2:52 p.m. September 6, 2013

Q: Is Putin Really Planning To Bomb Saudi Arabia?

(A: In 2008, Cheney Really Did Plan To Bomb Russia)

One of the wildest rumors about the Syria War going around last week claimed that Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s military chiefs to draw up plans for a full-scale military attack on Saudi Arabia if US-led forces bomb Syria.

I initially ignored the rumor as it made the rounds on Russian websites and some dicey English-language conspiracy sites. But then I got a note forwarded to me written by a retired French intelligence officer making the same claim: that Putin has ordered his forces to prepare for full-scale war on Saudi Arabia.

The only other time this source had communicated to me (through a longtime mutual friend) was in the early days of the 2008 Georgia-Russia war in South Ossetia. He had rightly identified the Georgians as starting that conflict at a time when all the Western media and political leaders claimed the opposite, that Putin had invaded Georgia unprovoked.

Last month was the fifth anniversary of that war in Georgia. Most people in the West have forgotten about it by now, but it’s a good time to refresh your memories. Western media and political leaders got that war completely wrong, blaming it on an allegedly aggressive, imperialist Russia out to "punish" Georgia for the crime of being a "Jeffersonian democracy" in Russia’s backyard, as Georgia’s spindoctors put it. What’s even more frightening is how that war, misreported and mischaracterized as Russian aggression, brought us dangerously close to World War Three.

A couple of years after the Georgia War ended, it emerged that Vice President Dick Cheney and "several senior White House staffers" had wanted to start a war with Russia to stop their counter-offensive against Georgia. Cheney’s idea had been to launch "surgical strikes" and/or to bomb Russian land forces using the Roki Tunnel, the only land link between Russia and South Ossetia, thousands of feet up in the Caucasus mountains.

I traveled through that same Roki Tunnel a few times while reporting on that war from the Russian side of the conflict, basing myself in North Ossetia and traveling into South Ossetia with the small Western press pool. Nearly all the American journalists reported from the Georgian side, and just about all of them were in Saakashvili’s pocket, embeds for the neocon side of the story. The false narrative that came out of that war from the Georgian side was that Putin launched the invasion himself in a bid to recreate Stalin’s empire, and that Putin was planning to invade Ukraine next in order to take back the Crimea. There was no evidence of that; and Russian forces didn’t even get into South Ossetia until about three days after the Georgians invaded. Nevertheless, it was taken as undisputed fact during the war, and for several months afterwards, that Putin was a war-mad imperialist, and if we didn’t stop Putin’s aggression in Georgia, the West was risking another Munich, another Stalin, another Hitler...

This false framing almost allowed Bush Administration neocons to drag America into a war with nuclear-armed Russia. On August 10, 2008, just as Russian forces were pouring through the Roki Tunnel to push Georgian troops out of South Ossetia, American military C-130 transport planes were ferrying hundreds of US-trained Georgian soldiers and heavy equipment out of Iraq — where they had served as a loyal backup contingent for Bush, the third largest after the US and Britain — and into battle against Russian and Ossetian forces. That alone could’ve sparked war with Russia. Imagine if Russians started ferrying hundreds of Taliban fighters and heavy armor into Afghanistan to fight US troops.

By August 11, the Russian counter-offensive was turning into a rout, sending Georgian forces fleeing to the Black Sea. That was when Cheney and other Bush Administration officials decided it would be a good time to launch a "limited war" against Russia — "surgical strikes" or something even stupider, as reported in Ronald Asmus’ book "A Little War That Shook The World":

"The sheer scale of the Russian attack did lead several senior White House staffers to push for at least some consideration of limited military options to stem the Russian advance. The menu of options under discussion foresaw the possibility of bombardment and sealing of the Roki Tunnel as well as other surgical strikes to reduce Russian military pressure on the Georgian government."

