Russia had close contacts with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and never made a secret of it. However, Moscow always insisted it never violated the United Nations sanctions against Baghdad imposed after the 1991 Gulf War. That assertion was disputed by some. Classified documents in Iraqi archives may help answer the question.
Prague, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the war in Iraq appears to be drawing to a close, news reports are now speculating on what documents U.S. and coalition forces will find in Iraq's government archives.
Some reports say Russia, more than most, may have something to worry about. Russia had close contacts with the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein and never made a secret of it. Some have even suspected the Russians of concluding deals that violated UN sanctions against the country imposed after the 1991 Gulf War.
It's not clear what the archives will reveal -- if anything at all. It's still too soon to say. But the issue has sparked some heated debate among analysts.
Dimitrij Orlov is deputy general director of the Moscow-based Center of Political Technologies. He acknowledges that Russia -- and before that the Soviet Union - had cultivated close ties to Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.
He says, however, that Russia abided to the strict UN framework and there is little possibility that compromising documents will be found.
"Of course, the USSR was interested in creating outposts of its influence in the Middle East. It cooperated very actively with special services of the Iraqi regime, the regime of Saddam Hussein. Let's say, it is not a secret that Evgenij Primakov (former high-ranking KGB officer, Russian prime minister in 1998) was very actively involved in these activities. However, there is nothing unique. The battle of different interests was underway there and this battle is still underway now," Orlov says.
He says, instead, that other governments may have cause for concern, including the United States. He says Iraq and its ruling Ba'ath Party had cultivated close ties with officials around the world.
"I am convinced that there are many documents that are still secret [in Iraqi archives] -- details of cooperation between many other countries and Iraq, and the links that [Saddam's] Baath party had in the world -- all this is very interesting for Russian special services and for special services of many other countries. I think that now there goes a very tense fight for the access to these archives," Orlov says.
Well-known Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer disagrees. He says Russia's opposition to the war in Iraq may have been fueled not only by political considerations but also by fears that the real extent of Russian cooperation with Hussein's regime would be disclosed.
He tells RFE/RL that a source in the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, whom he declines to identify, says the Russian military actively and illegally cooperated with the Hussein regime.
And, he says, this type of cooperation will be impossible to hide: "It is impossible to destroy all evidence in any country, especially in such a bureaucratic country, as was Iraq ruled by the Baath party, when the archives were not in one location. I mean, there are many state agencies there [in Iraq] and a deal is usually reflected in many archives. This happened after the fall of Communist regimes in Russia in the Eastern Germany, where the attempts to destroy the archives led nowhere. Always, a track is left. Some copy was sent to some place, in some other place there are checks. Some [documents] are in the archives in the Ministry of Finance, others are in Party archives, some are in the archives of intelligence services archives, some are in are military [archives]. You cannot destroy everything."
Anecdotal evidence of such military cooperation is already starting to emerge from Iraq. Our correspondent reported this week that U.S. soldiers found a letter in Baghdad from a Russian weapons firm, apparently signed by Russian Colonel General Vladislav Achalov, offering to sell millions of dollars' worth of conventional arms.
The letter, dated July 2001 and written in English, is signed by Achalov, who identifies himself as a representative of a Moscow-based company, FTW Systems Ltd. The authenticity of the letter could not be immediately confirmed.
Bobo Lo, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International affairs in London, tells RFE/RL that he cannot believe these types of allegations: "To break these rules and conventions and sanctions regime would be not [only] anti-Western, but it would be to flout the authority of the UN and that's something [Russia has] prided itself in not doing -- in contrast for example to the United States. It has always seen itself as a good international citizen that observes the rules of the UN. And I don't think it would do that. I mean it's possible that you could have rogue elements, you could never rule out anything out, but I would be very, very surprised if the Russian government even on quasi official basis involved in braking UN sanctions regime."
Lo says it is possible that Russian military technology could have reached the Iraq indirectly through such countries as Ukraine and Belarus. However, he says these types of deals would be verbal, with nothing written down.