Russians Use Blog To Aid Iraq
U.S. and British military won't have the Russian secret services to
contend with in Iraq anymore, at least not on the Net. Early last week,
the Russian military analysis Web site, Iraqwar.ru,
discontinued its daily "Russian military intel update."
The three-week-old, daily feature - was it real-world intelligence
useful to the Iraqis or merely the product of a fertile imagination? -
claimed to be based on leaks from senior Russian intelligence officials.
It offered detailed predictions about coalition troop movements many
hours or even days in advance. It also quoted "intercepted"
U.S. radio traffic, toted casualties on both sides and - with what
perhaps its raison detre, the rest conceivably nothing but necessary
ballast - provided strategic advice to the Iraqi military. It was a
combustionable mix that was enjoying steadily increasing traffic,
applause, and scorn.
In the first two weeks of the war, as stalled coalition generals
pondered different routes of attack, and the Iraqi military retained
functioning command and control apparatus, a close reading yields some
stark go-here, do-this advice.The three lead items in the April 7
update, the day before the feature was killed, offered particularly
unabashed intelligence, including projections about American moves later
that day in Baghdad.
Carrying the title: "Aggression against Iraq," the site
appeared amidst Russian government hostility to the war and Russian
military sympathy for the Iraqis who used some $8 billion worth of
Russian arms. Knight Ridder Newspapers military correspondent Joseph L.
Galloway mentioned Iraqwar.ru in an article
April 3rd that quoted two senior American officials anonymously. The
first said Iraqwar.ru featured "genuine Russian intelligence
reports, some of them based on intercepts of U.S. communications. .
." And the second "speculated that the Web site might be a
clever attempt to pass useful information to the Iraqis by posting it
publicly on the Internet."
By phone, Galloway added, "The Russians are always very careful
about letting that stuff out unless there is a specific purpose…. It
was not just to make the U.S. look bad. It was for someone's benefit,
and it sure wasn't our's."
The Main Intelligence Directorate (known by its Russian acronym, GRU) is
the huge Russian intelligence service that is said to dwarf the now
defunct K.G.B. Matthew Baker, chief analyst for the Austin-based,
commercial intelligence firm, Stratfor.com,
said his contacts in Moscow believe Iraqwar.ru received input from
probably three retired "ex-GRU-types" who retain contacts
within the agency. He added, "The language, phrasing and sentence
structure indicate it's GRU material written by ex-GRU people."
As war began, the site claimed to be generated by "a group of
journalists and military experts" with access to "Russian
military intelligence reports." It was first available in English
in a next-day translation at a site called Venik's
Aviation, a much-criticized, Russian nationalist, anti-American site
that had previously raised some American readers' ire with its criticism
of the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia.
As it evolved, Iraqwar.ru itself appeared in both Russian and English,
and the group supplying the daily reports adopted the nome de plume,
Ramzaj. That's the alias of Richard Sorge, the foremost hero of Russian
espionage who futilely warned Stalin months beforehand of the coming
War bloggers off all stripes were certainly aware of it, and Ramzaj's
daily reports were cut and pasted by a curious mix of anti-war lefty
sites such as Information
During the height of the war even Caribbean
Cricket.com was running the material.
And then on Tuesday, April 8, (the ever-popular, amorphous) 'they'
pulled the plug on Ramzaj, the site's only unique feature. Iraqwar.ru
coordinator Victor Denisov said by phone it "was under heavy
pressure.… pressure from everywhere, from Russian politicians, from
foreign politicians." Denisov said "a high-level source"
told him that sensitive information being promulgated in the Russian
media, Iraqwar.ru included, was one issue - not the main, certainly -
but one item on the agenda during Bush national security advisor
Condoleezza Rice's meeting the day before at the Kremlin with Russian
President Vladimir V. Putin.
Along with Galloway's article, Ramzaj's eventual retirement may have
been spurred by two articles by UPI's senior news analyst, Martin Sieff.
31 he praised Iraqwar's analysis as "shrewd and of a high - and
thought-provoking order." The following day, Sieff quoted the
site's dissection of several likely battle scenarios. His column was
syndicated by the right-wing site, Newsmax.com, under the headline,
"Russia Informs Iraq on Coalition's Military Plans."
Sieff said, "It appeared to be the case that there was a GRU
connection. It checks out - mostly. The site appears legitimate."
He said his contacts in the "professional Russian-watching
community in Washington" were well aware of the site and
"agreed that it appears to be GRU or elements of the GRU."
It's quite a notion: Russian spooks blogging concrete advice to Iraq.
It's a notion that Strafor's Matthew Baker termed "nonsense."
He said, "A website is not the way to get information to the
Iraqis; a phone or radio is better."
Baker sees it, rather, as an expression of an internecine struggle among
various Russian military and espionage interests wrestling over whether
to align more closely with the U.S. or seek a counterweight axis with
Germany and France. He said, "They're not putting it up for
amusement or profit, but for reasons to do with Russian politics."
He added, "It's an agit-prop campaign by those who argue that
sticking close to the U.S. is wrong."
Denisov, who is also CEO of the site's server, Moscow-based JERA
Systems, scoffed at the notion that his project is an attempt to aid
the Iraqis. He said, "There are other means to transfer information
with less attention, faster and more clandestine." He added, given
the editing process, "It would be much quicker to send encrypted
e-mail. So it's kind of unbelievable that it's a conspiracy theory -
it's not realistic."
His statement doesn't address the fact that some "intel
updates" predicted troop movements a day or more in advance.
