A Frosty Friendship

Vladislav Achalov has only good things to say about Saddam Hussein. He is a "strong man," he says, "fighting for his country." A former deputy Defense minister in the U.S.S.R., Achalov met Saddam "several times" during his frequent visits to Baghdad, most recently last April at the Iraqi dictator's lavish birthday celebrations in Tikrit. Russian journalists have seized on the relationship to ask whether Achalov and other retired Russian generals provided military advice to Baghdad in the war. Achalov denies it--but admits that the Russian brass often went to Iraq. "We didn't spend all that time talking about women," he adds with a grin.

Moscow and Washington insist they're eager to bury the hatchet and revitalize the "strategic partnership" forged after September 11. But the job seems to be getting more difficult by the day. Shortly after the beginning of the war, the United States publicized Russian arms sales to the Iraqis--from GPS jammers designed to interfere with American precision-guided munitions to the Kornet missiles that destroyed several Coalition tanks on the battlefield. Next came revelations that Achalov and other Russian military veterans were hobnobbing with Iraqi war planners. Then U.S. forces apparently shot up a convoy of Russian diplomats leaving Baghdad, under mysterious circumstances.

Last week journalists searching through the rubble in Baghdad government offices produced a new crop of ticklish allegations. London's Sunday Telegraph newspaper obtained documents taken from the headquarters of the Iraqi secret police, the Mukhabarat, that seemed to indicate the Russian spy service, the SVR, had been sharing intelligence with its Iraqi counterparts--including a transcript of a closed-door war meeting between Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, as well as a list of assassins for hire in the West recommended by the Russians. Searching another building, reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle found official-looking certificates from a "Special Training Center" in Moscow attended by Iraqi agents for training in eavesdropping and surveillance, as recently as late last year.

So far, the reaction from both London and Washington has been muted. A spokesman at the British Embassy in Moscow downplayed the significance of the documents: "Our priority at the moment is to deal with the issues on the ground at Iraq." The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, told Russian reporters that Washington was already aware of some "legitimate" intelligence contacts between the Iraqis and the Russians. The extent to which the Russian government is directly involved may also be hard to determine, since its military and intelligence services are well known for freelancing in order to bolster their meager incomes.

Whatever the reasons, the relative lack of official reaction has been striking. Anatol Lieven, a Russia analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, argues that the United States is worried about driving President Vladimir Putin further into the arms of the French and the Germans, bolstering their anti-American alliance within the United Nations. Sarah Mendelson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes the administration is reluctant to vent its growing anger with Moscow, largely for fear of suggesting that George W. Bush and his national-security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, were wrong about Putin and Russia's good intentions.

Clearly, Washington wants Russia's help--as an ally in the war on terrorism, as a new source of cheap oil and as a counterweight to Europe. Russia has also served as a go-between in the North Korean nuclear crisis, and Washington may hope to exploit Russia's privileged relationship with Iran to pressure Tehran into giving up its ambitions to build an atomic bomb.

Still, some experts say that the damage to the U.S.-Russian relationship could be hard to overcome. "Our political elite clearly detests America," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst in Moscow. Moscow has condemned the United States for its recent criticisms of Syria. And after some initial fudging, Putin has rejected Bush administration calls for a write-off of Iraq's national debt, including some $8 billion owed to Moscow. At the United Nations, Russia and its European allies are blocking U.S. demands to lift sanctions so that Iraqi oil can be put to use for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Washington and Moscow may yet succeed in making common cause again--but it's going to be an uphill climb.