- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

On March 25, the Pentagon reported that in the spring of 2003 Russia gave Saddam Hussein intelligence about U.S. military plans for the invasion of Iraq. Recently-declassified documents suggest that then-Russian ambassador to Iraq, Vladimir Titorenko, provided Saddam with information on the date U.S. forces intended to attack Baghdad, specific numbers of U.S. troops and invasion tactics. Fortunately, some information was inaccurate, and the resulting disinformation ultimately aided U.S. forces in their attack.

Russian intelligence-sharing with Saddam, if true, benefited the U.S. military. However, it was a hostile action by Moscow during wartime, directed against U.S. forces and aimed at causing failure of the allied operation against Iraq. This was very much a Cold War-style operation, which is evidence of a deep-seated animosity among the Russian leadership against the U.S.

And Moscow’s hostile actions in Iraq were not limited to intelligence sharing. Retired Russian generals, including former commander of Soviet air defenses Igor Maltsev, former commander of the USSR’s paratroops and special forces Vladislav Achalov, and notorious extremist Albert Makashov, advised Saddam on preparations for war with America. They focused, among other things, on the World War II-style “partisan” movement. This guerrilla movement was successfully deployed by the USSR in territories occupied by the Wehrmacht to resist the Nazis and was highly effective in disrupting supply operations, cutting communication lines and gathering intelligence. Additionally, Saddam, the life-long admirer of the Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of victory over the U.S. in Vietnam, apparently integrated guerrilla tactics in the post-war Ba’athist resistance planning.

It was also suggested by former Pentagon officials that the Russians may have been supervised a cover-up of the Iraqi WMD program. According to these allegations, Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) secreted away and hid components of the Iraqi WMD program in Syria, Lebanon and possibly Iran, with additional materials dumped in the Indian Ocean. These claims are based on classified information and has yet to be further substantiated. Accusations of Russian intelligence-sharing with Saddam, on the other hand, have been deemed credible enough to warrant raising the issue with Moscow.

Why did these allegations come out now? In terms of timing, there is a massive effort underway to translate and publicize thousands of pages of captured Iraqi documents. U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte reportedly came out against declassifying this treasure trove, but gave in to congressional pressure. The materials that implicate Russia are not necessarily a “special operation” aimed at discrediting Russia; they are part of this gold mine of information, some of which may prove politically unpalatable to those implicated.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and its Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) have publicly denied intelligence sharing with Saddam. Off the record, however, Russian diplomats have called the allegations “nonsense,” demanded to “view evidence,” but informally suggested that things of this nature needed to be discussed quietly — not in public. Their reaction does not amount to full denial of Russian intelligence involvement with Saddam — after all, Iraq was a Soviet client state, and Russia had there massive, multi-billion dollar economic interests, including contracts to develop the giant West Qurna oil field, and other economic projects.

Genuine surprise at the spying scandals indicates a failure to recognize that many in the Russian leadership, particularly President Vladimir Putin and Vice Premier and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, are career intelligence officers who come out of a system that made anti-Americanism their life’s credo. Expecting them to repudiate the tools of their chosen profession is at best nave. Hopes that they opt for selfless loyalty to the U.S. are well-intentioned and unrealistic.

Today, the U.S. views Russia with suspicion over the Kremlin’s weapons sales and robust diplomatic and nuclear technology assistance to Iran; growing economic ties with the regime of the ayatollahs; embrace of Hamas; and strong attempts to return to the Soviet policy of competing with the U.S. in the Middle East — including in the military and intelligence arenas. However, a spectrum of interests, including Iran, non-proliferation, development of joint energy projects, and a dialogue over Russian policy in the former Soviet Union, especially Caucasus and Central Asia, require maintaining a careful balance in relations with Moscow. It may not serve the broader interests of the U.S. to lose sight of the bigger picture over this incident, nor will airing dirty laundry in the international media help to normalize what is left of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

In view of the dramatic rise in U.S.-Russian tensions over the past several months, the Bush administration should undertake a critical reassessment of U.S. cooperative efforts with Russia, particularly in such sensitive areas as intelligence sharing. However, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested, this matter should have been addressed in private before being made public.

Further, the U.S. needs to ascertain whether President Putin or another senior Russian leader authorized intelligence sharing with Saddam, or intelligence services “free-lanced.” It is vital that the U.S. determines whether or not President Putin knew, and if so, what did he know and when did he know it. If Americans have incontrovertible proof that they cannot rely on Russia not to compromise sensitive intelligence, or if it indeed spies for American enemies, future intelligence cooperation needs to be curbed.

While this is not an international crisis, and the damage is not irreparable, this is a wake-up call to U.S. leaders to rethink how they deal with Russia.

Ariel Cohen is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of “Eurasia in Balance” (Ashgate, 2005), and “Russia-Kazakhstan Energy Cooperation” (GMB Publishing, 2006).

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