KIEV—Lieutenant General Nikolai Ryabets never thought of himself as a businessman. His world has always been missiles and anti-aircraft systems. What he knew well was how to operate, maintain, and modernize them. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan the general provided missile defenses for Kabul and Kandahar for three years. On his return to Ukraine, still part of the Soviet Union in those days, he served in all echelons of the air defense forces in Lviv and in Kiev, slowly moving all the way up to the position of deputy commander.
Now retired from active duty, the general works in a sleek office in a freshly refurbished two-floor building in Kiev as chairman of the state-funded company Nebo Ukrainy, or The Sky of Ukraine. His job is to sell old Soviet air defense systems, “good enough for the third world countries.” He has not had much luck.
It’s a pretty cynical business, and probably Ryabets should not have been surprised when Hollywood star George Clooney and human rights activist John Prendergast of the Enough Project named Riyabets and the company he heads in a damning document they presented in September about corruption and civil war in the benighted new nation of South Sudan.
“Some unscrupulous profiteers proactively look for ways to profit from instability and continued violence—either through the sale of weapons or by penning deals with armed groups that aspire to take power by force,” reads the report titled “War Crimes Shouldn’t Pay” under the heading, “War Profiteers.”
The document then goes on to detail the activities in South Sudan of one Mark Goldmann, acting as an agent for Nebo Ukrainy with a letter signed by Ryabets.
As the aging general tells the story, the day he first heard of Goldmann is a day he hates to remember.
Ryabets says that about four years ago a neighbor of his named Sayid, a refugee from Chechnya’s first war with Russia, came up with a business idea. “Sayid said his brother Magomed lived in Geneva and had very good connections all over the world, and that he might help us find a reliable buyer in Africa or in China,” Ryabets told The Daily Beast.
Lt. Gen. Ryabets described the role of the Chechen partner as go-between connecting the Nebo Ukrainy corporation founded and owned by the state and whoever wants to buy Ukraine’s rusting rocket systems, some of them more than 30 years old.
“Back in 2013, Russian citizen Magomed Erzanukaev, who also goes by the name Mark Goldmann, visited our company,” said Ryabets. “He did not look like any rich businessman, rather like an immature loser, but we still issued him a document authorizing him to be the official representative of our corporation, Nebo Ukrainy, until August last year.”
Looking back, Ryabets says he regrets the day he ever let Erzanukaev-Goldmann walk into his office, as in fact, instead of helping to find a good business deal for Nebo Ukrainy and make money, the Chechen brother of his neighbor caused both Ryabets and his corporation a huge headache.
The report released by Sentry, one of the groups sponsored by Clooney and Prendergast, says that in 2014, in the middle of Ukraine’s war with pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas region, Mark Goldmann acted as a broker between South Sudan’s vice president at the time, Riek Machar, and the defense firm Nebo Ukrainy. The documents obtained by Sentry indicated that Goldmann was “importing military equipment for the improvement of its military defense… in return for crude oil” from South Sudan.
“This Russian broker identified himself as ‘Mark Goldmann’ and claimed to head a company called MGA Capital, offering to negotiate the sale of military equipment in return for the country’s most lucrative asset: oil,” the report said.
Ryabets confirmed in our interview that together with the official letter authorizing Goldmann to be Nebo Ukrainy’s broker, he also equipped Erzanukaev-Goldmann with a catalogue of potential goods that included multiple air defense systems, including the vaunted S-300 and the BUK, the rocket launcher tragically famous for bringing down Malaysian flight MH-17 in July, 2014, over eastern Ukraine.
The catalogue also offered the self-propelled “Shilka,” the portable air defense complex Igla and several other expensive items of military equipment.
But according to Ryabets, Goldmann never actually sealed any deals. “There were miles to go between the day Magomed or Mark was to find us a reliable buyer and the day of actual delivery, since we sell everything through a state agency, UkrSpecExport,” Ryabets told The Daily Beast.
Goldmann declined to comment on the case.
Did Ryabets have bad feelings about looking for business deals in long-suffering, violence-plagued African countries?
The export of weapons is just business for the senior officer.
“Look, we have to sell the old defense systems, otherwise all our BUKs and other air defense systems will just rot in storage,” said Ryabets. “When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, warehouses at our military bases were full of weapons. Ukraine shoveled tons of them to Africa, packed those countries with all sorts of tanks, artillery, and air defense systems made in USSR.”
All this was big business. In 2012, for instance, Ukraine shipped major conventional arms worth $1.344 billion, becoming the fourth largest arms exporter in the world after United States, Russia, and China, according to the data published by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
And the rot of corruption is not limited to South Sudan or Africa.
In the three years since Ukraine’s Maidan uprising and he Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine has become a bazaar of both legal and illegal weapons with numerous high profile corruption cases.
In fact, Ukrainian prosecutors are currently calling in senior defense ministry officers for questioning. The press service for Ukraine’s prosecutor general has published info-graphics of all weapons illegally exported by corrupt military commanders in the period from 2005 to 2014, worth a total of two billion Ukrainian hryvnia or $77 million dollars.
“A big chunk of money from these sales goes into the pockets of the same [ex] Soviet generals who commanded our forces before the Maidan revolution,” says Yuriy Kolesnikov, leader of a volunteer group providing aid for battalions fighting in Donbas. “They continue to fill up their pockets with corrupt dollars, instead of supporting the forces on the front lines.”
The situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine meanwhile continues to be shaky. On Thursday morning the press service of the Anti-Terrorist (ATO) Headquarters reported 37 attacks on Ukrainian army positions by pro-Russian rebel forces in one single day.
Shortly before the third anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, the country’s capital of Kiev was once again shaken by anti-government street protests as both civilians and military personnel called for a change of power. On Nov. 14, hundreds of Ukrainians came out to protest against increasing prices. Many said they had lost their deposits at Ukrainian banks. About 300 people blocked the street in front of the National Bank of Ukraine.
The new generation of political elites pushed for reforms and anti-corruption measures in the defense ministry and law enforcement agencies, but to little avail. ”Corruption is once again everywhere you look, in the government, in the defense ministry, in the bank system,” Kolesnikov told The Daily Beast.
His volunteer group put together their own technology, a drone that is capable of transporting up to 50 kilos of cargo. The drone could apparently also fire and liquidate enemy targets, Kolesnikov said with pride.
Last month the Committee on Preventing and Combating Corruption looked into 68 cases of violations committed last year and 116 appeals to law enforcement agencies identified during internal checks in 2016.
Ukroboronprom officials admitted that the war in Donbas did not stop corruption within state agencies.
“Our army commanders and Ukroboronprom, the group responsible for import and export of weapons, is a total disgrace even as our soldiers are righting an artillery war in Donbas,” says Kolesnikov. “This year alone, Ukraine has exported 12 units of the weapon most demanded on the front, the 122-mm howitzer D-30, as well as Mi-24 and Mi-29 helicopters; and then Ukraine was begging for newer weapons from the West.”
Back in his office, Lt. Gen. Ryabets was angry as he discussed the ingnominy of his ordeal in South Sudan.
“That Magomed did not do anything good for our country, did not help us sell a single piece of scrap,” the officer said with frustration and then stared at The Daily Beast reporter with a light of hope in his eyes: “Maybe you could help us sell our goods?” Ryabets asked. “Please publish the highlights of our catalogue, maybe there is somebody on the West who would be interested in purchasing our newer, modernized air defense systems.”