By now nearly every major U.S. news outlet and numerous blogs have commented on the Pentagon's release of captured Iraqi documents revealing that Russian intelligence officers were supplying Saddam information on American battle plans before the U.S.-led invasion. Reports of Russian involvement in pre-war Iraq have circulated since 2002, starting with allegations from Israeli and Pentagon sources that Russians helped Saddam hide his weapons of mass destruction in Syria.
RIA Novosti is reporting the Russian Foreign Ministry's vehement denials. The Foreign Ministry suggests that the Americans are just trying to distract their people from the growing Sunni-Shi'a violence in Iraq. It doesn't help the Foreign Ministry's case that the documents appear authentic, consistent with other Iraqi Intelligence Services (IIS) memoranda. It also doesn't help that one Russian retired general took credit in 2003 for teaching the Iraqis how to resist the American invaders the way Red Army fought the Germans during World War II. Retired generals of course, are free to say and do nearly anything they want, and several in the U.S. have harshly criticized the decision to invade Iraq. But perhaps the Foreign Ministry would have more credibility if it acknowledged that several former Russian intelligence officers and ranking military officers were in Iraq just days before the war began.
It is possible, as several commentators have pointed out, that the leak from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar was part of a deliberate strategy of misinformation. In particular, General Tommy Franks in his book American Soldier described disinformation as part of his strategy for confusing the Iraqis about U.S. intentions and the timing of the invasion. It remains unclear who was playing who, which is why this Washington Post editorial blasting Bush for not punishing Putin in the wake of these revealations is premature (the Post also conveniently leaves the question of how the U.S. should punish Russia unanswered). Bush has not forgotten that Putin provided U.S. forces with access to former Soviet bases in Central Asia after 9/11. Even so, unless Bush is being quiet because Russian intelligence was cooperating wittingly or unwittingly in a clever U.S. deception, there are only two possibilities:
1) That the Kremlin indeed was playing Cold War games, providing intel it believed to be important to Saddam to hurt the Americans.
2) The Kremlin cannot control all the current and former members of its intelligence services, and several of these individuals conspired to sell Iraq intelligence and/or to protect their business dealings with Saddam's regime.
Here at Russia Blog, we lean towards the latter explanation, rather than the former. As much as many analysts in D.C. would prefer a clear adversary, we think the situation of the Russian security services vis a vis the U.S. and its allies is actually worse today than during the Cold War. The Cold War at least had a certain logic, and the actions of the centralized nation-state enemy were somewhat predictable, although both sides used proxies to damage each other's interests. Compared to the old KGB, the actions of privatized KGB and GRU agents acting as free agents are far more difficult to predict, though sometimes you can follow the money trail before it disappears into cash and untraced accounts. The involvement of ex-KGB officers at every level of Russian business and organized crime is well documented, as is their service providing security for the oligarchs and collecting kickbacks for the Tax Ministry.
It is not surprising that these people would be in contact with their old comrades still working in the Russian military and intelligence services and also the Russian Ambassador to Baghdad. The Russian Ambassador was likely a conduit for Saddam's well-documented attempts to bribe his way out of the diplomatic and economic isolation imposed on Iraq after 1991.
Certainly we could be wrong. Intercepted or recorded signals could be released tomorrow proving that the initiative for sending these retired military officers to Baghdad on the eve of the war came from the highest levels. Previous reports have tied the ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and former members of the United Russia Party to the Oil for Food kickbacks scheme. We don't know for sure, and we doubt even at the highest levels of the U.S. intelligence community and the White House the situation is so clear either. As with the issue of Saddam's support for terrorism and when and where his WMDs were disposed of, more declassified documents will hopefully reveal more of the truth.
We have commented on this obstacle to Western media and analysts understanding Russia before, in this post about why Russia sells arms to Iran. Having an ex-KGB officer renew the Cold War and crush domestic dissent while reviving the Evil Empire is a simple story everyone can understand. Describing how many ex-KGB agents are engaged in acquiring and distributing kickbacks, organized crime, and selling intelligence to the highest bidder is a harder story to tell in the West. But it is closer to reality.
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