After a long, chilly pause, Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president George W. Bush had a heart to heart conversation on March 6 of the kind that became routine before and during the Afghan War – but not much since Iraq took center stage.
This time too, Putin did most of the talking and what he conveyed, according to exclusive information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Moscow, was a grim warning: Run as fast as you can from the Security Council. Spelling out his strange message, Putin said: “Drop the resolution. Don’t let it go to vote. I’m talking as a friend. The same people who ambushed you (the United States) in Mogadishu and Srebrenica are now lying in wait for you again both in the Security Council and, later, in Iraq.”
The US-UK second resolution on Iraq, he explained, was playing straight into the hands of those people. By giving the Security Council sole power to determine the legitimacy of the allied coalition’s diplomatic posture and offensive against Iraq, Washington was storing trouble for itself; it was planting an obstacle in the path of its own action and putting it in the hands of its foremost antagonist, France. Chirac, Putin warned, had hatched a scheme for turning the Security Council around to undermine the US-led coalition at a critical juncture in its offensive.
At the time of Putin’s warning, Bush and British premier Tony Blair were still working flat out for a majority of nine to back a resolution serving Saddam with a tight ultimatum to prove by March 17 that he was acting to disarm. They believed a majority vote, even if nullified by a French veto, would lend moral weight to military action against Iraq.
Six days later, Bush – possibly under the influence of Putin’s advice – showed strong signs of washing his hands of international diplomacy and pressing on with his offensive against Iraq without waiting for UN sanction. He appeared to have decided against a formal declaration of war but instead letting the assault unfold, mainly by means of rapid, covert strikes to capture large swathes of territory.
The telephone call melted much of the chill that overlaid Washington-Moscow relations ever since Moscow teamed up with Paris and Berlin to block US military action in Iraq. Putin made a strenuous effort to restore the personal trust and cooperation he and Bush had maintained in the Afghan War. This give and take relationship was initiated in the landmark telephone conversations they held on September 13 and 23, 2001 (reported at length in DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 32 Oct. 5. 2001) in the aftershock of the al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington.
On March 6, the Russian leader explained that his real policy on Iraq was quite different from its public presentation. He was far from hopping into bed with Germany and France – and certainly not with Chirac. Russia, he said, will do what it can to avoid the Security Council proceedings on Iraq and imposing a veto. But he advised Bush it would be in his best interest to stop hanging about waiting for UN legitimacy; if he had resolved to act on Iraq, then he should go ahead and do it now.
Putin backed up that advice, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, by exposing the game behind France’s obstructionism, recalling how in their September 13 conversation, the Russian leader handed Bush confidential information on the intelligence networks behind al Qaeda.
Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, he now disclosed, were disingenuous in their fight to turn the UN and the international community against a US-led war in Iraq. Their short-term tactics were really aimed at egging the US president on to attack, and then leading him into an entanglement deadly enough to humiliate America, cripple the presidency and force the American army to beat an embarrassing retreat from Iraq.
Chirac intended to achieve this goal in two steps.
The first would be to veto the US-UK resolution so as to deprive the offensive of international sanction; the second would be the deployment in Iraq of a French or European force – if he can get one organized – to be positioned near the southern oil fields and serve as a barrier against the US advance from Kuwait.
The French-sponsored force would be presented to the Security Council as an “international protective contingent” As the force took position, France would file a companion motion ordering the withdrawal of all illegal “foreign invasion forces” from Iraq and the cessation of all hostilities.
The British, to whom Washington has assigned to a military zone in southern Iraq, would be specifically targeted. Chirac would thus enlist the Security Council to his effort for expelling the British and then the Americans from Iraq. Washington would have no option but to veto the motion. However, France would have gained an internationally recognized military foothold in the region alongside US forces, as well as Security Council support for a military presence to guard French interests in the Gulf and Arabia and create a safe haven for Saddam, his sons and top Baath and military leaders.
Reviving a personal alliance
As part of his warning, Putin offered to revive Russian-US military cooperation and place Russian military and intelligence resources at Bush’s disposal, as he did in the dire post-9/11 days leading into the Afghan War.