Luckily for the rest of us, Bush’s neocon national security advisor Stephen Hadley retained enough sense to realize that the Russians would respond militarily to any "surgical strike," and that would be the end of everyone’s retirement golfing plans. Knowing how Cheney works on the sly, Hadley decided that the only way to stop him and the other neocon loons was to make Cheney’s plans known to Bush, and to force Bush to take a clear position on war with Russia. According to Asmus’ book:

"[Hadley] concluded that it was necessary for Bush to know what his closest advisors, Cheney in particular, thought and for the president to have an open discussion with his key cabinet members for the record on whether the United States should consider using its military power to help the Georgians. At a meeting of the Principals Committee on Monday, August 11, Hadley therefore put the military option on the table to see whether there was any support for such steps to help the Georgians repel the Russians. There was not. The president recognized that if the United States started down the path of anything military, they had to be prepared for an escalation and thus, in the end, for fighting Russia."

Crazy and unimaginable things tend to happen during wars, and we don’t always get lucky. It’s inconceivable today that the most powerful vice president in history seriously considered launching World War Three over South Ossetia, but that’s what happened.

Part of the reason it got to that point is that we knew so little about what was really going on, relying instead on bad caricatures and reckless neocons and lobbyists like the bad folks from Orion Strategies, who were also foreign policy advisors for Candidate John McCain in 2008, whose dangerously conflicted relationships I wrote about during the Georgia-Russia war. When the bombs were flying in 2008, the American public had been misled into believing that Putin was Stalin, that Russia invaded defenseless little Jeffersonian Georgia because Putin was a very bad man hell-bent on recreating Stalin’s empire, and that Ukraine was next on his list.

Candidate McCain, who might’ve won that election if the financial markets hadn’t collapsed, declared "We are all Georgians" and promised to heat up the Cold War with Russia and to give full support for Georgia under a President McCain. His vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin, was even more explicit about the McCain-Palin war plans, telling ABC News she would support using the American military against Russia in order to defend Georgia.

At that time I was one of the very few American journalists to know what was really going on — that Georgia had started the war, and that we were being led down a dangerous path. I reported as much for The Nation and for the late Radar magazine. For one thing, I knew Russia and Putin better than most of my colleagues, because I’d lived there for fifteen years. Not only that, but I had some very good sources.

On the morning Georgia launched its invasion, investment bankers leaked to me how Georgia's prime minister, Lado Gurgenidze, set up a high-level investors' call with some 50 leading financial institutions to sell Georgia's propaganda version of events, part of a sophisticated propaganda offensive that caught the Russians off-guard. Bankers are in the business of ratfucking each other, and the analysts who reached out to me told me they'd smelled a giant rat with that highly unusual wartime investors' call, timed to coincide with Georgia's "shock and awe" rocket and artillery barrage into South Ossetia's capital city, followed immediately by Georgia's land invasion and military occupation of the breakaway province.

I flew down to the North Ossetia capital Vladikavkaz in the early moments of the war, and as I was reporting on the war, the aforementioned French ex-intelligence officer passed on a remarkably detailed description of Georgia's invasion, completely at odds with the narrative at the time — why the Georgians were guilty of starting the war, which units attacked where, who knew what, and and so on. I didn't know the source well enough to rely on anything he told me, but his information did help my own reporting, and he proved to be right. Everyone else had to wait for months after the war ended — months after Cheney and "several senior White House officials" proposed launching World War Three — before the New York Times admitted that its original reporting of the Georgia war had been completely wrong and that I was right. Furthermore, an EU commission issued a detailed report confirming just about everything my sources told me, blaming the war on Georgia’s batshit president.

Now imagine if we’d launched "surgical strikes" against Russia, sparking World War Three, over a war that we’d completely fucked up and got bass-ackwards, a war that the New York Times and the EU admitted they had flubbed. Not only would we be hairless, toothless, wheezing and generally dead, but we’d also feel pretty goddamn stupid.

