The US daily Washington Post published the allegation in an article by its journalist Joby Warrick. The story claimed that Ukraine's Oktyabrsk, a little-known port on the Black Sea, was the origin of massive arms supplies to Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime. The article quotes c4ads, a secretive Washington-based conflict and security think tank, as its source of information.
The article claims that a Ukraine-based company called the Kaalybe Group owned the ships traveling from Oktyabrsk to Syria. The authors link Kaalbye Group officials to Ukraine's ruling elite and the Kremlin. According to its website, Kaalbye Shipping International is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a known tax haven.
“The analysis by c4ads places Oktyabrsk at the center of a robust, international weapons trade that links Russia and Ukraine to a wide variety of arms customers around the world,” the Washington Post article says.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a strong rebuttal of the allegations in the article.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine states with all the responsibility that throughout 2012-2013 there were no supplies to Syria nor transit from the Russian Federation trough the territory of our country of goods for military purposes,” the statement reads.
Kyiv added that Ukraine's position on Syria was to seek a prompt end to the bloodshed and settle the conflict exclusively via political and diplomatic means.
“One of the vivid examples of Ukraine’s responsible approach to the ways of solving the Syrian crisis is voluntary and complete halting by our country of any military and technical cooperation with Syria back in May 2011,” the ministry said. “We call on other states to follow the equally responsible approach."
Ukrainian political analysts were quick to point the finger at Russia for masterminding what they described as manipulation.
Roman Rukomeda, a Ukrainian political analyst, told EurActiv that the affair was similar to a “disinformation stunt” orchestrated by Moscow in 2002, which discredited then president Leonid Kuchma and isolated Kyiv from the West for years.
In 2002 Ukraine was accused of selling complex military radio sensors called "Kolchuga" to Iraq. Those were part of a sophisticated anti-aircraft system used by the regime of Saddam Hussein. The accusations were based on tapes, allegedly linking Kuchma to the affair. However, the tapes were never authenticated and Moscow ended up gaining the most from the "Kolchuga scandal”.
“The new information about Ukrainian weapons in Syria can be another attempt of Russia to isolate Ukraine from the West trying to block the signing of Association Agreement and DCFTA [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement] at the Vilnius summit,” Rukomeda told EurActiv. The Eastern Partnership Vilnius summit on 28-29 November is seen as a milestone in determining Ukraine’s future EU relations (see background).
"It is obvious who is the most interested party in blocking Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement: Russia”, Rukomeda stated, adding: “Such tricks will not work this time, because the Ukrainian authorities have enough political will to keep the European integration course which Ukrainian elites and society have chosen".
The Ukrainian press quoted Vladimir Zastava, an expert from think tank the Gorshenin Institute, who also pointed to Russia as a possible instigator of the allegations. But Zastava added that the Washington Post article could back officials in the US pushing for a military attack on Syria without UN approval.
EurActiv asked the author of the Washington Post article, Joby Warrick, if he was sure that he had not been manipulated by his main source, c4ads. Warrick said that he and his newspaper stood by it.
"As a journalist who has written frequently about the global arms trade, I was drawn to this story because of what seemed to us to be an intriguing combination of (a.) well-documented historical ties to the global arms trade involving the port and shipping companies that use it, and (b.) recent patterns of behavior that appeared to us to raise valid concerns about current activities," he said in an email.
Warrick added that he had been "cautious" in drawing conclusions, but that he believed the issues raised in the report were "worthy of investigation and discussion".
EurActiv also wrote to c4ads, asking whether it stood behind the allegations of a “Ukrainian trail” in Syria’s weapon acquisition. No answers were received by the time this article was published.
An employee of the Kaaalbye group contacted by EurActiv said he had not seen the Washington Post story, and asked for a link to the story before they could react.