Russia's Spying for Saddam Demands Careful U.S. Response

The Pentagon reported on March 25 that Russia had given Saddam Hussein intelligence about U.S. military plans for the invasion of Iraq back in the spring of 2003.

Recently declassified documents suggest that Russia’s ambassador to Iraq at that time, Vladimir Titorenko, provided Hussein with information on the timing of the U.S. attack on Baghdad, U.S. troops, and invasion tactics. Fortunately, some of the information was inaccurate, which ultimately aided U.S. forces. Regardless, this incident demonstrates the need for a critical reassessment of U.S. cooperation with Russia.

Russian intelligence-sharing with Saddam likely benefited the U.S. military. However, it was a hostile action by Moscow during wartime, directed against U.S. forces and aimed at injuring the allied operation against Iraq. It was very much a Cold War-style operation, evidence of a deep-seated animosity among the Russian leadership against the U.S.

Moscow’s hostile actions in Iraq were not limited to intelligence-sharing. Retired Russian generals, including a former commander of the Soviet air defenses (Igor Maltsev) and a former commander of Soviet paratroops and special forces (Vladislav Achalov), advised Saddam on preparations for war with America. They focused, among other things, on the USSR’s World War II "partisan" movement. The USSR successfully deployed this guerilla movement in territories occupied by the Wehrmacht, and it was highly effective at disrupting supply operations, cutting communication lines, and gathering intelligence. Additionally, Saddam, a life-long admirer of the Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Gi??┬íp, the architect of Vietnam’s military strategy, integrated guerilla tactics into post-war resistance planning.

Former Pentagon officials also suggested that the Russians may have supervised a cover-up of the Iraqi WMD development program. According to these allegations, Russian special forces (Spetsnaz) secreted away and hid components of the Iraqi WMD program in Syria, Lebanon, and possibly Iran, with additional materials dumped in the Indian Ocean. These claims are based on classified information and have yet to be further substantiated. Accusations of Russian intelligence-sharing with Saddam, on the other hand, have been deemed credible enough to warrant raising the issue with Moscow.

The Question of Timing

Why release these allegations now? In terms of timing, there is a massive effort underway to translate and publicize thousands of pages of captured Iraqi documents. The U.S. Director of Intelligence, Ambassador John Negroponte, reportedly opposed declassifying this treasure trove but gave in to pressure from Congress. The materials that implicate Russia are not a "special operation" aimed at discrediting Russia; they are part of this goldmine of information, some of which may prove politically unpalatable to those who aided the Saddam regime.

Growing Anti-Americanism

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov and Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) have publicly denied sharing intelligence with Saddam. Оn the record, Russian diplomats call the allegations "nonsense" and have demanded to "view evidence," but informally, they have suggested that things of this nature must be discussed quietly — not in public. Their reaction does not amount to full denial — after all, Iraq was a Soviet client state and Russia held multi-billion-dollar debt and economic interests in Iraq, including contracts to develop the giant West Qurna oil field and other economic projects.

Genuine surprise at the spying scandals indicates a failure to recognize that many in the Russian leadership, particularly President Vladimir Putin and Ivanov, are career intelligence officers from a system that was defined by anti-Americanism. They will not repudiate that value or the tools of their trade. As well, expecting of them selfless loyalty to the U.S. as an ally is unrealistic.

Today, the U.S. views with suspicion the Kremlin’s weapons sales and robust diplomatic and nuclear technology assistance to Iran, growing economic ties with the regime of the ayatollahs, embrace of Hamas, and blatant attempts to return to the Soviet policy of competing with the U.S. in the Middle East — especially in the military and intelligence arenas. However, a spectrum of interests requires maintaining a careful balance in relations with Moscow: Iran, non-proliferation, joint energy projects, and Russian policy in the former Soviet Union, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It will not serve the U.S.’s broader interests to lose sight of this bigger picture, nor will airing dirty laundry in the international media help to normalize the U.S.-Russian relationship.


In view of the dramatic rise in U.S.-Russian tensions in recent months, the Bush Administration should:

  • Undertake a critical reassessment of U.S. cooperation with Russia, particularly in such sensitive areas as intelligence-sharing. However, аs Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested, this matter should be addressed in private before being made public.
  • Ascertain whether President Putin or another senior Russian leader authorized intelligence-sharing with Saddam or whether Russia’s intelligence services acted on their own. It is vital that U.S. determine whether or not President Putin knew and, if so, when. If American has incontrovertible proof that it cannot rely on Russia to hold sensitive intelligence or that Russia is spying for America’s enemies, intelligence cooperation will need to be curbed.

While not an international crisis, these recent disclosures should be a wake-up call to U.S. leaders to rethink how they work with Russia.