Special Report

Saving Saddam

Russian experts tried to bail out the Baathist -- what did Vladimir Putin know, when did he know it, and what did we know?

By 3.9.04

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Just as some of us were getting ready to write off Vladimir Putin's Russia, with its stranglehold over the economy, as a foe of the free enterprise, along comes a story about Russian initiative and innovation.

From an article in last Friday's New York Times, we learn that a group of Russian engineers working for a private company secretly provided Saddam Hussein with what the dictator deemed a very useful service. That service? Technical assistance for the development of a long-range ballistic missile program.

Such a program, notes the Times, a conscientious recorder of these details when it chooses to be, would have been a glaring violation of United Nations' sanctions, particularly the ones prohibiting Iraq from keeping ordnance that, like the ballistic missiles, could travel distances over 90 miles.

Granted, next to the stockpiles of anthrax, ricin, and other bloodcurdling chemical and biological agents Saddam never accounted for, a few ballistic missiles seem like bottle rockets -- until we remember that a sadist with delusions of pan-Arab grandeur had his finger on the trigger.

The Times' report is, unwittingly, yet another devastating rebuke of those critics (the editorial board of a certain influential newspaper comes to mind) who insist the United States was not sufficiently solicitous of its allies in the run-up to the war in Iraq. It is also manifestly big news. Which is why it's so strange that it's commanded so little coverage.

ONE REASON MAY BE that those Russian experts were working for a private company. Had they been tinkering with Saddam's missiles on Mr. Putin's orders, then, presumably, more would be made of the story. But, given that so little has been made of it, the temptation is merely to point out the fatuousness of the critics who scream "unilateralism," scold the naughty Russian experts for their freelance efforts to make the Butcher of Baghdad go ballistic, and forget the whole thing ever happened. This temptation, in my view, ought strongly to be resisted.

Here is what is especially interesting about the story. The private company those Russian experts worked for, an aerospace design center, was tightly monitored by the state. Bearing in mind that little in modern-day Russia happens without a nod from Putin and his brass menagerie of ex-military personnel and KGB alumni, the so-called siloviki, it requires more self-delusion than I can muster to believe that Russian authorities were entirely in the dark about the experts' dealings with Saddam. It also raises an obvious question: Was the Kremlin complicit in the missile technicians' bail-out-the-Baathist program?

It's a tough one to answer. One reason is that the Bush administration, seemingly reluctant to challenge Putin, has not made public intelligence reports detailing the link between Saddam and Russian experts. Add to this the denial of any such link by a spokesman at the Russian embassy, and one is left in the rather awkward position of making serious charges on the basis of still-unseen evidence. At least, that would be the case -- if the Times' report wasn't only the latest revelation to throw light of the dark nexus between Saddam's Baathist thugocracy and Putin's authoritarian brain trust.

We now know that Russia and the former Soviet Union were, since the 70s, Iraq's chief arms suppliers. Less remarked on is the fact that in the final years of Saddam's grizzly mandate, the Russian bear not only held fast to its privileged status as Saddam's friendly weapons dealer, and largest creditor, but did all it could to retain its client -- who was, incidentally, in hock to Russia for nearly $8 billion.

And that is not all. Only last month, the British Telegraph dug up some damning documents from the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service. According the paper's correspondent, they showed that in the months before the war, Russia furnished Saddam with intelligence information, including reports on private conversations between Tony Blair and other Western leaders. Other curious data included a list of assassins available for "hits" in the West; details of arms deals in the Middle East; and a signed agreement to share intelligence. All this from Russia, with love.

NEED MORE CONVINCING? Consider another list, published in January by Iraq's Al-Mada daily, which names 270 former cabinet officials, legislators, political activists and journalists from more than 46 countries who allegedly received bribes, in the form of oil vouchers, from Saddam. Topping the list were -- surprise, surprise -- nearly 50 Russian groups. Vladimir Putin's Peace and Unity Party pocketed vouchers for 34 million barrels of oil. Russian oil companies, long operating in Iraq, fueled up on bribes. Even the Russian Orthodox Church had its collection plate filled with Saddam's boodle. "Saddam's regime used to win over favors by offering oil bribes," announced Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. How right he was. Even as Baathist Baghdad buckled in defeat, it seems Russia was being won over.

All this treachery comes into sharper focus when you remember that Russia, via its unseemly alliance with France, did all it could to prolong Saddam's reign of terror. Saddam's deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, confessed back in November that French and Russian officials repeatedly assured Saddam they would block an invasion. Their preferred venue of obstruction, of course, was the UN Security Council; and their behavior there, now ugly history, is replete with dilatory vetoes stalling tactics. In fact, according to Aziz, Saddam was so sure his Franco-Russian lobby would weaken US resolve in a barrage bureaucratic wrangling, and then broker a cease-fire, that he didn't even bother to order a response to the first reports that US troops in Kuwait had crossed the Iraqi border.

Despite its full-throated opposition to Saddam's ouster and the increasingly dictatorial bent of its government, reasonable people can question whether Putin's Russia would have been so reckless as to actually assist Saddam. Let's remember, though, that in the past Russia has had truck with many a tyrant. In the 1980s, Russia was the original supplier for Muammar Qaddafi's 10-megawatt nuclear reactor and near Tripoli. In the '90s, as today, Russia ferried long-range missiles and missile manufacturing technology to Iran's mullahs. As the Wall Street Journal quipped in 1997, "Russia's customer list looks like a Who's Who of international terrorism."

Now, evidence is mounting that Putin, so eager to turn the clock back to Soviet era, sought to stop time for Saddam. And while the jury is still out on the exact nature of Russia's affair with Saddam, one thing is certain: those who persist in calling Russia an ally now bear the burden of proof.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.