Two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Russian leader, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported on October 5, 2001, laid out for Bush for the first time the most sensitive intelligence data available to the Kremlin on al Qaeda’s leaders and their intelligence and logistic backers for strikes against US targets. He named those sponsors, which included Iraqi military intelligence and Saudi Arabia’s GIS general intelligence service, and offered the US president the names of the senior officers and agents who directly aided Bin Laden’s terrorists.
Bush was finally convinced that Putin’s offer was sincere when he leveled with him on the role played by Russian intelligence. The Russian leader named the names of former top Russian intelligence officials, late of the First Chief Directorate – the Soviet KGB’s foreign intelligence arm – who had been selling their services to business interests in the Arab world and Europe from the time the communist empire broke up in 1991. Those officers knew perfectly well that the intelligence they were handing over to their paymasters would end up ultimately in the laps of al Qaeda.
Putin, himself a former First Chief Directorate high officer of many Cold War years, promised in September 2001 to extract from those officers the goods needed to enable America to conduct an effective global war against terror.
That demonstrative offer of help became the lynchpin of the accord between the American and Russian presidents over joint military action in Afghanistan. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military intelligence sources say that even today, not all the details of that joint venture have come out. For instance, Washington and Moscow are still guarding the secret of how Russian and Ubzek tanks led the armored thrust against Mazraat al-Sharif and Konduz in October 2001 and the subsequent pincer movement that led to the capture of Kabul.
However, in the Fall of 2002, the Russian president told his advisers he was disenchanted with his working relationship with the US leader. His wholehearted military and intelligence collaboration, he said, had not been adequately reciprocated. His list of grievances was a long one, topped by Washington’s lack of support on the Chechnya conflict:
He charged Washington with a change of attitude after the victory in Afghanistan. From that time on, the Americans adopted a go-it-alone posture in the global campaign against terror, fobbing off allies and their concerns. He was particularly peeved by the Bush administration’s opposition to Russian military operations in the Pankisi Gorge, whose objective was to flush terrorists out of the haven and training ground they had established in this inaccessible corner of the Russian-Georgian frontier.
“That area is used by terrorists as a dangerous stamping ground,” Putin warned world leaders, including German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, when they visited him in recent months. “Ultimately, more terrorist attacks on the 9/11 model will be mounted from there and reach Moscow, London, Berlin and Tel Aviv.”
Putin was additionally disappointed by what he saw as Washington’s unwillingness to cooperate with Russia in developing Central Asia’s oil and gas fields and building a gas pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and from there to India.
His third grievance was the paucity of US financial assistance to Russia.
Upon learning of the Russian president’s catalogue of complaints, White House, Pentagon, national security council and CIA officials shook their heads and lamented Putin’s transformation from an active to a passive ally. “Vladimir Putin is sitting around waiting for us to do his job for him,” they commented. “It doesn’t work like that. We are prepared to help him in all his endeavors but we can’t do his work for him.”
White House-Kremlin dissonance hit its worst patch when Moscow joined the campaign by France and Germany to impede US military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Chirac as common adversary
The Putin-Bush telephone conversation of March 6 was an important step on the to path to fence-mending, taking off from the Russian president’s advocacy of a common front against the machinations of French President Chirac and an offer to resume a generous degree of diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Russian experts report the gist of Putin’s presentation of France’s strategic ambitions as follows:
Chirac is planning to exploit the American-Israeli military and political alliance to isolate them both in the Middle East and portray them in the Arab world as hostile co-conspirators. This stratagem will be a means to the end of restoring France to what its president regards as his country’s historic role in the region as the dominant world power.
According to Putin, Chirac’s ambitions transcend the Middle East. He expects to ride the tempest he raised over Iraq all the way to the top spot in Europe. From his conversations with the French president and input from the Russian security service FSB, the Russian president concluded that Chirac believes he has maneuvered German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder into an inferior position, where he must follow France’s Europe-popular lead whether he likes it or not.
