The tentative alliance between Russia and the West on the Iranian nuclear issue that seemed to emerge last month may be fizzling out and replaced by a renewed controversy over Iran and Ukraine. Russian officials have been accusing Washington of preparing a sneak attack on Iran called “Operation Bite” and of instigating a constitutional crisis in Ukraine to topple the pro-Moscow government.
Only a week ago things seemed cordial and moving in the right direction. Moscow had been putting pressure on Tehran to stop uranium enrichment, announced it would not ship nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor because of a financing dispute, and supported stricter sanctions on Iran in the UN (see EDM, Mach 15). U.S. President George Bush attempted to consolidate this detente and phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 28 to discuss Iran, Kosovo, and missile defense. The two presidents decided to hold additional missile defense consultations, a move reported as a positive development by the Kremlin press service (RIA-Novosti, March 28). During an interview with the Russian TV news channel Vesti-24, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried called for Russia and the United States to work together to create a joint missile defense system to defend against common threats (Kommersant, March 30).
However, as this charm offensive developed, the threat of another attack began to grip Moscow officials: “Operation Bite.” First, the Moscow tabloid Argumenty Nedeli (March 15) published a narration about a treacherous and sudden U.S. attack on Iran planned for April 6, at 4 am. At a press conference at RIA-Novosti in Moscow on March 30 retired General Leonid Ivashov, from the Moscow Academy for Geopolitical Sciences, confirmed that a U.S. attack is possible. After the press conference, Ivashov told me that he was not the source of information about Operation Bite, but that it originally came from Russian military intelligence (GRU).
The official RIA-Novosti news agency indeed cited an unnamed GRU source: “According to Russian military intelligence, U.S. military forces in the Gulf have practically finished preparations to attack Iran in the first half of April and are awaiting a final go-ahead from Washington.” According to the GRU, the plan of the attack and a list of targets have already been prepared (RIA-Novosti, April 30). Later First Deputy Defense Minister General Yuri Baluyevsky and Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov confirmed that Moscow had information about the coming U.S. attack (RIA-Novosti, March 30).
Baluyevsky warned the Americans that they might wound Iran, but could not defeat it and that the war might lead to “the downfall of America.” Denisov told a RIA-Novosti press conference that a war close to Russia’s borders is unacceptable. He added that he’s not a military specialist, but reported that the Americans had explained that they were only replacing one carrier in service in the Gulf for another. This would seem to confirm that the Kremlin had taken the Operation Bite rumors seriously enough to ask Washington for clarifications through diplomatic channels about military deployments in the Gulf.
Deep down, the Russian military most likely knows that there is no imminent U.S. attack. Konstantin Sivkov, from the Academy for Geopolitical Sciences, speaking at the same RIA-Novosti press conference as Ivashov, stated that U.S. forces currently in the Gulf region do not have the military capacity to deal with Iran effectively and that it would take the Pentagon two-to-three months to assemble an adequate force (RIA-Novosti, March 30). However, Sivkov assured me, the lack of sufficient conventional capability implied not the impossibility of war at present, but that the U.S. would have to use tactical nukes in the first wave of attack on Iran and that there could be radioactive fallout affecting Russian territory.
It is an open secret in Moscow that there is a powerful, hidden pro-Iranian lobby in town, consisting of people and organizations with connections to the arms and nuclear materials trade. The apparent recent change of heart in the Kremlin that led to a virtual freeze in Bushehr construction and the new UN sanctions that seemed to prohibit major new arms deals forced this lobby to come in view at least partially. The military — and GRU in particular — helped create the threat of an imminent U.S. attack that, in turn, required Russia to intervene to prevent an attack and help the potential victim.
For the last several days, all Russian Kremlin-controlled TV channels have focused on the possibility of the Operation Bite attack (Channel 1, Rossiya, NTV, and TVC). The capture of 15 British military personnel by the Iranians on March 23 has helped, since it has been interpreted as a possible excuse for an assault. Continued denials of a coming attack from Washington and London are not taken seriously.
Operation Bite has apparently been successful in changing the course of Russian policy on Iran. Denisov announced that the Russo-Iranian disagreements over Bushehr may soon be resolved, that both sides want to finish the project, and that the nuclear fuel will be shipped to Iran after all problems are resolved — six months before the completion of reactor.
On April 2, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved parliament and called early elections. The chairman of the Russian Duma CIS Affairs Committee, Andrei Kokoshin, has already specifically accused “different Western political forces that did not like the government [of Viktor Yanukovych]” of provoking the present crisis in Ukraine (RIA-Novosti, April 3).
If nothing happens on April 6 in the Gulf, the spin about Operation Bite will lose momentum. But the conflict in Ukraine between pro-Moscow and pro-Western forces is unfolding much closer to Russia, will last longer, and has the potential to sour relations as much as occurred in late 2004 during the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.