It was taken for granted in Moscow that on June 6 and 8, respectively, the Russian mafia murdered two Russian defense industries chiefs – Igor Klimov, Kremlin-appointed acting head of the Almaz-Antey air defense conglomerate, and Sergei Schitko, commercial director of RATEP – in order to undermine the merger and cleanup of 46 separate enterprises combined under the Almaz-Antey holding umbrella. The hits were seen as a warning from Russia’s gangland to President Vladimir Putin to drop his grandiose program for consolidating and decriminalizing the national defense industry. That program entailed scotching the endless disputes among its independent firms and ensuring that arms sales revenues reached the state budget instead of mafia pockets. Putin was meant to understand that his appointees would not be allowed to seize control of arms production as they did of the oil industry.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources note that the Klimov’s previous job had been assistant to secret service general Vikotor Ivanov, the deputy head of the presidential administration in the Kremlin with responsibility for national military industries. As acting director of Almaz-Antey he took charge of the amalgamation authorized by Putin in February 2002 of all the air defense industries, supporting factories and research institutes. Their products include surface-to-air and anti-rocket missiles, such as the S-300 anti-rocket systems (forerunner of the Western Patriot and Arrow), the anti-air Book-M1-2, Pechora and Tor-M1, as well as the development of the S-400 Triumph anti-rocket missiles and Russia’s fifth generation of surface-to-air missile systems.
Klimov died 20 days before his appointment was formally announced at a board of directors meeting.
According to our sources, Putin quickly understood that his appointee was not the victim of a gangland execution but of a political intrigue closer to home. Suspicion of the mafia theory was also entertained by some western intelligence experts, who detected the hand of a branch of the Russian secret service, the SVR, probably moved by its dispute with the Kremlin over the fate of Moscow’s assistance to the Iranian nuclear program.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that some SVR and Russian armed forces chiefs have been fighting hard to hold Putin to Russia’s commitment to build Iran’s nuclear city at Bushehr and supply it with fuel rods – in the face of the massive US pressure coming from Washington, whether through John Bolton, undersecretary for disarmament, or straight from the lips of President George W. Bush.
Their campaign applied equally to the transfer of the missile technology Iran needs to complete the development of its primary nuclear delivery vehicle, the Shihab-5 ICBM. The loss of Iranian contracts, they argued, would set back Russia’s economic, military and political interests disastrously for the following reasons:
1. The collapse of Iran’s nuclear-missile program would very likely bring the unpopular hard-line clerical regime tumbling down together with the brutal Revolutionary Guards. Their survival depends heavily on their leading Iran’s evolution to become the first Islamic nuclear power. Their downfall would clear the way for a pro-American ruling caste which would no longer do business with Moscow. Washington might even decide to let Iran acquire a nuclear option as a prestige boost for its protegee-regime in Tehran. The Russians recall that the United States was never averse to the Shah developing an atomic bomb before he was overthrown by Khomeini in 1979.
2. Even if Moscow backs out, its place in Iran’s nuclear program would be snatched in a trice by China, North Korea or Pakistan. (See separate article in this issue: Iran will have the bomb in a year.) No one will gain and Russia will have lost. So what is the point of giving in to Washington’s pressure?
According to our Moscow sources, Putin was initially won over by these arguments and promised his SVR and military chiefs to maintain Russia’s nuclear commitments to Iran in the face of Washington’s objections. However, in the last few weeks, Russian secret service and military leaders heard a different tune in Washington and Tehran. They received the impression that President Bush in his face to face talks with Putin in St. Petersburg at the end of May – and Bolton in a subsequent interview – had persuaded the Russian president to make a half-turn. They obtained from him a promise to withhold the uranium fuel rods if Iran persisted in its refusal to sign the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (allowing surprise UN inspections). Since it was recognized that Tehran would never sign on to the AP, the practical result of Putin’s undertaking to the US president was Moscow’s withdrawal from its nuclear commitment to Iran. It also meant that the Russian president had reneged on his promise to his defense chiefs.
Klimov’s appointment as virtual czar of Russia’s giant Almaz-Antey consortium was the final indication for them of Putin’s perfidy.
While the appointment was generally interpreted as a move to streamline production and boost sales, the SVR and military saw it as a challenge to their Iranian strategy and a step by Putin to align himself with the American position. Their fears were confirmed when his new broom ordered all transactions with Iran by the component companies of the conglomerate be reach his desk before they were processed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources reveal that Klimov’s next step was taken through Sergei Schitko. He was ordered to stretch delivery timetables of items sold under contract to Iran and tighten payment schedules. The effect of these alterations was to throw a spanner into the works of the transactions with Iran. By enforcing them, Klimov signed his death warrant.
The circumstances of his assassination on a street near his Moscow home were not typical of a mafia hit. The killer first snatched his briefcase which was bulging with papers. Klimov fought to recover the briefcase and, as they wrestled, the gunman fired five bullets from a silenced revolver. Three bullets hit Klimov in the chest. The injured man was able to snatch his briefcase back but then died of his wounds as the killer escaped.
A classical Russian mafia killing is performed by a single bullet to the head from a cheap Chinese-made automatic pistol – which is exactly how Schitko was murdered two days later sitting in his car in Serpukhov, one of Moscow’s satellite towns. The signature Chinese gun was dropped near the body. Unlike Klimov, Schitko was known for his connections with a gang headed by a godfather known as “Graf” in Solntsevo in the Moscow region. His assassination could therefore be disguised as a gangland execution.
The two assassinations were bad news for President Bush’s all-out effort to halt Tehran’s race for a nuclear bomb. Putin, reading the writing on the wall, hastened to execute another U-turn. Last week, he announced Russia would continue to assist Iran’s nuclear development.