Did Russia Help Saddam During the War?
What are we to make of the furor over whether the Russians aided Saddam Hussein's government around the time of the U.S.-led invasion? The Defense Department's newly released 210-page study clearly cites Iraqi documents from March 2003 that contain information allegedly provided by Russian diplomats and intelligence officers. A day after its release, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) denied that any such intelligence had been supplied to Iraq. And now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she will seek clarification from the Russian government.
First, it's important to understand that the impressively documented Pentagon report was never intended to assess whether, or under what circumstances, the Russians may have provided such information. The analysts were responsible only for assessing the Iraqi regime's perspective on the war.
Which brings us to the two main documents in question: an undated, three-page handwritten description of U.S. force deployments as of early March 2003 based on information allegedly provided by Russian Ambassador Vladimir Titorenko; and a typed, eight-page description of U.S. war plans dated March 25, 2003, and based on information also attributed to Titorenko. There is no inherent reason to doubt the authenticity of these documents, which are publicly available, or others cited in the report. Whether the information they contain is accurate is another matter.
The SVR's denials are largely irrelevant since the Russian agencies in question are the military intelligence service (GRU) and the Foreign Ministry, not the SVR. Reports in the Russian and Western press in March 2003 indicated that Gen. Vladislav Achalov, the former commander of Soviet airborne forces who supported the attempted coup in Moscow in August 1991, visited Baghdad shortly before the March 2003 invasion, accompanied by another retired Russian general. Photographs taken at the time confirm that the two generals were awarded medals by the Iraqi defense minister on behalf of Saddam Hussein. Achalov has since acknowledged that he traveled to Iraq at least 15 to 20 times in the years leading up to the war.
Press reports from March 2003 and afterward also indicated that other GRU officers were working with the Iraqi regime on a daily basis before and during the war, often through Abbas Khalaf, the former Iraqi ambassador to Moscow who sent numerous reports to Iraqi leaders citing GRU and diplomatic sources. In addition, a GRU "working group" known as Ramzaj, which posted daily assessments on a Russian military Web site, was widely described in the Russian press as aiding the Iraqi government. Although Ramzaj's forecasts and some of its information proved to be wildly off the mark, the reports in major Russian dailies and respected trade publications lend strong credence to the assertions in the Iraqi documents that Titorenko and some Russian military intelligence officers aided the Iraqi efforts to withstand the U.S. invasion.
If Titorenko did provide illicit assistance, his motive may have been largely financial. When the Volcker commission issued its final report on fraud and corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program last October, it listed the ambassador and his son as having received allocations of some 23.7 million barrels of oil worth well over $1 million in total.
The commission's report listed numerous other Russian politicians and political entities, including Russian President Vladimir Putin's then-chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Yegor Stroyev, the Russian Communist Party, and the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya, as recipients of large oil allocations worth many millions.
However, it is unlikely that Titorenko's apparent actions and the GRU cooperation were authorized at high levels. Russian opposition to the war -- motivated mostly by the enormous profits Russian companies and elites had been reaping from the oil-for-food program -- was much stronger than many U.S. experts had anticipated. But this opposition does not necessarily mean that Putin or then-Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov would have condoned transferring information that might cost American lives and would stand a high chance of eventually being detected.
One excerpt from the Iraqi document, dated March 25, 2003, has drawn particular attention. It refers to "information that the Russians have collected from their sources inside the American Central Command in Doha." Many journalists have construed this as meaning that the Russians had a spy working there. Far more likely is the possibility that the Russian information was collected through electronic means or possibly even through an authorized sharing of information.
Indeed, had a spy actually been present in Central Command, he or she presumably would have provided accurate information. But one of the interesting aspects of the intelligence allegedly turned in is that some of it proved to be egregiously wrong. If Saddam Hussein and his aides relied on this information to any significant degree, they ended up worse off than if they had ignored it or never received it.
Indeed, the erroneousness of some of the intelligence suggests that U.S. commanders may have deliberately floated false information. (Gen. Tommy Franks, who was in charge of the war, alludes to such a plan in his memoirs.) The American commanders, like the rest of us, knew from press reports that GRU officers were in Baghdad apparently assisting the Iraqis. The Americans may have counted on the likelihood that false information would be picked up by Russian military intelligence and divulged to the Iraqis. If this was indeed the case, the U.S. scheme worked brilliantly.
The attempts this past week by Russian officials to link the publication of the Pentagon report with the ongoing debate about Iran in the U.N. Security Council are far-fetched: The notion that the 210-page study was suddenly conjured up to serve a transitory diplomatic interest is preposterous.
Even more preposterous is the claim by Sergei Oznobishchev, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Evaluations and Analyses, that Pentagon officials issued the report because they are irritated by Russia's strengthening position in the international arena. This statement reflects a high degree of wishful thinking about Russia's place in the world today.
So what are we to make of all this? The Iraqi documents have exacerbated U.S. concerns about Russia only a few months before Putin is to chair the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. The uproar surrounding the disclosures is a sign of how frayed the West's relationship with Russia has become. The Russian government would be wise to clear up the matter as expeditiously as possible.
Mark Kramer is director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies and a senior associate of the university's Davis Center for Russian Studies.