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Russia accused of removing WMDs from Iraq

Note (added 29/10/04): Shaw’s claims (below) have been rejected by the White House and the Pentagon.

John A Shaw, America’s Deputy Undersecretary for International Technology Security, is behind the remarkable claim that Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) spirited “special weapons” (read: WMDs) out of Iraq in early 2003.

In the Washington Times he alleges that Spetsnaz forces visited some 200 arms depots through Iraq between January and March 2003, separated weaponry or WMD components that could be traced back to Russia from regular arms, and transported them out of the country to Syria, Lebanon, and possibly Iran. They also destroyed “hundreds of pages of documents”.

“The Russians brought in, just before the war got started, a whole series of military units,” Mr. Shaw said. “Their main job was to shred all evidence of any of the contractual arrangements they had with the Iraqis. The others were transportation units.”…

…The Russian involvement in helping disperse Saddam’s weapons, including some 380 tons of RDX and HMX, is still being investigated, Mr. Shaw said.

The RDX and HMX, which are used to manufacture high-explosive and nuclear weapons, are probably of Russian origin, he said.

Russia, naturally, has hotly denied the claims.

Defense Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov dismissed the allegations as “absurd” and “ridiculous.”

“I can state officially that the Russian Defense Ministry and its structures couldn’t have been involved in the disappearance of the explosives, because all Russian military experts left Iraq when the international sanctions were introduced during the 1991 Gulf War,” he told The Associated Press.

I have to say, I’m with Russia on this one. The idea that Russian Spetsnaz forces are needed to truck weaponry across the Iraq-Syria border, or that they are needed to separate “special weapons” from ordinary weapons is laughable. The Iraqi’s under Saddam were perfectly capable of arranging convoys themselves, and I’m pretty sure they can tell the difference between weapon types. There really was no need for Russia to be involved.

Even a closer reading of the Washington Times article which carries Shaw’s claim seems to argue against Russian involvement. UN weapons inspectors visited one of the main Iraqi weapons dumps (Al-Qaqaa) in January 2003, and placed seals on the site. Those seals were still in place, with no evidence of tampering, when they returned in March 2003, just prior to the invasion. The movement of 380 tons of sensitive weaponry would also be pretty hard to disguise – I’m sure the US had Iraq’s key weapons sites under pretty heavy surveillance from the air in early 2003. If the US had observed large scale movement of weaponry, or Russian personnel, how come they didn’t mention it a year and a half ago, when relations with Russia really were tense?

On a related note: Cicero at Winds of takes Shaw’s claims at face value, and predicts a return to a cold war style freeze in relationships between not only the US and Russia, but the US and ‘Old Europe’

The ‘friendship’ between Russia and the United States is now edging towards diplomatic confrontation over the Al-Qaqaa affair. The next phase that we can all look forward to will be official accusations and denials from each side. And then perhaps an old familiar freeze might reshape itself…

Russian aid to America’s enemy may be the most blatant example of a Europe that seeks a divorce from its old ally.

Update 1: The Financial Times carries a quote from Shaw, setting out his claims of Russian duplicity unambiguously:

“For nearly nine months my office has been aware of an elaborate scheme set up by Saddam Hussein to finance and disguise his weapons purchases through his international suppliers, principally the Russians and French. That network included. . . employing various Russian units on the eve of hostilities to orchestrate the collection of munitions and assure their transport out of Iraq via Syria.”

The Financial Times goes on to note that Shaw, who works in the Pentagon

has not provided evidence for his claims and the Pentagon distanced itself from his remarks.

“I am unaware of any particular information on that point,” said Larry Di Rita, Pentagon spokesman.

Update 2: Lots of blogs commenting on this story. Michelle Malkin and Wizbanblog have been particularly active in looking at the story, and if you follow their trackbacks you can find a pretty large list of others who are writing about it.

Malkin’s article especially notes that Bill Gertz, the author of the original Washington Times article is also the author of a new book – Treachery – which reports extensively on Russian arms and business dealings with Saddam’s regime.

Here are a few of the more interesting viewpoints I picked out:

INDC Journal speculates that the Russian diplomatic convoy that was fired on by US forces just before the invasion…

may have taken place under the assumption that the Russians were transporting weapons, WMD components and/or other evidence that detailed any illegal pre-war relationship between Russia and Iraq.

(You’ll need to scroll down quite a way to find the theory).

Right on Red notes that John Kerry, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committe should have had some knowledge of this, had it happened. If he was aware of the Russian involvement, he would have been unlikely to directly accuse the Bush administration of incompetence and failing to secure the weapons, on the eve of the election.

The Gantelope doesn’t think much of the seals used by weapons inspectors:

From the look of it, it’s just a conventional brass lock, a wire, and a little crimped metal tag (presumably stamped with an IAEA number).

Powerline notes that, if Shaw’s claims are proved correct, the implications for Kerry are substantial (and negative!):

The Senator will have (a) jumped to a conclusion that wasn’t supported by the facts, (b) assumed the incompetence of our troops, (c) confirmed President Bush’s position that Iraq had weapons worth worrying about, and (d) unleashed evidence that, as Rocket Man notes, suggests that chemical and biological weapons could easily have been moved out of Iraq just before we invaded.


  • Full disclosure: I have a horse in this race.

    But, even if Iraq didn’t need Russia for this, I still find it highly plausible that Russia would volunteer its help. I’d love to see more confirmation, but there are good reasons for the Pentagon and CIA not to bring them to light. As much as I’d love to punitively call Russia for its less than constructive behaviors, but, like France, it can be a truly helpful friend at times. I think that’s why we’re hearing this from an undersecretary for this that and the other thing rather than a cabinet member or the candidate himself.

    Jim Geraghty reports that Bush polls show Kerry getting hammered on the explosives story and that the Bush campaign is going to play it straight rather than emphasize any possible role of the Russians.

  • Nathan – I just can’t see it happening. Russia would be taking a terrible risk of being caught if it sends in a bunch of Spetsnaz to operate in Iraq – just look at the fallout today, and that’s 18 months after the war began!

    And, to be honest, I really don’t think that there would be much in the way of incriminating Russian weaponry in Iraq. Russia has a liking for selling arms to suspect regimes, but it would have been pretty careful to cover its bases, and only supply weaponry that it could plausibly say was obtained on the black market. If Russia can plausibly (however you define that word) deny official involvement then why would it take such a big risk to remove the weapons. Far better to simply trust Iraqi’s to squirrel them away somewhere, and prepare to deny everything if somehow they are found.

    I’d also just like to say that, even if we accept Russia was involved in arranging the removal of some weapons (which I don’t), I don’t think that Shaw’s claim that “a whole series of military units” really are sensible. Surely the Russians would just involve a small group of agents to supervise the work. They’d be far easier to hide.

    I take your point, though, about Russia being sometimes useful and the good sense of not directly accusing it of removing weapons.

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