Russian president Vladimir Putin’s close friendship with President George W. Bush is facing a stiff test. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources in Moscow report that he is being subjected to intense pressure from Russia’s top military and intelligence echelons to pull away from the US assault on Iraq. Secret missives are flowing from the Kremlin to the Oval Office with this news.
In addition, Putin sent private messengers to Washington last weekend to alert Bush to the danger that certain factions in Russia’s armed forces and intelligence might take advantage of his support for America’s campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein for a putsch of their own against the Russian president.
The men on Putin’s most-watched list are defense minister Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff General of the Army Anatoly Kvashnin, and the Russian intelligence services, SVR, chief, Sergei Lebedev.
In his letters to Bush, he does not refer to them as the authors of a potential coup, but rather as subject to heavy pressure on the Iraq issue from the former First Foreign Directorate at Yasenevo, near Moscow, a carryover from the KGB in which Putin himself served in the Cold War. Known since 1991 as the SVR, little is changed in the organization except its name. Its agents are still responsible for the same foreign intelligence-gathering activities the FCD carried out, including operations in the United States.
Putin is reported by our sources as warning Bush that former FCD stalwarts were perfectly capable of raising help from certain elements in the Russian intelligence community and the armed forces for a putsch against him. Back in 1991, the KGB chief at the time, Vladimir Kryuchkov, led the FCD in a plot against President Mikhail Gorbachev that brought Boris Yeltsin to power. Kryuchkov is believed by many intelligence experts, some American, to continue to wield considerable influence in the SVR. In his messages to the US president, Putin compared the resistance he faces in Moscow to the criticism emanating from the “old guard” of Bush’s own Republican Party against his plan to attack Baghdad.
One of the purposes of Undersecretary of State John Bolton’s visit to Moscow this week was to test on behalf of Bush the extent of the threat to Putin in face to face talks with him.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Russia’s military as well as its intelligence services cherish the close ties with Iraq and the Arab world at large they inherited from the Soviet Union. They suspect that an American victory against Saddam Hussein would strike a death blow to Moscow’s historic relations and its undercover links in the Arab and Muslim world. SVR chiefs are also anxious to protect their intelligence interests in Central Asia, which they see as threatened by the expanding US military and CIA presence there.
Our sources stress that the SVR’s ties with Iraqi military intelligence, first forged by the FCD, are still strong. Baghdad, for more than 20 years, has been the operational center of Russian intelligence activity in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf region. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War – and in the thick of the conflict – certain Russian intelligence factions helped Saddam Hussein by feeding him information on the movements of US military forces in the Gulf and the routes flown by US bombers and missiles over Iraqi airspace.
A large Iraqi intelligence mission was stationed permanently in Moscow until early 2002. After September 11, 2001, the Russians asked Iraq to lower the mission’s profile. Early this year, they were asked to relocate from Moscow to the Belarus capital of Minsk.
SVR heads fear that Putin’s so-far understated backing for US action against Iraq, following on his collaboration with the US military campaign in Afghanistan, will put paid to the remnants of Russian influence in the Middle East and undermine its standing in Central Asia – most importantly in the development of regional oil resources.
In recent months, Putin has heard repeated complaints from SVR chiefs that the Americans were not fulfilling their undertakings under mutual intelligence accords with Russia in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. They accused CIA personnel of doing their best to squeeze the Russians out, seriously impairing their intelligence-gathering capabilities in Central Asia and damaging the Russian effort to quell the Chechnya uprising.
By undercutting Moscow’s influence over the leaders of the region, the Americans were held to be jeopardizing Russia’s share in the new lucrative oil development projects underway, especially in Turkmenistan on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
Russian generals were likewise bitterly critical of their president for allowing America to establish military facilities and air bases in Turkmenistan and Georgia, at the expense of Russia’s geopolitical interests.
In the hope of counteracting the rising dissent, the Russian president has willy-nilly taken steps that run contrary to his personal wishes in order to demonstrate he was placing the interests of the military and intelligence ahead of the demands of his alliance with Bush. Despite his promises to the US president to call off Moscow’s nuclear assistance to Tehran, Russian engineers and technicians continue to build the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr and their number has been further boosted in recent weeks.
At the same time, he gave his word to Bush that he would not permit the Iranian reactor to develop far enough to produce atomic weapons or enriched uranium for manufacturing nuclear bombs. He did not say how intended to cut off assistance to Tehran at the critical moment. Bolton most certainly pressed the Russian president on this point.
In another drastic move, the Russian President sent a note to the UN Security Council on September 12 with an ultimatum for Georgia, demanding that it take the necessary measures to deal with the Chechen rebels holed up in the Pankisi Gorge, or face Russian military action. Putin said he had ordered Russia’s armed forces to draw up plans for a military operation to smoke the terrorists out.
It is clear to DEBKA-Net-Weekly observers that the Russian leader’s warning was addressed primarily to the United States, Georgia’s ally. It may have been a last-ditch try to turn America away from its assault on Iraq where Moscow has sizeable interests and also mollify his detractors in the Russian armed forces and intelligence.
Putin’s nervousness was no doubt intensified by the sudden death on September 9, in an apparent road accident, of the secretary of the Kremlin’s National Security Council, Vladimir Rushailo, near the town of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The council is responsible for drafting long-range plans for addressing domestic and foreign threats to national stability. Six others, including the drunk driver who caused the accident, were also killed in the crash. Some knowledgeable sources in Moscow strongly suspect assassination, given the victim’s personal closeness to Putin and the heavy military escort accompanying him. If so, it would have been a warning to Putin not to play ball too closely with Washington. There is no evidence that the accident was induced, but the fact of the rumors reflects the general edgy atmosphere surrounding the Kremlin these days.