Russian observers, like their US counterparts, have been reacting to President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Russian intelligence agencies had received information that Saddam Hussein’s regime was planning terrorist attacks against American targets and had warned US intelligence. Putin made the comment on June 18 while in Astana, Kazakhstan for talks with a group of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) leaders. He told reporters he could confirm that between the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and military operations in Iraq, Russia’s special services intelligence agencies on several occasions received information “that official organs of Saddam’s regime were preparing terrorist acts on the territory of the US and beyond its borders, at US military and civilian locations.” Putin added that the information was “passed on through our partner channels to our American colleagues. Moreover, US President Bush had and used an opportunity to personally thank the leader of one of the Russian special services for this information, which he considered to be very important.” Still, Putin said Russia “had no information that Hussein’s regime was linked to any specific terror attacks” and still believes the US-led invasion of Iraq violated “international legislation on procedures of the use of force in international affairs” (RIA Novosti, Agence France-Presse, June 18; Moscow Times, June 21).
Putin made his comments in response to a question about a story filed the previous day by Interfax, which quoted an unnamed source in a “Russian special department,” who told basically the same story about Iraq’s planned terrorist attacks against the US. The source also said that conclusions drawn by the US commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks — including that there was no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Saddam Hussein’s regime and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda — were based on reliable information but failed to give a complete picture of the events leading up to the Iraq war. In “investigating the reasons for the origins of the Iraq crisis, it is necessary to consider all aspects, including the direct threat to the US from Saddam Hussein’s regime,” the source concluded (Interfax, June 17).
US reaction to Putin’s assertions has largely been puzzlement. US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters he knew nothing about the information Putin said Moscow had given Washington, while another State Department official said, “Everybody’s scratching their heads” (State.gov, Reuters, June 18). US Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was “not familiar with what the Russians might have given us” and would thus “have to yield to my friends in the intelligence community” (Moscow Times, June 21). White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, “As you know, we have ongoing co-operation with the Russian government, including in matters of intelligence. And we don’t discuss specific intelligence matters” (Agence France-Presse, June 19).
If US officials were scratching their heads, Russian observers who have thus far commented on Putin’s assertions have tended to connect them to President Bush’s re-election bid. “It is obvious that Moscow does not want to aggravate the wounds from bygone disputes with Washington over Iraq,” wrote Vremya Novostei in an article headlined “Putin Votes for Bush.” The article added, “It looks as if the Kremlin has already determined its position and staked on George Bush.” The newspaper noted that during the recent G8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia, Putin said Bush’s Democratic opponents had “no moral right” to attack him over the war in Iraq because “they did exactly the same” in Yugoslavia (Vremaya Novostei, June 21; Reuters, June 10). Kommersant wrote that Russia’s efforts to support Bush are “fully explainable” given that the Russian authorities traditionally find it much easier to have a “dialogue” with Republican administrations than Democratic ones, “which usually excessively emphasize the issue of human rights.” The Bush Administration, the newspaper noted, “brushed aside” a recent US Congressional initiative to remove Russia from the G8 over human rights (Kommersant, June 21).
However, Kommersant also pointed out incongruities in the story, noting, for example, that during 2002-2003, when the Bush Administration was trying to make the case for going to war with Iraq, it used “all possible sources of information,” even reports about uranium from Niger that turned out to be false, but never referred to Russia’s information about planned Iraqi terrorist attacks (Kommersant, June 21). The Grani.ru website quoted from a critical statement that Putin made at the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq, in which he said, among other things, that Russia never possessed any information showing that Iraq supported international terrorism (Grani.ru, June 19).
Kremlin-connected analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, who heads National Strategy Institute, agreed that Russia is “objectively” interested in Bush’s victory in November. But he also suggested that in alleging that Iraq planned to attack the US, Putin was seeking American assistance in freeing two Russian intelligence agents on trial in Qatar for assassinating former Chechen separatist president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev (APN, June 18).