Russia Watch: Kremlin denies fathering Syria’s chemical Frankenstein

Lost in the verbal smokescreen that Russian officials throw up around the use of poison gas in Syria is one simple fact: The Kremlin holds the keys to Syria’s chemical kingdom.

But, Russian leaders show no sign of wanting to put their rusty keys in old Soviet locks.

From 1963 to 1991, an estimated 50,000 Syrians studied in Soviet Union – of these, about 10,000 at Soviet military academies.

During this period, the Soviet Union sold – or gave – Syria $26 billion in military equipment.

Today, Syria’s military uses MiG fighter jets, T-64 tanks, Scud missiles, Mi-8 helicopters, Pantsir air defense systems, Amur submarines, and Kalashnikov rifles.

Despite this cornucopia of military hardware, Syria lost land wars or battles to Israel in 1967, 1973 and 1982. After the 1982 defeat, Syria started to build a chemical weapons program to try to reach military parity with Israel.

According to multiple sources, the recipes for the poisons, the equipment for the laboratories, the blueprints for the production facilities, the rockets for delivery systems, and the experts for training, came almost entirely from Soviet Union.

Some assistance came from Czechoslovakia, then an Eastern Bloc nation under Soviet control. Since the beginning, the precursor chemicals have been bought in Western Europe — large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany. Many of the chemicals have dual uses – civilian and military.

“Russia keeps stressing that it is against the use of chemical weapons, but we know the Syrian arsenal dates back to the days of the USSR,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told reporters in Warsaw last week. “It’s Soviet technology.”

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union gives contemporary Moscow a layer of deniability.

Even Pentagon Spokesman George Little said last week: “The Syrian regime has a decades-old, largely indigenous, chemical weapons program.”

He said that after U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel apparently went a bridge too far in Congressional testimony. Asked by a Congressman where Syria gets its chemical weapons, Hagel had responded: “Well, the Russians supply them.”

On Friday in a corridor at the G-20 meeting, VOA correspondent Danila Galperovich asked Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov about Hagel’s charge. Ivanov replied: “бредом сивой кобылы”, a phrase commonly translated as “bull——.”

Ivanov, who served for six years as Russia’s defense minister, added: “Until recently, I was the chairman of the government commission on export control, which exists precisely to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, including chemical, biological weapons. So I know what I’m talking about.”

Syria’s chemical weapons program started going native in the 1990s.

But there are hints that Russian involvement in Syria’s chemical program continued after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

In the 1990s, a frequent visitor to Damascus was Russian General Anatoly Kuntsevich, ironically an advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on eliminating chemical weapons.

Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, wrote of Kuntsevich’s missions: “The chemical weapons expert allegedly established connections with leading members of the Syrian regime, received large amounts of money from them and, in exchange, provided them with details on how to manufacture VX, a powerful chemical agent. He reportedly also shipped 800 liters of chemicals to Syria that were required to produce the poison gas.”

Kuntsevich’s activity stopped in 2003 when he died unexpectedly on a flight from Damascus to Moscow.

In August, 2010, another retired Russian general, Yuri Ivanov, died in murky circumstances. Ivanov, who had served as deputy director of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, disappeared from a coastal Syrian town when he was reportedly on his way to meet Syrian military intelligence officers. His body was found several days later in Turkey.

In both cases, there was press speculation that the men were killed by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

For Israel, Syria’s chemical weapons capability is not a parlor game. After Syria and Iraq built large chemical weapons arsenals in the 1980s and 1990s, Israeli built what may be the world’s largest civil defense program: sensors, sirens and gas masks for each of Israel’s 8 million people.

About 20 per cent of Israel’s population is Russian speaking. In theory, Russia could draw on this population to gather even more intelligence on Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Most importantly, there are undoubtedly many alumni of Soviet military schools working for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, the agency that oversees the nation’s chemical weapons program.

President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, stands at the top of Russia’s intelligence pyramid. If he wanted to, he could make public tomorrow a list of personnel and locations involved in Syria’s program.

But Russia’s public approach is: ‘hear no evil, see no evil.’

After Radoslaw Sikorski proposed that Russia move to control Syria’s chemical program, Russia’s foreign ministry responded: “As concerns the Polish foreign policy chief’s idea that Russia should take on the responsibility for the Syrian chemical arsenals’ safety, such a presumption cannot fail to cause perplexity. Responsibility for safety of these chemical weapons lies with the government of a sovereign Syria, and nobody else. Neither internal nor external forces should try to prevent the performance of this mission or intervene in this process.”

Washington also is taking note of Russia’s hands off attitude toward Syria’s chemical weapons program. Last week at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Senator Tim Kaine sharply criticized Kremlin policy.

“It is hard to read their actions and come up with any conclusion other than the current government of Russia is pro use of chemical weapons against civilians,” said Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. “We should make them wear being pro-chemical weapons like a rotting carcass around their neck in every instance we can. So that, at some point, they’ll ask themselves the question: Do we really want to be the nation that is pro use of chemical weapons against a civilian population?”

Thirty years ago, Soviet scientists created Syria’s Frankenstein. But now the chemical monster has escaped the lab.

And Russia denies all paternal responsibility.

(Happier times: Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s President, greets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, at the presidential retreat in Sochi, Russia on Aug. 21, 2008. Five years later to the day, poison gas killed over 1,400 people and injured thousands more in a Damascus suburb. Photo:



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.