senior Russian journalist who embarrassed the country's military
establishment with a series of exclusive stories has been found
dead outside his apartment in mysterious circumstances. That
in itself seems nothing extraordinary in Russia these days.
But the death of Ivan Safronov, 51, a former colonel in Russia's
eliten nuclear missile forces and later military correspondent
for a major Russian newspaper caused eyebrows to raise among
the Russian journalist community. Last December, Safronov already
embarrassed the Kremlin authorities when he was the first to
report the third consecutive launch failure of the new Bulava
intercontinental ballistic missile, which President Vladimir
Putin hailed as a basis of the nation's nuclear might for years
is among the most dangerous countries for journalists
these days, plagued by attacks on reporters who seek to
expose official corruption and other murky abuses.
Safronov's exclusive reports, probably based on inside information
leaked by his former colleagues, had indeed infuriated the Russian
authorities. According to his friends, Safronov was about to
publish a new scoop on Kremlin's illicit arms deal with Middle
East rogue nations, deals, which would embarrass President Putin
himself, following his recent high-profile visit to the region.
Putin's visit to US allies, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar last
February was the first ever for any Russian or Soviet leader.
the Saudi capital, Putin stunned the world when he offered to
sell Saudi Arabia "peaceful" nuclear reactors and
other sophisticated arms. While Arab leaders seemed to have
praised Putin's new Realpolitik in the region, the old Soviet
model by embracing local leaders with anti-Western stance did
raise some inquisitive eyebrows among the Arab monarchies. In
fact, coming directly from Munich, Germany where Putin delivered
his most bellicose anti-American speech yet, he further delineated
a Russian Middle Eastern policy at odds with Washington's, by
trespassing boldly on the US sphere of influence in the Middle
October Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative reporter
and a harsh critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya
was shot dead last October at her apartment block in
central Moscow. Sparking international protest, the
murder happened exactly two days before she was due
to publish an exposé of the Chechnyan Prime Minister.
But what has this visit to do with Ivan Safronov's mysterious
demise? Well, it seems, that the ex-colonel was becoming a painful
thorn in the side of the Kremlin and the Russian military brass.
Already in January 2005, Safronov reported Russian secret plans
to sell Iskander rockets to Syria, a story that provoked condemnation
from the U.S. and Israel, which objected to the sale because
the weapons could hit any part of Israel. The embarrassed Russian
president confirmed Safranov's report during a trip to Israel
three months later, saying Russian producers were in talks to
supply Iskander-E missiles
to Syria, but assured that he had personally intervened to stop
the sale. At that time Safronov had got away - however his personal
dossier must have become top list with the internal security
officials in the Kremlin.
But this time Safronov must have gone too far to challenge
his mentors, which may have cost him his life. According to
editors, for whom the colonel had worked, Safronov met with
unidentified people at an international arms show, IDEX
2007 in the United Arab Emirates last month and confirmed
Russian plans to sell Su-30
fighter jets, sophisticated air defense missiles to Syria
and among others the modern S-300V
long range air defense missiles. The delivery to Iran would
be made via neighboring Belarus to avoid being accused by the
U.S. of arming rogue nations, especially breaking an embargo
Analysts speculate that Safronov's mere revelations were by
themselves, insufficient to irk the Kremlin towards a "silent
elimination contract". However an angle, which for some
reason was not pursued sofar, may indicate that the colonel's
'unpublished" story must have caused some stir when it
touched on inside information concerning Putin's latest Mid
East tour. The Russian president already had caused quite a
commotion in Washington when he bluntly tried to lure the Saudi
and Jordanian Abdullah's away from their traditional military
sponsors. But what had vexed the two Monarchs severely, were
persisting intelligence rumors over a new forthcoming huge arms
deal with Syria and Iran, which for obvious reasons, Putin failed
to elaborate in his visits.
