It may be overstating the case to assert that Moscow-Washington differences over Iraq have raised the specter of a revived Cold War, but the Old Guard of the KGB which thrived on the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union is again on the ascendant in the Kremlin’s corridors of power. What is more, these veteran counterintelligence experts are busy helping Saddam Hussein’s long shot for his own comeback – by fashioning a “jihad” underground for pushing American forces out of Iraq by remote control – either by himself or, if he has not survived, his sons – from any secret outside hideout or place of exile.
Call it Afghanistan in reverse.
The Russian hand in this potential turn of the Iraqi wheel brought President George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to Moscow Sunday, April 6, for a showdown with Russian president Vladimir Putin, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow and Washington.
In her three-hour head-to-head with Putin, Rice is said to have confronted him with the sensitive information reaching Washington showing that Russia’s federal security service, or FSB, had recently sent a team of intelligence officers to Damascus to confer on the project with top Iraqi officials, including General Ali Hassan Majid and Iraqi vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan, both very much alive despite premature reports of their death.
Since August 2000, Iraq has maintained military liaison offices with Syrian military intelligence in the Syrian capital, as well as similar legations in Moscow and Minsk.
None of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources Moscow, Washington or the Middle East can put their finger precisely on how deep Putin is in the scheme which is still on the drawing board, or even privy to it. He does have a serious grievance against his erstwhile partner in the Afghanistan War against the Taliban, accusing Bush of not making good on the pledges he made in return for Russian military collaboration, chiefly to collaborate with his war partner Putin in leading the world oil market. This alleged lapse, he said, had played into the hands of the Old Guard of the former First Directorate of the KGB which had run Cold War counterintelligence, given them a stick with which to beat him over the head and put him very much on the defensive.
This was bad news for Rice. The task the Bush team had assigned her for the Iraq War was to deliver Putin and Russia to the US-led fighting coalition. This was no simple task but, as she faced Putin in the Kremlin, she realized it was well nigh impossible, although her standing in the Bush team depended on its success.
Putin Sidelined at Home
In DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue 101of March 14, we recounted an important telephone conversation between Bush and Putin (under the heading: Putin is back on-line to Warn Bush of Security Council Trap).
In that conversation, we quoted the Russian president as offering two important pieces of information: One, he was disinclined to be lumped with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder in the same anti-US bloc on the Iraq issue. Two, Moscow’s national policy-making processes on Iraq have been appropriated by Russian foreign intelligence, the SVR – in particular the faction still ruling the counterintelligence bodies once known as the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, which ran the Cold War and dominated the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources add that, since that phone conversation, Putin and Bush have held frequent exchanges through Rice in which the Russian president progressively sharpened those two points.
In one communication, he coined a phrase, when he said he was willing to institute a policy of “Iraq without Chirac”, by which he meant Iraq with Bush and Putin. In another message, he warned that the Old KGB counterintelligence faction had gained so much ground in the Kremlin that it had become almost a self-sustaining decision-making center on Iraq, the Middle East and the global war on terror. Putin was not even sure that he was being clued into all its decisions. He found he had to ask them for information to find out what was going on.
What had happened, he told the Americans, was that this ageing group, which had faded into the background after the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, was defeated in Afghanistan and sidelined by the Putin-Bush pact in the Afghanistan War of 2002, was now opportunistically sidelining him to recover its old prestige and clout.
Oil Could Restore Putin’s Standing
In a third message to the White House, the Russian President explained that the only way he could recover center-stage in these matters was for Bush to demonstrate that there was no truth in the allegations that he had had let Putin down after the Afghan War on promised deals that would lead to shared and coordinated control of the international oil export market, both by piping Russian oil to America and joint exploitation of Caspian regional reserves
The US president must use all his influence to bring these schemes to fruition so as to restore the credibility Putin lost both in intelligence and financial quarters in Moscow.
The Iraqi crisis and war provided the counterintelligence veterans with an opening for a comeback. Arguing that by helping the Americans to win the Iraq war, Moscow would forfeit its traditional positions of influence in the Arab world and Middle East, they resolved to throw their support behind Saddam Hussein in order to defeat the American war effort – with or without Putin’s approval.
The Old Guard’s retort to Putin’s premise of “Iraq without Chirac” was “Iraq without Putin”. This faction has carefully preserved its conduits and spheres of influence.
Putin warned Rice that this group if given its head could exacerbate frictions with the United States to a dangerous degree. The White House must extend a hand to pull Putin out of the hole.
The response Putin received from his American visitor was that all these oil projects would eventually materialize – it was only a matter of time. As for the collaboration on Caspian oil, that too would happen. Bush was a man of his word. But first, he would like to see the Kremlin amend its policies on Iran, Central Asia and Iraq – more cooperation and less confrontation would bring forth a matching response from Washington, given patience.
Bush’s adviser had no hope of integrating these irreconcilable positions. In fact the conversation ended on the harsh note of ultimatums from Washington to Moscow.
(Details of those ultimatums in next article)