The US perceives Russian statements about missing missiles in Syria as a disinformation effort
US officials disagree with Russia’s claims that anti-aircraft missiles from the US that were meant for Ukraine are now being sold illegally in Syria.
The assertions, according to intelligence and diplomatic sources, are a typical example of Kremlin deception aimed at undermining US and international support for arming Ukrainian forces while deflecting attention away from Russia’s invasion.
In the past few days, Chinese state media have jumped on Kremlin statements, adding to conspiracy theories about the US and its allies’ support for Ukraine in response to the Russian military attack.
Thousands of highly sensitive goods, like shoulder-fired missiles known as Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems, have been smuggled into Ukraine by Washington and NATO states worth billions of dollars (MANPADS). Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his displeasure with the shipments, and foreign weapons stores have been the target of a number of Russian missile strikes.
Officials from the Pentagon agree that some of the huge shipment of weapons could fall into the wrong hands in the chaos of battle. However, they say that the risk was worth it because the weapons greatly improved the Ukrainian military’s ability to fight back against the Russian soldiers who invaded.
While rumors of arms being diverted to the black market have been circulating on social media for months, the claims reached new heights last week when a top Russian ambassador abruptly claimed that “MANPADS and anti-tank weapons” are being channeled to Syria and sold to shady buyers.
Konstantin Gavrilov, Russia’s main representative to the Vienna military security and arms control talks, told Russian media sources, “There is proof that these weapons are already on the black market and are being sent to the Middle East, specifically to Idlib.”
According to Russia’s Tass News Agency, Mr. Gavrilov went on to warn that European states aiding the sale of weaponry to Ukraine are playing with fire. “After all, it could be used by terrorists,” the ambassador said in an interview with Rossiya-24 TV.
When asked about the assertion this week, a senior State Department source involved with US weapons transfers told The Washington Times that the US government is “very closely monitoring” allegations of weapon diverts and takes them “extremely seriously.”
The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “We’re working closely with our Ukrainian government contacts to make sure that our weapons exports are safe.”
“Given Russia’s well-documented history of deception, these assertions should be treated with caution,” the official added. “The Russians are attempting to divert attention away from their conflict in Ukraine.”
Last week, the Pentagon released a detailed information sheet on US efforts to assist Ukraine in winding down its strategic nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, which it inherited after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Officials said that the fact sheet was made public in part because Russia and those who support it were spreading false stories about Ukraine’s record on WMD.
As part of its actions against Ukraine, Russia aims to undermine that work by spreading disinformation and fostering mistrust in the people and institutions around the world who contribute to the reduction of WMD threats, the Defense Department said in a statement on June 9.
A more extensive campaign
Others went one step farther.
The situation “smells like Russian disinformation,” according to Daniel Hoffman, a retired clandestine services officer and former CIA Moscow station head, who believes the goal is to “induce the West to cease sending Ukraine the weaponry that keeps the Ukrainians in the battle against Russia.”
In an interview, Mr. Hoffman, who writes a regular column for The Washington Times, said that allegations made last week by the state-controlled Tass news service could be linked to a larger Russian disinformation operation.
“I wouldn’t rule out the potential that Russia makes this declaration as a prelude to some third party under Russia’s influence presenting ‘proof’ of said military equipment making its way to Syria,” he said. “It’s what they’re good at.”
Another anonymous US government source had a similar view: “Is there a chance that the Russians will capture some of these weapons and use them for their own misinformation purposes?” Yes, there is a risk because it is a battle zone. “
The Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the State Department is keeping a careful eye on the possibility of weapons being redirected out of Ukraine. Working closely with surrounding countries to improve their capacities for detecting potential weapons smuggling, with a focus on MANPADS, such as Stinger missiles and anti-tank Javelin missiles, is part of the initiative.
But Pentagon officials have said that it is hard for the US to keep track of Javelin and Stinger systems once they are in Ukraine.
“We trace the deliveries to the Ukrainian border, and when the hand-off happens at the Ukrainian border patrol posts, it’s up to them how they deploy that equipment,” a senior Pentagon official told reporters in April as the Biden administration hastened delivery to Ukraine.
In recent months, Washington is said to have dispatched at least 5,000 Javelins and as many as 1,400 Stingers to Ukraine.
When asked if the systems had tracking devices put on them because there was a chance they could get into the wrong hands, a Pentagon official said, “We are not.”
China joins the conversation.
Meanwhile, Chinese state-controlled media sites have pounced on the situation in what appears to be a coordinated effort to reinforce Russian disinformation efforts. Beijing hasn’t gotten directly involved in the Ukraine conflict, but its official media outlets have backed Russia’s story about the invasion and what it says was NATO’s role in starting the war.
Last week, on the same day that Mr. Gavrilov’s claims were circulated via Tass, China’s highly nationalist Global Times newspaper—a publication with close ties to the ruling Communist Party—published an article under the headline: “Weapons sent by the US and NATO may fall into the dark net and even to terrorists, resulting in widespread and unbearable cost.”
The story repeated unproven claims about Javelin missiles for sale on the dark web and rehashed Russian propaganda from April, which claimed that US intelligence was training terrorists in Syria who were proficient in urban warfare for deployment to Ukraine. Some news stories say that the Biden administration had even asked Islamic State fighters for help.
China’s spreading of false information is part of a larger trend of Beijing spreading pro-Russian stories about the invasion of Ukraine while blaming the U.S. for the conflict.
For months, officials with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which is in charge of exposing foreign propaganda campaigns, have been warning about the pattern.
A representative for the center said that Beijing’s efforts included false accusations spread by Chinese state media and government officials that the Pentagon ran a network of labs in Ukraine that made biological and chemical weapons.