Both countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already under most
sensitive rivalry status, not only political but religious as
well. The latest attempts by Tehran's president to calm growing
suspicion, especially by Riyadh, over Iran's bid for a regional
Shi'ite challenge, over Saudi Sunni traditional hegemony, must
only have increased King Abdullah's deep distrust in the Shi'ite
move and the Russian as well. Another sophisticated arms deal
with Russia, so shortly following Putin's high profile "Sunni"
Gambit and his unprecedented generous propositions might well
place the Russian president's new "Eastern Policy"
in jeopardy. Thus, even a scoop, which in other times might
have gone through with only marginal attention - could have
completely ruffled feathers among the Kremlin and Russia's military
elite, perhaps even putting the blame on Vladimir Putin's bungling
authority, in thwarting his new Oriental initiative.
One must remember, that the Russian president is up for re-election
in 2008 (coinciding with the US re-election campaign) and he
can hardly afford a political disaster at this early stage.
Thus, while no evidence has sofar been revealed over foul play
in ex-colonel Safronov's death, the finger prints of the highly
professional Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB), which is
the successor agency to the notorious KGB are no doubt visible
in this mysterious incident.
Without going into the sordid details, two major points seem
to stand out unexplained: first, a former military officer would
probably commit suicide by shooting himself and not by a mere
jump out of a window to splash on the ground five stories below
in a heap of sorry human flesh. It goes against the honor, especially
in eastern countries like Russia, where the military trade still
has its prestige, even somewhat flawed lately. Moreover having
fallen from a staircase window on the fifth floor, two floors
above his apartment, why did he leave a bag of oranges behind,
which only adds to the peculiarity of the mysterious death.
So, did anyone actually push Safronov out of the window? This
is quite dubious: the colonel was a physically strong man and
would have opposed such a threat to his life violently, moreover
it would have taken several "agents" to do the job,
during which a loud commotion would have stirred the neighbors,
none of whom apparently heard anything. So it must have been
a highly professional job carried out by top experts, fully
experienced in such murky affairs, that would leave only unanswered
questions behind, carefully shelved into secret coffers of the
In fact, there is already growing speculation over the involvement
of Russian agents in silencing regime opponents, a traditional
"trade" which has been preformed for decades and seems
to have been revived lately, as silent opposition to Vladimir
Putin's autocratic rule is causing concern among the sofar dormant
Russian elite. And these "incidents" happened not
only in President Putin's era.
In October 1994, during Boris Yelzin's relatively political
Glasnost and post-Perestroika era, a reporter, who seemed to
have misunderstood the new "transparency" of the Press,
made a specialty of investigating the rampant corruption in
Yeltsin's armed forces. dimitry Kholodov was killed in his office
at Moskobsky Komsomolets building when he opened a package,
that a "friendly" informant had sent him, which apparently
contained clandestine evidence of military malfeasance and corruption.
Braving severe retaliation by the Kremlin authorities, some
courageous colleagues pointed the finger for Kholodov's assassination
on the Federal Counterintelligence Service and the Russian Military
high Command, in particular, Colonel General Matvey Burlakov,
former commander of the Western Group of Forces in Germany and
then a deputy defense minister; to Defense Minister Pavel Grachov;
and even President Boris Yeltsin himself. As usual, the investigation
revealed nothing and the matter was quickly forgotten.
But forgetfulness seems hardly a current attribute in present
Russia, especially in the Journalist community. In fact, Russia
is among the most dangerous countries for journalists these
days, plagued by attacks on reporters who seek to expose official
corruption and other murky abuses. The problem culminated last
October by the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative
reporter and a harsh critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Her reporting had already stirred the wrath of Russia's most
powerful and unfettered institutions - the Kremlin, the Federal
Security Service (FSB) and the GRU, the military intelligence.
She was shot dead last October at her apartment block in central
Moscow. Sparking international protest, the murder happened
exactly two days before she was due to publish an exposé
of the Chechnyan Prime Minister. The gun found near her apartment
block in central Moscow was a 9mm Makarov, known as the weapon
of choice for professional Russian hit men. An investigation
could not find the culprit. The New York-based Committee to
Protect Journalists said in January that no less than 13 Russian
journalists had been murdered in unsolved contract-style killings
since 2000. Is Russia heading back into the miserly shade of
the Soviet era?
Read David Eshel's past commentary here