Vladimir Putin startled observers in Russia and the United States with his June 18 claim that, following the September 11 terrorist attacks and before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Russian intelligence had passed along information indicating that Iraq was planning terrorist attacks against American targets.  U.S. officials appeared puzzled by Putin’s comments, which prompted a flurry of speculation in Russian media about what purpose the Russian president had in making such a claim.

Putin’s remarks came at a press conference in Astana, Kazakhstan.  His claim was very similar to a statement from an anonymous Russian intelligence source reported by the Interfax news service the day before: Russian media speculated that the Interfax report had failed to produce the attention in the West anticipated by the Kremlin, prompting Putin’s comments.  Kommersant-Daily, for instance, reported that the Kremlin had staged the scene at Astana, arranging to have a participant in the press conference ask Putin a question about the just-released September 11 Commission’s report on the attacks.  This gave him the opportunity to make the startling claim that Russian intelligence had “more than once” received information regarding planned attacks by Saddam Hussein’s regime against American targets “on the territory of the United States and on military and civilian targets outside” U.S. borders.  “This information,” Putin stated, was “transmitted through channels to our American colleagues.”  Putin further claimed that President Bush had “personally thanked the chief of one of the Russian special services for that information, which he considered very important.”

Then Putin added a postscript that further puzzled observers: Russia had no information that Iraq ever carried out such plans.  He also stressed that the information did not change Russia’s opposition to the U.S. decision to go to war in March 2003, noting that proper procedures for using military force “were not observed” by the United States.  “It is one thing to have information” about plans for possible attacks, Putin opined, “but we did not have information” that Iraq was actually “involved in any terrorist acts.”

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli claimed that he knew nothing about Putin’s comments.  Another State Department official told reporters that “everybody is scratching their heads,” wondering what Putin had in mind.  Secretary of State Colin Powell later said he had not heard of the intelligence Putin referred to, though he allowed that the “intelligence shop” may have seen it.

Russian media sources doubted the veracity of Putin’s comments (why didn’t the Bush administration use the information in justifying the war?), and many observers suspected Putin was attempting to lend support to Bush’s reelection campaign.  Various sources pointed to Putin’s comments at the recent G-8 summit as a sign of what the Russian president is up to: Putin had congratulated Bush on a reported upturn in the U.S. economy and then added that the Democrats “don’t have the moral right to attack George Bush for Iraq since they themselves did the same thing” in the former Yugoslavia.  Pundits speculated that Putin had made the remarks on both occasions in hopes of gaining further U.S. recognition of his own war in Chechnya as a part of the broader “War on Terror”; that Putin was still angling for a Russian role in developing Iraq’s oil deposits; or that Putin simply preferred the known quantity of the Bush administration to a Kerry White House.  The Democrats had hit far closer to home in Yugoslavia than the Republicans had in Iraq, after all.

What was not mentioned in analyses of Putin’s remarks, however, was the possibility of Russia becoming an alternative (to OPEC) energy source for the United States, something that Bush administration officials reportedly had been speaking about to their Russian counterparts for some time following the September 11 attacks.  Moreover, Russian sources have claimed that some Russian oil magnates might be interested in selling shares of their companies to either Chevron-Texaco or Exxon-Mobil—and that the Bush White House had been perturbed by reports that Russian oil giant Sibneft might sell out to France’s Total instead.  At the same time, both Democratic and Republican critics had lobbied for Russia to be kicked out of the G-8 following the arrest of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an arrest widely believed to have been politically motivated.  Khodorkovsky had been quite aggressive in his attempts to penetrate U.S. oil markets and had cultivated friendships with both George H.W. Bush and longtime Bush-clan member James Baker, probably hoping to benefit from their ties to the U.S. oil patch.  Thus, Putin’s puzzling comments, apart from his reported preference for the Republicans over the Democrats, might have been an effort to keep the door open for a strategically important relationship with the Bush White House, one that encompasses both post-Saddam Iraq and the future of Russia’s oil industry.