PRAGUE, June 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Federal Security Service (FSB) is determined to fulfill the president's order and kill those who perpetrated the executions.
The embassy workers were taken hostage during an attack in Baghdad on June 3in which a fifth embassy employee was killed. Despite efforts by Russia and family members to secure their release, news of their deaths emerged with the release on June 25 of video footage claiming their deaths.
A group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, the Mujahedin Shura Council, took responsibility for the executions, saying they came in response to Russia's treatment of Muslims.
FSB head Nikolai Patrushev has promised to see that Putin's request is granted, "however much time and effort it requires."
However, there are doubts about the Russian intelligence community's ability to successfully conduct such a complicated operation.
Russian military expert Aleksandr Goltz notes that Russia failed in its efforts to save the men, one of whom was the embassy's third secretary, while they were in the hands of their captors. The difficulty of hunting down and killing those responsible for their death would pose a tremendous challenge, Goltz says.
"Let's be objective. It seems that no secret service, not even the American [CIA], has performed similar kind of operations -- and [Osama] bin Laden is still alive," Goltz said. "It is a very complicated operation. In a way, Russian authorities behaved carelessly [in promising to hunt the men down.] A leader should promise what he is able to deliver. There is no doubt that Russian special services are not able to handle this task."
History Of Success
The Soviet Union's secret services had a storied history of carrying out high-profile assassinations. Soviet secret police killed one of the leaders of Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City in 1940. In 1959, Stepan Bandera, the most prominent leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, was poisoned at the behest of the KGB.
The notorious KGB also assisted agents of the Bulgarian secret police in killing Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in September 1978. And its successor, Russia's Federal Security Service, has inherited the legacy of the KGB.
Most recently, Russian intelligence agents have been tied to the killing of former Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Qatar in February 2004. And three other Chechen separatist presidents -- Djokhar Dudayev, Aslan Maskhadov, and Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev -- were also killed with the help of Russian secret services.
However, Goltz doubts whether even at its high point the KGB could have carried out an operation such as the one proposed in present-day Iraq.
"The talk about the omnipotence of the Soviet KGB and special services on the whole, is from a field of science fiction," Goltz said. "Even the KGB was not always effective. There were [successful] operations aimed at destroying enemies of the Soviet state, for instance Ukrainian nationalists, who lived in the Western Europe. But Western Europe is something completely different than a country that is in the state of civil war."
James Nixey, who runs the Russia and Eurasia program at the Chatham House independent research center in London, says Russia's intelligence capabilities are not as extensive in the Middle East as they once were.
Nixey also says that Russia's influence in the region is decreasing and that it has fewer "friends" there than the Soviet Union could claim.
"Russia is being forced to choose, for example, between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue, in a situation in which Russian companies are losing out to a certain extent to Western companies in the Middle East," Nixey said. "Then we see that the overall picture is not particularly favorable for the Russians right now. It is not an empty threat because it is not impossible -- and obviously Russian secret services are very highly trained -- but it does seem to me there's a lot of grandstanding nonetheless."
In any circumstances the task of hunting down hostage takers would be difficult, but the enormity of the task in Iraq is especially great.
The slain Russian diplomats are among more than 200 foreigners and thousands of Iraqis who have been kidnapped since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Fifty-nine foreign hostages have been reported executed by their captors -- 41 in 2004, 13 in 2005, and five in 2006.
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