Chirac, says Putin, has sized up Schroeder’s situation as follows:
The chancellor’s strongest rival, foreign minister Joschka Fischer, has been pushing him into France’s corner, but will at some point perform an about-face and seek Washington’s support for his own candidacy. Schroeder is onto Fischer’s duplicity but is helpless to fight back because the foreign minister holds compromising material on his private life, especially his extramarital affairs. With American unpopularity in Europe at a peak and Schroeder in the bag, Chirac feels free to further his grand scheme by polishing off Tony Blair.
At that point in the Putin-Bush conversation, the million dollar question came up, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources: What are Chirac’s sources for the high-grade insider information essential for the sort of high-stakes power game not seen since the Cold War? This question occupied the most compelling part of the long exchange between the two leaders.
Putin drew on his personal background in the KGB for an answer. He referred to a coalition of European and Middle Eastern intelligence bodies rampant in the second half of the 20th century and during the Cold War, and said he was convinced it had regrouped, adapted and was going strong again in the new millennium.
While serving many masters, this clandestine coalition had always been faithful to one goal, the undermining of America as the number one superpower by burrowing under its political, military and economic foundations. Since the demise of the Soviet Union and attendant crumbling of hierarchies, this group has undergone various metamorphoses and filled in ranks depleted by changes such as the retirement or reduced activity of former KGB and other components.
The anti-US group began its recovery after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney entered the White House and the 9/11 attacks focused the United States on a global war against terrorism. These events placed the enemy squarely back in its sights. By then, the undercover coalition was back in action. It had absorbed private security bodies and begun to serve not so much sovereign states as economic interests, mainly in Europe and the Middle East.
Viewing the burgeoning Islamic terror movement as the enemy’s enemy, the reconstituted intelligence group decided that America’s global war on terrorism was detrimental to its own interests.
That judgment applied doubly to the Bush decision to make war on Iraq, the most important, richest and strongest Arab country. The conquest of Baghdad, overthrow of Saddam Hussein and capture of one of the world’s most abundant oil reserves would shut down the covert organization’s most important arena for years to come. Bush and his military plans for Iraq must therefore be thwarted with every weapon in the versatile group’s arsenal.
Once again, Putin named names, revealing the identities of the group’s leading members, all of them former key players in national security agencies and diplomatic corps, business and international finance.
The Russian president named only one high-placed name in politics: the former UN secretary general and Egyptian foreign secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Outside the limelight, he is the third member of the Paris threesome dedicated to fighting American interests, alongside Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin. As the most creative strategic thinker of the three, Boutros-Ghali is in Putin’s view the brain behind Chirac’s anti-US campaign on Iraq.
Man with a past
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that the name Boutros-Ghali is very familiar in certain circles in Washington. They recall what happened when he applied for a second term as UN Secretary General in 1996 and why his bid was defeated.
President Bill Clinton, secretary of state Madeleine Albright, defense secretary William Cohen, national security adviser Anthony Lake, CIA Director John Deutsch and his deputy George Tenet got together secretly at the White House to confer on the second term. Albright was vigorously opposed to retaining the Egyptian diplomat at the head of the world body. Her judgment was borne out by intelligence data on his record. The evidence of his activities in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, in Bosnia and Serbia in 1995 and 1996 as well as his operations in and around UN headquarters in New York led them to the conclusion that he had been exploiting his office as UN secretary to harm America’s national and security interests.
The Mogadishu battle of October 1993 in which American forces were trapped, into what was later described as the “biggest firefight involving American combatants since Vietnam”, led American troops to their first face-to-face encounter with al Qaeda fighters in the ranks of the local rebel chief – and disaster. Intelligence information gathered later raised suspicions that elements in the UN secretary’s office in charge of the Somali operation may well have engineered the trap for the purpose of forcing the Americans into a humiliating retreat and loss of face.
The intelligence background of the civil war in Bosnia Herzegovina, in which Serbian and Croatian armies participated, bears remarkable parallels to the Mogadishu contretemps. There too, UN forces went in first, followed by American troops, who are still there.
