It was the sort of scene rarely seen at international occasions after the nineteen seventies when Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov presided over the dying days of the Soviet empire. Tuesday, April 29, Russian president Vladimir Putin, in front of a roomful American British and Russian correspondents, delivered a stinging verbal slap in the face to visiting British premier Tony Blair for declaring that the US and Britain and had won the Iraq War.
Addressing the media at the end of their talks, Putin mocked the allies’ failure to turn up Saddam’s forbidden weapons. “Two weeks later they still have not been found,” he said sarcastically. The Russian leader went on to ask the shaken British prime minister: “Where is Saddam Hussein? Is he in a bunker sitting on cases containing weapons of mass destruction, preparing to blow the whole place up?” He went on: “We don’t know what the situation is. We want to be sure that there is no ambiguity and that the threat has been eliminated. Perhaps their plan is to transfer these weapons to terrorist organizations. We simply do not know. Until we get answers to these questions we cannot feel safe and secure.”
The Russian leader’s blast left Blair stunned. Not only had his hand stretched out to heal the rift between the coalition front and its antagonist been roughly thrust aside, but it had been done
publicly and without the slightest attempt at diplomatic nicety.
A brush-off followed the diatribe in response to the prime minister’s appeal for a strategic partnership between the US, the EU and Russia. Putin snapped that a world order in which countries always had to follow the United States was unacceptable.
Blair when he arrived on April 29 for his lightning visit of appeasement found the Russian president already hopping mad under the influence of three major irritants:
A. A few hours earlier, the Russian leader had been informed by his intelligence that Blair’s mission as peacemaker between the two big powers was self-appointed, taking place without Washington taking a stand either for or against it. If the Americans had anything to say to him on the topics at issue, Putin had remarked sourly to his confidants, they knew his address; relations between the US and Russian presidents had never been routed through London.
B. Putin had been briefed by his intelligence that British foreign secretary Jack Straw is seeking an independent British stance in the Arab-Muslim world in the post-war period, separate from that of Washington. Putin told his advisers he sees no reason why Moscow should help the British go their own way. “First, they plucked the fruits of the war, now they’re after pickings in the anti-war camp. That is not to our interest.”
C. Putin raged over British press reports revealing the collaboration between the Russian SVR intelligence agency and Iraqi intelligence. Our Moscow sources say he was particularly incensed by the account in the Daily Telegraph, known for its good relations with the Department of Defense in London and British intelligence.
On April 13, the Telegraph ran an expose under the caption: “Revealed: Russia spied on Blair for Saddam.” It cited secret documents obtained in Baghdad alleging that “Russia provided Saddam Hussein’s regime with wide-ranging assistance in the months leading up to the war, including intelligence on private conversations between Tony Blair and other Western leaders.” The paper went on to claim: “Moscow also provided Saddam with lists of assassins available for ‘hits’ in the West and details of arms deals to neighboring countries.”
Putin viewed this publication as crossing accepted red lines in relations between governments. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources, he ordered an urgent investigation of the highest levels of Russian intelligence to locate the desk or field operative who passed these lists to the Iraqis or even directly to Saddam Hussein or his sons. The probe came up with the terse conclusion that no one serving in Russian intelligence was responsible for the handover. There was a suggestion that Iraqi intelligence may have hired retired Russian secret agents working privately aboard, some in the service of Russian mafia organizations, who could have covered their tracks by fabricating leads to official undercover agencies.
This was the second time that the Russian president berated Blair over the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Last October, he dismissed as “propaganda” the famous Iraqi WMD dossier the British prime minister presented to parliament during a visit to the presidential dacha outside Moscow. He harked back to the sensitive issue again this week – and not only to embarrass Blair; on the advice of his intelligence advisers, Putin will do his utmost to undercut the commanding lead in the Middle East and Gulf regions acquired by America in consequence of its campaign in Iraq for as long as Moscow is denied a share of its political, economic and financial gains. Until the Americans meet him half way, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources predict he will exacerbate the tension with the Bush administration and keep up the invective.
He has deliberately chosen to harp on the sensitive issue of Saddam’s missing arsenal of forbidden weapons for two reasons:
1. It is the most conspicuous and vulnerable chink in America’s moral armor. All the US administration’s top men, including the president and the defense secretary, have admitted that no banned arms have been discovered and locating them will be a long business. Putin is marshalling this admission to support his long-held claim that the failure to find any WMD means that none existed. America’s war on Iraq was therefore unwarranted.
2. The Russian ruler is informed by his own intelligence services that the Bush team has a very good idea of where Saddam’s bio, chemical and nuclear devices are located and are keeping the information under their hats for use in the next US military and diplomatic moves in the Middle East. Putin is constantly prodding world public opinion on this point, hoping to goad Bush into either bringing them into public view and so forfeiting a high card in the Middle East stakes, or transacting with Moscow for a deal in return for Russian collusion in keeping the secret.
Putin’s collusion would not come cheap; he wants Russian oil companies to be cut into projects for the repair, reconstruction and development of Iraqi oil installations. This demand he laid before Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice when she visited the Kremlin on April 6.