And, speaking days before the hammer fell, Denisov said, "We just
look for content from [Ramzaj] and publish it immediately." In
fact, "I have no personal knowledge of where it comes from - that's
the beauty of an open-source project." Speaking generally about the
site's contributors, including "ex-special forces people," he
said, "The less you know, the better you sleep."
Asked whether recent coalition military success might have led to
increased pressure from the Russian government, Denisov said,
"That's quite possible, to want to align with the strongest force.
I believe Russia is bargaining for a part in the rebuilding of
Until recently, however, Denisov said he received "numerous private
messages" from various Russian officials who were, "cautiously
optimistic about saying we should continue the [Ramzaj] reports."
He had every reason to be optimistic himself, claiming 102,000 unique
visitors and 1.4 million page hits on April 7, up from March 31's 47,000
unique visitors and 576,000 page hits.
In his somewhat fractured English, Ramzaj threw in the towel on April 8,
acknowledging on the site that, "our actions met increasing
opposition from the official quart[er]s and in fact are turning into
confrontation the outcome of which is not difficult to forecast."
The lead three items in Monday morning's update, his last report, give
ample reason, from a U.S. view, why Ramzaj should have hung up his
keyboard. He led with a report on marines advancing through a particular
Baghdad intersection and the statement that, "Currently up to one
battalion have got over the bridges opposite to the Ministry of
Information and TV Center and are now assaulting those
buildings." [Emphasis added]
The second paragraph referred to "up to two companies of
Americans fortified in [a particular] palace." Referring to
specific U.S. army battalions, the third paragraph offered the
prediction, "As early as by 5 pm they can reach the Abbasid Palace
and split Baghdad along the Tigris. The right-bank part of the city is
also under threat of a split along the Mansure roadway line."
Having made his point, having not 'buried his lead' in the journalistic
sense, the rest of Ramzaj's update that Monday was fairly pedestrian
Consider some more putative intelligence. Peering usefully over a
48-hour horizon, the March 27 report stated that the U.S. will attempt
"to actively contain the Iraqi forces around Karablea and to reach
the strategic Al-Falludja highway by moving from the west around the
Razzaza lake… by noon of March 29." It also predicted an attack
two days hence on the Saddam Hussein Airport.
Often the intel was right up front. The March 28 report began:
"According to the latest intercepted radio communications, the
command of the coalition's group of forces near Karabela requested at
least 12 more hours to get ready to storm the town." When combined
with predictive intelligence, the mention of intercepted radio traffic
often seemed like a code of sorts that perhaps the Iraqis should pay
One perhaps crucial bit of information that could be applied for the
balance of the war concerned precise range estimates for the
effectiveness of armored vehicles' "turret-mounted thermal
sights." Various distances were indicated for the sophisticated gun
sights' mobile use in a convey, for their use at rest and for use
"during cold nights."
Baker spoke of elements in the Russian military using the site to seek
influence among themselves. One example may have been the March 28
posting on three "strategic lessons" for any possible Russian-U.S.
war. Among them was the assertion that, "Elimination of the air
defenses as a separate service branch of the Russian Armed Forces and
its gradual dissipation in the Air Force can be called nothing else but
One element of seeming disinformation was the inflated casualty reports
that left pro-U.S. readers scoffing in the site's forum. For instance,
on March 23, it stated: "More accurate information became available
regarding the losses sustained by both sides during the first three days
of the war. The coalition has officially acknowledged the deaths of some
25 servicemen. However, intercepted radio communications show that the
actual number of coalition casualties is at least 55-70 troops killed
and no less than 200 wounded."
A quote published on March 25, was designed as filler perhaps or to
amuse the groundlings. Translated from English to Russian and then back
to English, it still strains credulity to think of a U.S. general
stating, in regard to high-tech weapons: "The enemy is using an
order of magnitude cheaper weapons to reach the same goals for which we
spend billions on technological whims of the defense industry."
Baker remarked, "Have you ever heard an American speak like that,
let alone an American military officer? You have to filter through to
what's of substance."
Overall, though, according to a March 28 analysis by the on-line Russian
newspaper, Gazeta.ru, on most days Ramzaj provided concrete information
that was verified up to two or three days later by the Pentagon or
mainstream media. Gazeta.ru said Ramzaj beat Reuters by two days about
an Iraqi ambush on British forces outside Basra; it beat Abu-Dhabi TV by
well more than a day about a plane getting shot down; and, said
Gazeta.ru, it beat Reuters by more than a day and CNN by more than two
days on the deployment of some 100,000 additional U.S. troops to the
As he quit, Ramzaj wrote of his "compact group" of retired
"special service" operatives. Seeking to take some of the heat
off, he added, "Our updates were not genuine materials from any of
the Russian or other special services, but rather an 'intellecutal
product' of the group itself, product of its operative, informational
and analytical abilities. But compiling the updates we used materials
avialable from our friends from special information structures."
Though the site will continue blogging sans Ramzaj, without his racy
reports it'll be a bit like kissing your sister.
Said Baker almost a bit wistfully, "It offered another perspective
from biased Arab and Russian sources, biased in the same way CentCom
[U.S. Central Command] is biased. It's a good source to use to compare
and contrast, just like the raw news you get on Al Jazeera." He
added, "It's no more or less skewed than a Pentagon press
Daniel Forbes (firstname.lastname@example.org)
writes on social policy and has testified before both the U.S. Senate
and the House about his work.
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