By John Helmer, Moscow
A man loses his life while he’s on a mission for one or two countries’ secret services in their attempt to change the regime of a third country. It’s a life or death risk he’s running but he calculates he’s well protected. He miscalculates; the outcome is fatal.
The third country’s regime miscalculates too. Their agents hastened his death (manslaughter), possibly murdered him (premeditation); they certainly disposed of his corpse (class-3 felony). As they made their escape, their aircraft was intercepted in the air over the first country, but the ruler of that country allowed the aircraft to fly on safely. Almost everything subsequently announced by officials of each of the three countries, or leaked by them to their media; also, almost everything announced by employers and spokesmen for the dead man, is incomplete, misleading, fabricated, disinformation, or bald-faced lies.
This is the case of the dead Jamal Khashoggi (pronounced ), willing agent of the US and Turkey for regime change in Saudi Arabia.
None of this involves Russia directly, and until now there’s been no blame cast at Russia’s secret services, the General Staff, or President Vladimir Putin for what has happened. Not even if Russian interests benefit, have the Russia-hating media and the US Congress accused Putin of masterminding the Khashoggi case. But strategically in the Middle East, and tactically on Russia’s war fronts in Syria, Iran, and the Balkans, Russian interests do benefit – although not a single Russian politician, security analyst, academic expert, or media commentator will say so.
They think that gloating or schadenfreude, the satisfaction felt from another’s misfortune, especially an enemy’s, is impossible for Russians in the Khashoggi case because it’s much too complicated.
Russian intelligence-gathering in Turkey is known to be good enough, perhaps, to have monitored, if not assisted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s survival during the attempted military putsch of July 15, 2016; for details, read this.
Follow this timeline of what happened to Khashoggi this month. How much of the Saudi airplane movements into and out of Istanbul, or Khashoggi’s movements, were monitored by the Russians independently of the Turks isn’t known. Nor how much the Turks have subsequently shared with their Russian counterparts.
The official record shows that since Khashoggi’s death in Istanbul on October 2 the first high-level meeting of Russian security, intelligence and military officials including President Putin was on the evening of Khashoggi’s fateful day, October 2. The Kremlin record of the Security Council meeting then reported that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed “the delivery of S-300 systems and other equipment to improve security for Russian service personnel in Syria.”
Sergei Shoigu, second from right, briefs the Security Council on October 2. Head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Naryshkin, is next to him at far right.
Putin then travelled to India and Belarus. The next Security Council meeting was not convened until the president’s return on October 12. There is no sign in the communiqué of a Middle Eastern topic in the discussion. The most recent meeting of the Security Council was on October 25.
It is certain the first discussion Putin held on the Khashoggi case with a non-Russian official was in Sochi on the evening of October 16, when he met the President of Egypt, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi had last been in Saudi Arabia in mid-August where the Egyptian media reported his meeting with King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense), and Abbas Kamel, head of Egypt’s General Intelligence.
In Sochi, the day after their evening talk, Putin and Sisi and their delegations held discussions on a lengthy agenda and signed an “Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Cooperation.” As Sisi said during the following press conference, this includes improving “the information exchange process between our countries’ special services as part of counterterrorism efforts.”
Arab sources believe Sisi and Putin discussed the special protective relationship Egypt has with the Saudi ruling family, and the threats posed by the Turks. Days later, on Saturday October 22, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced unqualified backing for the Saudis against the allegations from the Turkish media and President Erdogan. “Egypt finds that the brave and decisive decisions and actions taken by the Saudi King in this [Khashoggi] matter,” reads the Cairo text, “align with his majesty’s approach that respects the principles of law and application of effective justice.” The legal measures taken by Saudi Arabia will uncover the truth and prevent “all attempts to politicize the issue,” the Egyptian statement added. The Egyptian Foreign Minister then flew to Riyadh for more talks with the Saudis.
No Russian source has so far connected Putin’s discussion of the Khashoggi case with Sisi to what has followed. A brief comment was made by the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova on October 17. She was dismissive of the Turkish-fed media reporting on Khashoggi. “I can say once again that, first, it is law enforcement that should act as the principal source of information. Second, we welcome the joint effort announced by Saudi Arabia and Turkey to investigate. As for many politicians having commented on this…I can say that the many comments that have been made failed to add clarity… I would prefer the world to learn the truth and the political declarations to follow, not precede, the verdict rendered by law enforcement.”
