under obligation not to disclose his name.
State agents could have pushed Safronov from his apartment window, as he had been a thorn in the side of corrupt rulers. Certainly, other critical journalists have been murdered in Russia, including Anna Politkovskaya. The Kremlin rewards and promotes the killers, instead of bringing them to justice, while Western executives and politicians flock to Moscow to cut profitable deals. The latest was Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who came to the Kremlin with cabinet ministers and top private-sector energy executives to seek exclusive Russian gas deals (see EDM, March 6). Has Russian blood been spilled to pay for Western profits?