Aleksandr Zhukov’s April 7 arrest in Sardinia was played up by the Italian DIA (an anti-Mafia investigative unit) as having eliminated an important arms-trafficking channel to the war-torn Balkans. The most intriguing aspect of the story, however, involves NATO, the struggle between Russia and the West for influence in the former Soviet republics, and the role of former Ukrainian Premier Marchuk and the Russian mafia in the affair.

Zhukov, a Russian millionaire with a British passport and residences in Sardinia, London, Kiev, and Tel Aviv, was charged with illegally trafficking arms to the Balkans in the mid-1990’s, allegedly using his Sintez corporation and various front companies to reap (and launder) the profits from arms sales to the Croats during their bloody conflict with the Serbs. DIA officials also claim that some of the weapons wound up in the hands of the Italian Mafia.

According to European and Russian press accounts, Zhukov’s Sintez company grew out of a perestroika-era Soviet cooperative, one that was either founded or co-opted by the KGB to engage in the arms trade, setting up offshore companies to launder the profits, as well as sell crude oil. In fact, Anatoli Fedorenko, an ex-KGB officer from Kiev, and Ceza Mezosy, an Hungarian living in Belgium, were arrested last year for their role in the weapons-trade shell game, and DIA spokesmen are now claiming that Fedorenko was the Sintez link to the Solntsevo crime syndicate, one of the most powerful in Russia.

The charges sound plausible: Beginning in the late 80’s, the KGB and its successor organizations set up a slew of offshore companies, funneling Communist Party funds abroad as the Soviet Union collapsed around them. Moreover, the KGB, which had long employed the particular talents of Russia’s underworld in its “special operations,” effectively merged with the emerging post-Soviet crime syndicates, often employing overseas-based front men—like Zhukov—to handle the European end of their various enterprises.

The real bombshell in the whole Zhukov-Sintez affair, however, might be the role of Evgeni Marchuk and NATO’s possible collusion in the Balkans arms trade, the ultimate aim of which was the arming of the Croats—and the defeat of the West’s chosen bad guys, the Serbs. Marchuk—a one-time KGB general, founder of independent Ukraine’s intelligence service, and former Ukrainian premier and current security council secretary—was allegedly the operation’s Ukrainian cover. The weapons originated in Ukraine and Belarus and were funneled by Sintez and its front companies to the Balkans via Italy, after being stored, according to Italian press sources, at a NATO installation on Sardinia. For the record, Marchuk has been a proponent of Ukrainian cooperation with the West, even as Russia courted politically vulnerable Ukrainian President Kuchma.

In view of NATO’s stated intention to expand eastward over Russia’s protests and the West’s determination to crush the Serbs and weaken Russian influence in both the Balkans and the former Soviet republics, Western journalists should be interested in following this trail further. So far, they haven’t. Did NATO collude with organized-crime syndicates in illegal arms sales? Was Marchuk effectively NATO’s agent and partner? The West’s media watchdogs don’t seem to care.