On October 23 Putin met the US national security advisor, John Bolton. Zakharova revealed, dismissively, that Bolton mentioned the Khashoggi case. “Frankly, I cannot say the Russian side was informed of anything significant on the issue. The US involvement in this story is completely understandable – he was a journalist who worked for the American media after all. It is also clear why John Bolton raised this issue, as a representative of the country the journalist worked for. Unfortunately, this indisputable fact seems to constantly get lost amid the general array of statements we hear.” No mistake – Zakharova identified the US as the country Khashoggi worked for.
On October 25, Putin chaired a session of the Security Council, and among the issues reported as discussed was Putin’s trip to Istanbul, planned for two days later on October 27. It was also agreed at the Council meeting that Putin would talk to the Saudis about Khashoggi. Shortly afterwards, according to the Kremlin record, Putin held a telephone conversation with King Salman. According to the communiqué, “the leaders exchanged views on the Syrian issue and the state of affairs in the Middle East in general. The situation around the ‘Jamal Khashoggi case’ was also addressed.”
The Saudi version of the call was that Salman “stressed that the actions of those involved in this crime do not represent the principles and values of the Kingdom, stressing that justice will take its course fully and resolutely.” Putin, according to the Saudi record, followed the Egyptian line. “Putin expressed confidence in the integrity of the measures taken by the Kingdom and in the transparency of the ongoing investigation.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zakharova (right), briefed the press the same day. She was asked by a reporter from Al-Jazeera to comment on the Khashoggi case: “What is Russia’s opinion of the new developments in the murder case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi? If it is proved that the Saudi authorities are involved will it influence Russia-Saudi relations?” Al-Jazeera is owned by the Qatar government, which is in bitter political conflict with the Saudis and is supported by Erdogan and by Turkish military forces at the first official Turkish military base in an Arab country since the Ottoman defeat in 1918.
Zakharova replied sardonically, reminding the Qatari state journalist of Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish backing for regime change in Syria and for the violence that has caused. “First of all, I would like to welcome Al Jazeera to this briefing. Fingers of one hand would be enough to count the times you have attended any of our briefings. I really do hope that this matter and the fate of one person is not your only concern. Perhaps, you would be interested in hearing about the fate of Syrian civilians and children who, unfortunately, have been killed for years in Syria. We speak about this here on a regular basis. Do come and visit us more. We will share this information with you and will be glad to answer your questions.”
“As concerns your question about the journalist’s fate, I do not think that I need to repeat myself once again. I announced our view at the briefing two weeks ago. Russian officials and President Vladimir Putin, in particular, also expressed their opinions. This incident has been fully addressed. But if we do not close the question yet and rather summarise what has happened, it should be noted that there needs to be an investigation. As I have already said, at this point political statements must give place to an objective, comprehensive and unbiased investigation. When this investigation is complete according to all procedures and applicable law, we will be able to offer our views and make political statements. We welcome the joint probe started by the parties, specifically, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The next day, October 26, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, a fluent Turkish speaker and one of the highest-ranking Kremlin officials to promote Turkey’s interests in Russian policymaking, issued an announcement backing the Saudis, confirming the crime in Khashoggi’s fate, but opposing culpability for Prince Mohammed. “We have heard the statement of the royal family with condemnation of this murder, about the non-participation of the royal family in it. All the rest is a question of investigation which is also the wish of the royal family. We welcome it.”
Peskov also dismissed a reporter’s question of whether the Kremlin trusts the Saudi Government’s disclaimer of participation in the murder. “I consider this question inappropriate. There is an official statement of the King, the statement of the Crown Prince. There shouldn’t be any basis not to trust anybody in principle.” The ambiguity in Peskov’s last phrase was the closest he came to supporting Erdogan’s version of Khashoggi’s fate, and the Turkish campaign against Mohammed bin Salman. Nothing comparable to Peskov’s ambiguity has been said in public by other Russian officials. No Russian analyst has reported noticing.
Putin was in Istanbul the next day. He met Erdogan first, as the host of the four-Power meeting with Germany and France. At the formal session Putin was seated between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Shoigu; Peskov was seated behind them. According to Erdogan, he briefed the other leaders on the Khashoggi case; how little the detail, or how much, isn’t publicly reported. “We talked on this topic,” Erdogan later told reporters. “I gave my colleagues important information about the investigation.” During the summit press conference, Erdogan talked at length on the Khashoggi case.
