Yesterday, June 19, Moscow’s respected business daily Kommersant reported that Russia’s arms trading monopoly Rosoboronexport has begun to fulfill an arms deal it secretly signed with Syria earlier this year to sell five MiG-31E (Foxhound) jet fighters, considered one of the best in the world, and an additional unspecified number of the newest MiG-29M/M2 fighter-bombers. The paper reported the total price to be around $1 billion. MiG-31s were produced in Nizhniy Novgorod at the Sokol aviation factory from 1981 to 1994 (some 500 planes overall). Since production has been terminated, Syria, according to Kommersant, will get the jets from the Russian Defense Ministry stockpile after a refurbishing at Sokol (Kommersant, June 19).
Kommersant suggested that Iran is partially or even fully covering the purchase bill, and that the jets may partially or fully end up as part of the Iranian air force. Commenting on the Kommersant report, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamiynin yesterday morning told reporters, “All Russian arms deals comply with international law and Russia’s obligations under international treaties and UN Security Council resolutions” (RIA-Novosti, June 19). This vague statement was widely taken as indirect conformation of the Kommersant story, but it later turned out to not be the case. By the evening of June 19 Rosoboronexport CEO Sergei Chemizov, speaking in Paris at the Le Bourget Air Show, had denied the existence of any jet fighter deal with Syria (RIA-Novosti, June 19).
This is not the first time that Kommersant has published a page-one “scoop” on breaking arms trade news that later turned out to be not fully accurate. Last month Kommersant reported that Libya and Russia were close to finalizing a $2.2 billion arms deal (see EDM, May 9). Neither Moscow nor Tripoli confirmed the report.
Last week Kommersant reported that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez might buy nine Russian submarines, reportedly worth $2 billion, when he visits Moscow this month to meet President Vladimir Putin (Kommersant, June 14). This deal seemed fishy from the start, since it clearly exceeded the present capacity of Russian shipbuilders to make new subs and the Venezuelan navy’s capacity to run so many new ships. Kommersant reported that Venezuela had chosen Russian subs over others offered by Germany and France, which also sounded odd, because Russian conventional attack subs, including the latest models, are outdated and significantly inferior to German and French ones. Venezuelan Defense Minister Raul Isaias Baduel promptly denied that his government was planning to buy submarines from Russia (RIA-Novosti, June 15).
Kommersant claims the MiG-29M/M2 is more or less the same jet Russia is currently peddling to India as the MiG-35 (Kommersant, June 19). The MiG-35 is still only a flying prototype — not a real fighter — and the Russian Air Force does not have any such planes. If India chooses a European or U.S. fighter instead, the MiG-35 as well as the MiG-29M/M2 may never enter serial production.
The MiG-31, in turn, is a real fighting jet. Russia today has some 280 MiG-31s. Before delivering the aircraft to buyers, arms traders and producers first remove secret Russian military equipment. Then the jets are repainted and sold as “modernized” for high prices, creating sky-high profits that do not seem to ever reach state coffers (see EDM, July 31, 2006, January 4, 2007).
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has been trying to sell the MiG-31. The plane has been displayed at air shows, but no customers have come forward. The MiG-31 is a highly specialized jet — not a fighter per se, but an interceptor specifically designed to kill long-range U.S. cruise missiles. The MiG-31 is a bulky two-seater that can carry up to eight air-to-air guided missiles with a range of up to 120 kilometers The MiG-31 can fly supersonic near the earth’s surface as well as high up. It is a purely defensive fighter, designed to be used over friendly territory to defend against massive air assaults. The MiG-31 has sophisticated and powerful radar that can track 24 different targets simultaneously and exchange information with other MiG-31s and ground control centers.
Any country that is seriously preparing to meet the U.S. military on the battlefield, as Iran seems to be, would want to have such a jet to meet a typical U.S. air assault complimented with hundreds or thousands of cruise missiles, as happened in 1999 in Yugoslavia and in 1991 and 2003 in Iraq. Syria could also want several such jets, if Washington were to decide to attack, say, terrorist-connected targets on its territory. The MiG-31 deal with Syria, as reported by Kommersant, seems more plausible, than stories about, say, nine subs for Venezuela.
Chemizov has denied the MiG-31 contract, but Kamiynin was deliberately noncommittal. Kommersant may have received confidential information about the possible deal and the leak could have been deliberate. The arms trade stories Kommersant has been printing may be tests of Western (U.S.) reactions, to see what would happen, if imaginary arms contracts suddenly turn out to be real. These leaks also may be a signal to the West to understand what woe to expect if the Russo-U.S. summit next month in Maine goes awry.