Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 58

In what was probably intended to appear as yet another overture to the West, Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday said that Russia must be more careful about ensuring that sensitive military technologies are not leaked to foreign customers. Putin, who was speaking to workers from the Russian defense industrial sector, said that Moscow needed to be “more strict” in halting technology leaks. He listed improved control over military exports as one of ten measures that Russia must implement in order to boost the fortunes of the country’s flagging defense industries (AP, Russian agencies, March 21).

Putin’s remarks appear to be intended as an olive branch to the Clinton administration. Russia and the United States have been at odds for several years now over the transfer of sensitive Russian nuclear and missile technologies to Iran. Washington has suggested that the technology leaks may be the fault of individual Russian defense firms and organizations operating (presumably ). without the knowledge of the government. The Clinton administration has urged Russian authorities to move more decisively and effectively to stop these improper transfers, but appears to have had little success to date. In an effort to increase the pressure on Moscow, U.S. lawmakers earlier this month unanimously passed the Iran Nonproliferation Act. The bill, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on March 14, mandates the leveling of sanctions against Russia (at the president’s discretion) if it is determined that sensitive military technologies are still flowing from Russia to Iran (see the Monitor, March 16).

Since his surprise accession to the Russian presidency, Putin has made several obvious overtures to the West. They have included calls for improved Russian-U.S. relations and for a resumption of cooperation between Russia and NATO under the aegis of the Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council, and even a suggestion that Moscow might eventually seek membership in the Western alliance. During a recent visit to St. Petersburg by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Putin again emphasized themes consistent with the notion of improved ties between Russia and the West.

But however pleasing Putin’s remarks on this score may have been to the ears of key Western leaders, it remains unclear whether they represent anything more than a welcome change in atmospherics (after the acrimony of the late Yeltsin period) or a useful theme in the former KGB official’s election campaign (Putin as peacemaker and statesman). On the contentious issue of Russia’s war in Chechnya, for example, Putin’s reassuring promises to take Western concerns into consideration–not to mention his even vaguer talk of launching negotiations or allowing observers and aid groups into the region–have proven to be little more than empty words.

That Putin’s talk of cracking down on military technology leaks to Iran may be nothing more than that is suggested by recent assertions that Moscow will not meet in an earlier commitment to halt arms exports to Iran. In 1995 Russia and the United States signed off on a pair of understandings. They stipulated, first, that Russia would sign no new arms contracts with Iran and, second, that by the end of 1999 Moscow would cease all work connected to arms agreements signed with Iran prior to 1995. Moscow has often criticized the Russian-U.S. understandings since signing them, and there have been calls for Russia to renounce the agreements. Just a month ago, for example, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev reportedly announced bluntly that Moscow has no intention of curtailing its military-technological cooperation with Iran, regardless of what the United States might think about it.

That this is at least close to Moscow’s official position has been suggested in recent days by Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Russian Security Council. Ivanov is, like Putin, a career intelligence officer, and is reputed to be one of his close advisers. Addressing students at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations on March 14, Ivanov reportedly indicated that Moscow would continue to supply arms to Iran–in fulfillment of the pre-1995 arms contracts–despite the fact that the deadline for such activities has now passed. Ivanov was quoted as saying that the “two largest framework agreements [on arms to Iran] were signed in 1992 and 1993…. And we will observe these contracts by continuing to ship the arms we had agreed on seven-eight years ago.” Ivanov also said that fulfillment of the 1995 contracts was a matter “of both our prestige and our business reputation.” Other Russian analysts suggested that Moscow was simply interested in ensuring that it maintains a strong presence in what they suggest could be a lucrative Iranian arms market.

Equally important, Ivanov reportedly told the students that Russia had come to a “full understanding with the Americans that we will make no new arms deals with Iran at the present time, but will continue to fulfill the contracts concluded before the signing of the appropriate… documents in 1995.” A Russian news source reported on March 17, however, that the United States had agreed to no such arrangement with Moscow. A U.S. State Department spokesman was quoted as saying that Ivanov’s words had “nothing to do” with Washington’s real position on the matter (Russian agencies, March 14; Kommersant daily, March 15; Vedomosti, March 17). Ivanov traveled to Washington for talks with top U.S. officials last month (see the Monitor, February 21). The issue of Russian technology leaks to Iran was on the agenda, but it was unclear whether the two sides also discussed this question of more conventional Russian arms exports to Iran.

Ivanov’s March 14 remarks suggest that Russian-Iranian defense cooperation will remain an irritant in Moscow-Washington relations, regardless of Putin’s latest talk about halting technology leaks to Iran. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration, which is already under pressure from Congressional Republicans to take a harder stand on the issue of Russian technology leaks, is apparently also coming under fire from the Israeli government for the same reason. An Israeli daily quotes government policy-makers as saying that the United States is not doing enough to halt Russian aid for Iran’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile projects. The Israeli government reportedly wants the Clinton administration to put more pressure on Moscow in order to halt the Russian-Iranian cooperation. Israeli intelligence, for its part, is quoted as complaining that there has in fact been no slowdown or other change in Russian-Iranian cooperation in this area (Ha’aretz, March 17).