Both times, a behind-the-scenes hand in the UN secretary’s office manipulated events in such a way as to mire American troops and policies in situations that would gravely damage America’s world standing.
Some intelligence reports raised troubling questions about the nature of the relationship between Boutros-Ghali’s office in New York and the UN force commander of Yugoslavia at the time, the French General Bernard Janvier, whom the CIA strongly suspected of maintaining clandestine ties with espionage bodies hostile to the United States.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that these past cases were aired in the March 6 telephone conversation between Presidents Bush and Putin as pertinent to the evaluations they traded on the current difficulties besetting the White House’s Iraq war policy.
Putin reminded the American president that, when they talked on September 13, they agreed they would not continue to resort to outside political military or intelligence bodies inimical to the United States, but trust only to the reciprocal ties between their own undercover resources. Russia, he promised, would share with Bush any intelligence input he needed on these matters. That decision was the right one, he said, but when the Afghanistan War came to an end, certain people in Washington went back to the old sources, the ones who had acted against American interests through the 1990s. He held up America’s misfortunes in the Security Council over Iraq as the outcome of these mistaken alliances.
Tony Blair at risk
When Bush asked what he thought would become of the British premier, Tony Blair, Putin replied, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, that as far as he knew the British intelligence services had abandoned him. This confirmed the US intelligence assessment that the British secret service had tipped off certain Labor, Conservative and Social Democrat MPs, that Blair was no longer their man. In the Russian leader’s view, if the British prime minister continues to sink at the present rate, he will not be around much longer.
The two presidents also conferred on the emissaries both have been sending to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to remove himself and avert the war.
The CIA has been using the former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel (See separate article in this issue), while the FSB had sent former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov (as revealed exclusively by debkafile on February 25).
They agreed that there was little to choose between their propositions to the Iraqi ruler. Both offered safe conduct for him, his family and top members of his regime, if he consented to go into exile. The only difference was that the Russian plan offered him internal exile – an old Stalinist custom for political dissidents – while the Americans demanded he shake Iraqi dust off his shoes for good.
Finally, Bush asked the Russian leader what help he could offer the Americans now fighting in Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow disclose the four points outlined by Putin:
1. Russia will refrain from exercising its veto against the US-British-Spanish proposed resolution in the Security Council.
2. Russia will place certain Russian special forces units on the ready at bases in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan for immediate departure for Iraq. They will include spetsnaz fighters, units who carried out training exercises in Iraq in recent years and are familiar with the terrain and tribal dialects, and also rapid deployment contingents of the 1st Rifles Division. They are to be contingency forces, to be dispatched in total secrecy only if Americans troops are surrounded and needed to be rescued from being wiped out. The Russian expeditionary force will be equipped and trained for combat in areas contaminated by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
3. If any further assistance is required, the two presidents will talk again over the direct line linking the White House and the presidential office in the Kremlin.
4. To make his own preparation for the emergency, Putin tightened his control over the Russian intelligence services. As a result of the telephone conversation between the two presidents, the information reached Washington that the Russian president was about to convert the FAPSI agency responsible for government communications and electronic surveillance, the counterpart of the American National Security Agency, from an autonomous body to a department in the Federal Security Service, the FSB, successor to the KGB.
Our sources in Moscow add that, when Bush asked him the reason for the reshuffle, Putin replied that he had discovered there were still agents in the FAPSI maintaining illicit ties with foreign clandestine bodies. He had put the whole agency under close scrutiny, he said half-jokingly, so as “to avoid the fate that had overtaken Tony Blair”.
In the same reorganization, the Russian president secured control over Russia’s border guards divisions, which he himself had headed in 1998, by transferring them from the Interior Ministry to the federal security service.
He also put the border guards on high alert following intelligence he had received that when the US attack on Iraq begins, al Qaeda units will try and cross into Russia for large-scale terrorist attacks, using Chechnya, the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia, and Afghanistan via Tajikistan as springboards. Bin Laden’s commanders would also try to head out of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Fernanga Valley and Kazakhstan to reach and activate sleeper terrorist cells planted in Russia.