French President Emmanuel Macron followed, telling French reporters in Istanbul: “For me, things are clear. Firstly, some facts have been established. We must fully investigate the nature of these facts, and who’s responsible…Sanctions must be taken on this basis and these sanctions must be coherent and complete, and be extremely concrete and proportional.” Macron reported intelligence-sharing between the French and Turks, conceding there were still “some dark spots [which] will have to be illuminated.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her media: “We agreed that when we have more clarity, and we are counting on that, when we know who was behind this then we will try to find a unified European solution or reaction from all member states of the European Union to show that we negotiate on the basis of common values.” The French and German statements weren’t exactly endorsements of what Erdogan has been broadcasting in the Turkish media.
At the joint press conference in Istanbul, Putin made no mention of the Khashoggi case; he was the only one of the four to do so.
For the full one-hour video film, with English voice-over translation, plus transcript in English of Putin’s remarks, click.
Putin’s position in Istanbul was that the Turks can be trusted to stick to the terms of last month’s agreement, although Putin also insisted the terms require Turkish occupation of Idlib to be temporary, and recruitment of the jihadi opposition forces under Turkish military command disallowed. “Mr Erdogan and I,” Putin told the press, “gave a detailed account to our European colleagues of the progress achieved in implementing Russian-Turkish agreements on Idlib. We assume that the establishment of a demilitarised area as well as the de-escalation zone in Idlib is a temporary measure. We expect the Turkish side to make sure that the opposition withdraws heavy weapons and military units from the demilitarised area. We see that our Turkish partners are doing everything in their power for that. In case the radical elements impede the implementation of this task, if they conduct armed provocations from the Idlib zone, Russia reserves the right to render effective support to the decisive actions of the Syrian government on eliminating this hotbed of terrorist threat.”
The Joint Statement agreed by all four leaders was positive towards the Russian role in Syria – a tactical achievement by Putin over US policy. The preamble of the statement says the four leaders had “expressed their determination to reject separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries; welcomed the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Area, signed by the Republic of Turkey and the Russian Federation in Sochi on 17 September 2018; commended the progress in terms of withdrawal of heavy weapons as well as radical groups from the demilitarized zone established pursuant to the Memorandum.”
There has been no Russian review, neither by officials leaking to the press nor by Russian analysts close to the intelligence services, of the evidence on Khashoggi’s fate provided by the Turks. Saudi and Egyptian sources say they are sure the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was not bugged, as the Turks claim. Technical experts believe the report of audio evidence relayed by Khashoggi’s telephone to his Turkish companion outside to be false. Arab sources dismiss the claim that Khashoggi, who had been negotiating for some time with Mohammed’s brother Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi Ambassador to the US, needed to go to the Istanbul consulate for papers related to a purported divorce.
The Arab sources believe that Khashoggi thought he was negotiating – exactly what the sources don’t know – and that the October 2 meeting became violent when Khashoggi refused to return to Saudi Arabia. These sources believe rendition of Khashoggi had been planned by the Saudis — forced if Khashoggi resisted — but not assassination. The Turkish-source media reporting of the cutting-up of Khashoggi’s body is not believed by the Arabs.
The Arab sources, as well as Russian sources, are equally dubious about the US intelligence version of the case as they are towards the British version, and Israeli leaks. This Turkish press report reveals much higher level Turkish involvement in the case as it was unfolding on October 2, than has been reported in the non-Turkish press; there has been no independent corroboration. “It is understood that at one point, the plane carrying a part of the Saudi team was stopped in the skies above Nallihan (a rural district in the Ankara Province) and ordered into a holding pattern, before being allowed to continue its way. If the plane had been forced to land, and its passengers put under questioning, a great deal of now unknown information would have been obtained.”
Published Russian commentaries express scepticism that the case will lead to a decisive breach in the US-Saudi alliance against Iran, or that US and European sanctions will either topple Prince Mohammed or reorient him towards Russia.
Russian sources are hopeful that in Mohammed’s current predicament, a public show of Russian neutrality, with private assurances conveyed by the Egyptians, will lead to a softening of Saudi confrontation with Iran. The sources were asked if they see evidence of coordination or common policy between Russia and Egypt in relation to Mohammed bin Salman? They were also asked what role they believe Putin has agreed with the Saudi leadership in the Khashoggi affair?
No Russian military analyst will answer. One adds that it’s too early to jump to the conclusion of a common policy.