Questions about the death of journalist Ivan Safronov

Ivan Safronov, 51, military observer for the Kommersant newspaper, died on March 2. Police are treating his death as a suicide – but Safronov was investigating a possible secret arms deal, and his articles had caused trouble for military leaders in the past.

The tragic death of Ivan Safronov, the Kommersant newspaper’s military observer, on March 2 came as a shock to all who knew him. According to the official version of events, Safronov – a healthy man of 51, a husband and father, a retired Space Forces colonel – apparently committed suicide by jumping from a fourth-floor stairwell window in the apartment building where he lived.

There was no suicide note; but there suspicions that this death may not have been a simple suicide, or perhaps not even a suicide at all.

Safronov was a reporter, not a political scientist or analyst. He did not do political journalism as such. He was not a political opponent or a hired critic of the authorities. Safronov’s personal contacts in the military and the defense industry enabled him to obtain substantial information, which he reported honestly, thus causing a lot of trouble for all kinds of people in authority, influential factions, and forces. The present-day situation in Russia is such that any conscientious journalist almost inevitably becomes an opponent of the regime, simply by doing his or her professional duty honestly.

For example, in September, October, and December last year there were three consecutive failed test-launches of the new Bulava R-30 naval ICBM. Each launch from the Dmitri Donskoi, a Soviet-era Project 941 submarine, ended with the missile blowing up. As soon as these problems began, the Defense Ministry banned the release of any information about progress on the Bulava tests. Under current nuclear arms treaties, however, Russia is obliged to inform the Americans of all ICBM test-launches and provide telemetry data as well. In other words, the Americans already knew all about the failed launches; the Defense Ministry imposed its secrecy requirements not in order to keep the information from the Americans, but in order to conceal it from the Russian people. It was Safronov who exposed and published the inconvenient truth, infuriating the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin. The Defense Ministry even did a special internal investigation to trace the leaks; three officers from the central staff of the Defense Ministry and the Navy were dismissed.

Military commanders and senior officials were forced to provide public explanations, which turned out to be pathetic and unconvincing. Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky said that the development of such missiles in the Soviet era required dozens of test-launches, and that “incomplete success in one of the first launches of a new type of missile cannot be regarded as indicating the poor quality of the whole system.” A month ago, Senior Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov told the Duma: “Yes, there have been some unsuccessful launches, but that’s within normal parameters, in principle. We started tests in 2006 and will continue them in 2007.” But Bulava launches actually started in 2004, and flight tests started in 2005. Four out of five test-launches have failed. It’s worth noting that when the Americans tested the Trident II D-5 missile for their Ohio submarines, only one out of 49 test-launches failed.

At the time the Bulava problems started, Ivanov was approaching the end of his service as defense minister; President Vladimir Putin has described his performance in that role as extremely successful. Preparations for raising Ivanov’s status were under way, with the possibility of further promotion to prime minister or presidential successor. And then, all of a sudden – such unpleasantness.

According to Ivanov’s statement, the Yuri Dolgoruky submarine – the first of three new nuclear submarines which are supposed to be armed with Bulava missiles – should be completed this year at the Severodvinsk shipyard. But since the missile isn’t ready yet, this costly yet unarmed submarine will be a heap of useless metal for years. This is an unpleasant, unenviable situation for everyone: Russia, the Defense Ministry, and Ivanov the potential successor. Understandably, the Defense Ministry started rushing the Bulava tests and improvements, in an urgent effort to complete testing and start production of the missile at Votkinsk by the end of this year. Now, mostly thanks to Safronov, we know that October’s failed launch took place before a full report on September’s failed launch was available – before the exact reasons for the September failure were known. Then there was another launch attempt in December, before the exact reasons for the September and October failures were known.

In other words, it’s not just a matter of state officials publicly distorting the truth to conceal their own failures, as usual. This case involves actions which were irresponsible, if not worse. The Bulava tests were careless, relying on luck. And all the test-launches of the flawed Bulava missile were done from the Dmitri Donskoi submarine, with a direct threat to the vessel’s safety and the lives of the crew. Thanks to Safronov, the Defense Ministry was forced to halt its extremely high-risk rush to complete the Bulava missile.

Immediately before his death, Safronov was investigating another story which would displease the leadership – and he seemed to have found evidence confirming the existence of secret contracts to supply Syria and Iran with S-300V surface-to-air missiles, Su-30 and MiG-29 fighters, and Iskander-E ballistic missiles. According to information from the Kommersant office, this might have involved a plan to use Belarus as a delivery channel. For example, Russia would supply Belarus with new S-300PMU missiles, upgraded fighters, and so on – either for free or in a barter deal, since we have something like a Union State arrangement. Then Minsk would sell some of its Soviet-era stockpiles of similar weapons to the Middle East, for a good sum of money. This would enable Moscow to avoid any accusations or sanctions from the West and the United States; Russia could even allow the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Iran, while continuing to work via Belarus.

The attraction of “gray schemes” like this is that they are effectively uncontrolled, and participants can make fabulous sums of money from the deals. The producers of the new hardware sent to Belarus would be paid from Russia’s state budget, while almost all of the export earnings from the final sale would be quietly distributed among the participants. A similar scheme involving Belarus was used in the 1990s, supplying MiG-29 fighters and other hardware to President Fujimori’s regime in Peru. That corruption scandal still hasn’t been entirely resolved. Yevgeny Ananiev, who headed Rosvooruzhenie (Russia’s official arms sales intermediary) in 1997-98, is still on the international wanted list, charged with money-laundering.

Arms sales – especially sales of classic Soviet-era hardware – practically always bring in huge sums (often hundreds of millions of dollars) in undocumented cash – since they involve exporting items produced and paid for in the USSR. All kinds of organizations and individuals are involved in dividing this money – including senior officials from various levels of the hierarchy of governance. It’s impossible for such deals to bypass the state hierarchy. Everyone looks forward to getting their piece of the action – but one journalist can ruin it all.

In 2005, Safronov took part in exposing plans to sell Iskander high-precision missiles to Iran. After that information was published, President Putin himself intervened to ban the deal, publicly admitting that “our military was prepared to sell.” The intervention was natural, since deliveries of new arms systems to the region could have exacerbated its already-volatile situation.

Now, once again, some interested parties have prepared some contracts; and once again, a newspaper article could have ruined everything. As yet, there is no information about any real motives for the suicide of Ivan Safronov – but there seem to have been plenty of reasons for eliminating him. Last week, investigation bodies opened a criminal case based on incitement to suicide, but Kommersant journalists say they have reason to doubt that an investigation is really being done, that all possible witnesses are being questioned, that all theories are being considered, and so on. The authorities are entirely satisfied with the hastily-accepted conclusion that this was a suicide.