WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The continuing deadlock over new arms deals between Russia and China has led to a remarkable development: Russian security services are investigating a suspected plot to steal Russian weapons and sell them to Beijing.
RIA Novosti reported Wednesday that a number of Russian navy officers were under investigation for allegedly trying to ship 30 anti-submarine missiles and 200 bombs, worth a total of $18 million, to Tajikistan for eventual delivery to China.
The Kremlin is taking the allegations very seriously. Russia's chief military prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky, told RIA Novosti a criminal investigation had started on the case. He said the naval officers had been working with several businessmen. The report gave no indication whether any of the powerful, super-wealthy Russian organized crime families were involved.
The targeted weapons do not appear to have been state-of-the-art or strategically significant, at least according to the report. Russian navy spokesman Capt. 1st Rank Igor Dygalo described them to the news agency as "decommissioned, recycled ammunition."
Dygalo stated that the plot had been foiled by "the navy, in conjunction with the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office and the Federal Security Service."
However, RIA Novosti gave a tantalizing hint that the plot, and the existence of organized criminality within the Russian navy, may have gone far higher. It cited what it described as "some media reports" as claiming that very senior Russian naval officers, up to the rank of several vice admirals and rear admirals, may have been implicated.
Yemen president wants to buy more MiG-29s
Algeria insisted on returning the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrums it bought from Russia, but another Arab country, Yemen, is eager to buy more of them.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told the newspaper Vremya Novosti, in an interview published Thursday, that he had been deeply impressed by the MiG-29, which he described as an "excellent aircraft."
"These are excellent aircraft. We have had them for a long time, and several years ago we brought them to Russia and carried out their modernization program," Saleh said.
"Suffice it to say that we are planning to acquire more of these aircraft and probably MiG-35 fighters as well. We are also in talks on the purchase of Russian helicopters and patrol boats," he told the newspaper, according to a report carried by RIA Novosti.
Saleh gave the interview while on a visit to Moscow, where he held talks Wednesday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. RIA Novosti said the two men focused on boosting their bilateral trade and military cooperation, as well as working together to combat the growing threat of pirates operating from the Somali coast against shipping in the Gulf of Aden.
Russia has dispatched a surface warship, the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov from the nation's Pacific fleet, to protect its shipping in the area, and the United States has just sent the nuclear-powered super-aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower to patrol those waters on a five-month mission. RIA Novosti said the pirates hijacked at least 120 ships in 2008, reaping $150 million in ransom from governments and ship owners to release the vessels and their crews.
Yemen's decision to buy more Russian combat aircraft should not come as a surprise. The exceptionally poor nation at the southern end of the Red Sea was a longtime ally of the Soviet Union, and after the end of the Cold War it retained its longstanding ties to Moscow.
RIA Novosti said as many as 90 percent of the aircraft operated by the Yemeni air force and a similar proportion of its army's equipment were still supplied by Russia. Yemen already operates 44 MiG-29SMT and MiG-29UBT combat aircraft, the report said.
Saleh is eager to put his poverty-stricken nation, which lacks any significant industry or natural resources, at the heart of anti-piracy operations. He has proposed basing an international command center to direct the struggle against the pirates in Yemen's main port of Aden. However, U.S. and Western nations may reject that proposal for reasons of security. In the past, al-Qaida has been able to operate with impunity in Yemen, and it carried out a successful attack there in October 2000 that crippled the U.S. destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors on board.
The report said Saleh and Medvedev were also looking to advance bilateral relations with a new deal for Russia to provide maintenance services for Russian military equipment, spare parts and components and advanced training for Yemeni troops who would be sent to Russia.