The decision of Russian and U.S. secret services to disclose their joint sting operation to nab the smuggler of a portable anti-aircraft missile in New Jersey is an unprecedented public relations coup designed to raise awareness of the vulnerability of passenger aircraft to terrorist attack as well as signal a further mending of ties ahead of a September summit.
The cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Security Service to nab a British national trying to sell a Russian-made Igla missile may or may not be unprecedented in scale, but the release of information about the operation certainly is, an expert inside the Russian intelligence community said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“This is unprecedented. I might not remember everything, but I think this is the first case when concrete information has been released,” said the expert, who asked not to be named.
The expert declined to comment on possible reasons for the decision to reveal details of the months-long operation, in which Russian operatives sold the missile to the arms trader and then traveled with it to the United States to make sure it was safely delivered to the “customer.”
Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, or CAST, said the wide disclosure of the operation “is clearly a PR stunt to highlight that relations are back on track” after Iraq and ahead of the summit between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in September.
According to both Pukhov and Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, the decision to publicize the operation also sends a strong signal that both Moscow and Washington remain genuinely concerned about the proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles, which terrorists could use to shoot down passenger jets.
The months-long operation also proves that mid-level operatives from the United States and Russia continued to work together even when top officials from their two countries were trading barbs over the U.S.-led campaign in Iraqi, Safranchuk noted. Previously, cooperation between government agencies would come to a halt each time relations between the White House and the Kremlin went go sour, as was the case during NATO’s bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999.
“This proves that cooperation can and does continue … on issues of mutual interest while people shout at each other until their voices turn hoarse on other issues,” Safranchuk said.
While U.S. officials first leaked information to the U.S. press on Tuesday, FSB chief spokesman Vitaly Ignatchenko went on the record Wednesday morning to confirm the operation in Washington.
“It is the first time such an operation has been carried out since the end of the Cold War, when our special services were in confrontation with each other,” Ignatchenko told Russian journalists.
Moreover, after speaking to the journalists in Washington, Ignatchenko left the Russian Embassy and traveled to Newark, New Jersey, in the company of several other Russian officials to hold a press conference jointly with U.S. law enforcement officials.
A U.S. government official, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said the cooperation was unprecedented:
“It is a significant case because it is the first time the FBI has had a joint terrorism case with the Russians, and it signifies a degree of cooperation with the FSB we have never seen before.”
The FSB and FBI, which are responsible in their own countries for catching the other country’s spies, have rarely admitted to having cooperated in the past. And they have never released such a detailed account of any joint operation, even though the FBI has official representation in Moscow.
By way of comparison, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, which has an official representative in Washington, shared information on Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. operation there, yet it has not gone beyond general statements that it “interacts” with the U.S. secret services in fighting proliferation, terrorism and drug-trafficking.
Reached by phone Wednesday, SVR spokesman Boris Labusov declined to comment on the sting operation and would only reiterate the “interaction” of his service with its foreign counterparts. FSB officials in Moscow and the Kremlin press service also would not comment.
At the Group of Eight summit in June, the United States and Russia pushed for, and got, a resolution on the need to curb proliferation of surface-to-air missiles. Both countries have also publicly called for better protection of civil aircraft from these missiles, while Russia has tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to convince fellow former Soviet republics to take an inventory of the missiles and notify the others of any exports of these weapons.
Safranchuk said Russia should be even more concerned about the vulnerability of passenger aircraft, given the scores of Strela and Igla anti-aircraft missiles that are available on the black market in the former Soviet Union and the successful use of these missiles by Chechen rebels to shoot down warplanes and helicopters in Chechnya.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union prompted many of its republics to claim sovereignty over the weapons located on their territory, and Russia managed to withdraw only some of these weapons after establishing its own armed forces in 1992, CAST expert Maksim Pyadushkin said.
As a result, the Defense Ministry lost track of 260,000 small arms and light weapons, including Igla and Strela shoulder-fired missiles, in the Transcaucasus alone as the Soviet Union fell apart, he said. Since then, two of the three Transcaucasus republics # Azerbaijan and Georgia # have been shattered by coups, in the course of which some military units became illegal formations, thus further complicating attempts to take full stock of their arsenals.
Both the U.S. and Russian defense industry are developing portable systems for jamming the guidance systems of heat-seeking missiles, CAST deputy head Konstantin Makiyenko said.
Russian defense companies have tested such a system, but it has not entered production, he said.