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Did Russians Use Blog To Aid Iraq

Daniel Forbes

04/15/03

The 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 Nazi invasion.

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 Clearing House. 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. On March 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 Iraq."

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 analysis.

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 particular attention.

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 a 'crime.'"

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 region.

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 briefing."

Daniel Forbes (ddanforbes@aol.com) writes on social policy and has testified before both the U.S. Senate and the House about his work.

 


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