So when the same French intelligence source who correctly called the 2008 Georgia-Russia war tells me today that Putin ordered Russian forces to prepare for a full-scale attack on Saudi Arabia in the event of US bombings, I’m not inclined to dismiss it. I’m more inclined to find out why that rumor is out there, and what makes it plausible, aside from the general rule that anything awful is plausible in war, and aside from the fact that two of the main figures in the Georgia war — Putin and John McCain — are still around. (Recall that in an interview after the Georgia war, Putin blamed the McCain campaign for starting the war to help the McCain campaign’s election bid, which isn’t as crazy as it sounds. As I said, McCain’s top foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, was also Mikheil Saakashvili’s top US lobbyist and close advisor; Saakashvili wouldn’t dare launch a war without at least some support from powerful Republicans.)

This brings me to the most obvious question: Why would Putin bomb Saudi Arabia? And a more serious question: What makes that rumor even remotely credible, bizarre as that may sound?

The answer involves a little-reported meeting between Putin and Saudi Arabia’s powerful intelligence chief, Prince Bandar, on July 31 of this year. The Saudis and Bandar are the main backers of the Syrian opposition forces fighting against Bashir al-Assad’s army. The Saudis back the whole range of opposition forces, including the Al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra jihadis, who are among the best fighters — maybe the opposition's only real fighters. Putin and Russia are the biggest backers of Assad’s regime. So Prince Bandar came to Moscow on July 31 to try to hammer out a deal, but the details of that meeting remained a tightly held secret until a week later, when a story broke in Reuters claiming that Bandar had offered Russia huge incentives to pull support for Assad and allow the opposition forces to take over.

The Reuters story was based on leaks from Gulf (read: Saudi) sources, and confirmed by "Western diplomats," who painted the Saudi offer in glowing terms:

"Exclusive: Saudi offers Russia deal to scale back Assad support – sources

"(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has offered Russia economic incentives including a major arms deal and a pledge not to challenge Russian gas sales if Moscow scales back support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Middle East sources and Western diplomats said on Wednesday.

"The proposed deal between two of the leading power brokers in Syria's devastating civil war was set out by Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last week, they said.

"Syrian opposition sources close to Saudi Arabia said Prince Bandar offered to buy up to $15 billion of Russian weapons as well as ensuring that Gulf gas would not threaten Russia's position as a main gas supplier to Europe.

"In return, Saudi Arabia wanted Moscow to ease its strong support of Assad and agree not to block any future Security Council Resolution on Syria, they said.

The Russians remained quiet; the Kremlin issued a "no comment."

Over the next couple of days, more details came out from Gulf leakers painting the Saudi offer as "bold," as the Times (UK) put it.

After a few days of silence, the Kremlin issued a terse response that no deal had been agreed to. A couple of weeks after that, towards the end of August, more details about the Putin-Bandar meeting emerged that explained the Russians’ behavior: According to these later accounts, Prince Bandar’s "carrots" came with some implicit-explicit threats. He promised that a Sunni-led Syrian government would not allow the jihadi radicals into power, and he reportedly also promised that Saudi Arabia would make sure that the Chechen and North Caucasus jihadis currently fighting in Syria with the Al Qaeda-linked outfit al-Nusra would not return to Russia after the war’s end. Bandar went further, reportedly promising that the Saudis would use their influence (financial and otherwise) over radical Islamic fighters in Chechnya, Dagestan and other Russian regions to make sure no terrorist attacks would ruin the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

According to these later reports, Prince Bandar’s implicit threat — that if Russia did not agree to abandon Assad, Chechen radicals would create problems in next year’s Olympics — was not lost on Putin. Here’s how the meeting was reported in Lebanon’s Al-Monitor, which claimed to have had access to leaked transcripts from the secret Putin-Bandar meeting. Al-Monitor quotes Prince Bandar telling Putin,

"I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future."

