"Kommersant-Daily" and "Vremya novostei" on 21 June both speculated that this low-level support failed to produce a sufficient resonance in the West. Therefore, the newspapers wrote, the Kremlin staged a scene at a press conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, arranging to have a reporter ask Putin a completely off-the-wall question about the U.S. commission's report. This gave Putin the opportunity to repeat -- almost word for word -- the statement from the anonymous intelligence source that Interfax had reported the previous day.
"Yes, after the events of 11 September 2001 and before the beginning of the military operation in Iraq, the Russian special services repeatedly received information that official organs of the Hussein regime were preparing terrorist attacks on the territory of the United States and on military and civilian targets outside its borders," Putin said. "This information really was transmitted through cooperative channels to our American colleagues."
Although Putin was quick to add that Russia's position opposing the military operation in Iraq had not changed, his remarks clearly marked a shift toward the Bush administration's positions. "Does this mean that there is reason to argue that the United States acted in self-defense?" Putin said. "I don't know. That is a separate topic."
Journalists and analysts quickly began describing Putin's statement as open support for Bush. Moscow "is looking pragmatically at the future -- at the presidential elections in the United States. It seems that the Kremlin has made up its mind and is backing Bush," "Vremya novostei" wrote. A sampling of leading Russian analysts published by politcom.ru on 15 June found both that most of them felt that Bush will win the 4 November election and that Iraq will be the most important issue.
But there was considerable skepticism about the veracity of Putin's declaration. The press argued that if the U.S. administration had had such information in the run-up to the military operation, it would have used it to convince the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution authorizing the action. Media reports noted that neither Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney mentioned the Russian reports during their testimony before the 11 September commission. Analyst Boris Vinogradov, writing in "Novye izvestiya" on 21 June, noted that Putin's statement put German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac -- both of whom have heretofore enjoyed close personal relations with Putin -- in an "idiotic position," because Putin implied that Russia did not share this intelligence with its "allies" in the antiwar coalition.
These doubts and others reinforced the impression that the statement was clearly intended as political support for Bush. And although there was no shortage of theories about what might be motivating Putin to make such a transparent gesture now, none of them seemed entirely convincing.
"Kommersant-Daily" on 21 June noted that the Kremlin traditionally "finds it much more convenient" to deal with Republican U.S. administrations than Democratic ones, which "tend to harp too much on human rights." Bush, it noted, did not listen to a group of U.S. congressmen who recently called on the administration to exclude Russia from the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized countries. One of the analysts surveyed earlier by politcom.ru, Strategic Studies Center Director Andrei Piontokovskii, noted in his assessment of the U.S. election that Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry has been rumored to be considering asking Republican Senator John McCain to be his vice presidential candidate and that McCain was one of the sponsors of the movement to exclude Russia from the G-8.
Putin's comments about Hussein lent added significance to his many statements in support of Bush at the G-8 summit in the United States earlier this month. At that time, Putin congratulated Bush for the turnaround of the U.S. economy and said that the Democrats "don't have the moral right to attack George Bush for Iraq since they themselves did the same thing [in Yugoslavia]."
"Kommersant-Daily" also attached significance to the fact that Putin made his statement while meeting with Central Asian leaders. Part of Putin's message, the daily commented, was to demonstrate that Russia is an equal partner with the United States in the struggle against international terrorism and "to show who is the most important in the CIS."
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 June speculated that Putin might be giving Bush a hand regarding "Saddam's terror" in order "to get Washington's support against 'Chechen terror.'" It added as well that Putin's support might enable him to bargain for "a special role" in post-Hussein Iraq. The daily connected Putin's statement and his purported desire for Western understanding regarding Chechnya with a 20 June report in the Italian daily "La Repubblica" that some 300 Chechen fighters have appeared in Iraq to support Iraqi insurgents.
Finally, Kremlin-connected political consultant Stanislav Belkovskii told APN the day of Putin's Astana comments that Kremlin wants the United States to pressure Qatar to release the two Russian secret-service agents currently on trial there for the February assassination of former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. "It is possible that Vladimir Putin's support of U.S. President George Bush was a condition for the Americans help in return in solving the 'Qatar problem,'" Belkovskii said.
Although analysts were at a loss to come up with a definitive explanation of Putin's comments, they were unanimous in viewing it as an extraordinary and potentially momentous step, possibly as important as Putin's fabled telephone call to Bush immediately following the 11 September 2001 attacks. In the months after those attacks, Bush repeatedly reminded the world that Putin was the first global leader to express his solidarity with the United States, and those months marked the high point of U.S.-Russian relations since Bush became president.