President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered Russia’s special services to hunt down and “destroy” the killers of four Russian diplomats in Iraq, the Kremlin said.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service — the main successor to the Soviet KGB — later said that everything would be done to ensure that the killers “do not escape from responsibility,” the Interfax news agency reported.
“The president has ordered the special forces to take all necessary measures to find and destroy the criminals who killed Russian diplomats in Iraq,” the Kremlin press service said in a brief statement.
It did not specify what special forces might be involved. Agents of the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Federal Security Service could be considered special forces.
The order followed Monday’s confirmation by the Foreign Ministry that four Russians Embassy workers who were abducted in early June had been killed.
Russian special forces already in Iraq?
Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov declined to say whether any Russian special forces currently were in Iraq but noted that there are “people responsible for security at the embassy” in Baghdad.
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst, told The Associated Press that “We don’t have real special forces in Iraq.”
Putin also said Russia “will be grateful to all its friends for any information on the criminals,” the Kremlin said.
The lower house of the Russian parliament passed a statement earlier Wednesday that decried the murders and said that “occupying” countries are losing control in Iraq.
Russia has strongly opposed the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq.
The statement by the State Duma “deplores the death of our compatriots ... expresses profound indignation over the fact of their brutal murder and strongly denounces the criminals who committed that heinous crime.”
It said the abduction and killing were possible because “of the deepening crisis in Iraq, while the occupying countries are losing control over the situation, and terror and violence are becoming the order of the day in that country.”
Two Russian intelligence agents were convicted in Qatar of a 2004 car bombing that killed Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a Chechen rebel leader who had taken refuge there. A Qatari court had said the killing was carried out with the backing of “Russian leadership” and coordinated between Moscow and the Russian Embassy in Qatar. The agents later were returned to Russia to serve out their sentences there.
Unlike the attack on Yandarbiyev, which took place in a relatively open country, penetrating militant networks in chaotic Iraq could be a formidable task for the Russians.
The speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Sergei Mironov, said last week that Russian officials had been negotiating for the diplomats’ release, a possible indication that they had identified the kidnappers of knew a reliable intermediary.
Alexander Golts, a defense analyst with the online magazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal, said, “I suspect the Russian authorities have a very murky understanding of who committed these crimes — if they had a better understanding they would have tried to do something while the hostages were still alive.”
Putin’s ‘copycat’ statement?
Felgenhauer said Putin’s order could be more a statement to bolster his image at home than a serious operational decision.
“It’s a copycat of George Bush’s statements after 9/11, that ‘we will hunt them down,”’ he said.
But Felgenhauer also noted the attack on Yandarbiyev and “taking that into account, it’s possible that someone will end up dead.” He said the most likely strategy would be for the special forces to send in a special “hit squad” under diplomatic cover.
A Russian special operation in Iraq could be a blow to the already-scarred image of U.S. forces in Iraq and the nascent Iraqi security forces, but Felgenhauer speculated that the Americans wouldn’t seriously object if Russian forces hunted down the killers.
“No one considers the guys with guns in Iraq as friends,” he said.