That’s a shocking and rather aggressive admission on the part of the Saudis, if it’s true that Bandar said that to Putin. It’s not a big secret — I’ve written about Saudi and Gulf funding for Chechen radicals and Dagestani jihadis, funding and support that stretches back to the early-mid 1990s. But coming directly from Bandar’s mouth like that, it would be more of a threat than a concession or admission.

The Al-Monitor article reports Putin’s immediate reaction:

"Putin thanked King Abdullah for his greetings and Bandar for his exposition, but then he said to Bandar, ‘We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism that you mentioned. We are interested in developing friendly relations according to clear and strong principles.’"

It was in the aftermath of these leaked reports that new rumors sprouted up last week alleging that Putin was so outraged over Prince Bandar’s threat-by-admission that he ordered the Russian military to draw up plans to strike Saudi Arabia in response to a Saudi-influenced US military strike on Syria.

With that context in mind, the rumor doesn’t seem so completely wild after all, even though I still don’t buy it.For one thing, just as Russia would’ve been willing to go nuclear over South Ossetia, I’m pretty sure the US would be willing to send everyone to Hell, us included, to protect the oil fields in Saudi Arabia. Even that pacifist Jimmy Carter established the “Carter Doctrine” promising the End Times to any outsiders who mess with the Gulf sheikhs.

But then again, you wouldn’t have convinced me in 2008 that Cheney proposed bombing Russia over Georgia, even knowing how crazy Cheney was. Wars have a weird way of bringing out the crazy in crazies.

The other thing to come out of that Putin-Bandar meeting and the offers made was Syria’s strategic importance to Russia. The Russians have lost most of their allies in the Arab world; Assad is pretty much the last one. With Assad, they have a Mediterranean port for their naval fleet, a reliable weapons client, and longtime personal relationships. Assad has also said he won’t allow Qatar to build its vaunted natural gas pipeline through Syria and Turkey to supply the European Union. If it were allowed to go ahead, the pipeline would end Russia’s gas monopoly over Europe, and with it, Russia’s geopolitical leverage. The Saudis promised Putin that if their proxies take control of Syria, they’d make sure that Russia’s natural gas dominance would be preserved, and Qatar wouldn’t build its gas pipeline through Syria.

This coming from the same guy who admitted Saudis have the power to turn Chechen terrorism on or off at will — an amazing admission considering the Russia-Chechen wars have killed tens of thousands of people. Putin could be excused for questioning the reliability of the offer. As Andrei Soldatov of Agentura.ru put it: "In general it takes years for the Saudis to keep their promises." If and when Assad falls, it could mean a lot of things for Russia and Putin: Total irrelevance in the Arab world, an end to Russia’s dominance of natural gas markets, humiliation and anger from the siloviki, and around the corner, a 2014 Olympics whose success or failure depends on Saudi and Qatari influence over jihadis based in North Caucasus. Meanwhile, inside of Russia, Putin’s hold on power has never been weaker, his popularity never lower, and his paranoia has been making him increasingly eccentric, which is a little jarring coming from someone as cool, sober and controlled as Putin used to be.

So yeah, the rumors that Putin told his military staff to prepare plans to attack Saudi Arabia in the event of a US attack on Syria are crazy. But wars make for a lot of crazy and a lot of surprises that you never thought possible. The Kosovo War was supposed to be short and limited; it was supposed to be easy; but it lasted nearly three months and ended just before the West was about to send in land forces. Even then, the Serbs only gave up because of a deal between Yeltsin and the West in which Yeltsin agreed to sell out Milosevic.

And what did Yeltsin get from us in return? Acquiescence to what was essentially Yeltsin’s own coup against his own government. He overthrew his prime minister and prosecutor as they were investigating the crimes of the oligarchs and the Yeltsin family, and replaced them eventually with Vladimir Putin, who snuffed Russia’s democracy and protected the Yeltsin family loot from prosecution. In other words, the price of the Kosovo War has been Vladimir Putin. And as we’ve seen, the Georgia War nearly sparked World War Three.

That’s the problem with wars — you have no fucking idea where they will go.