What’s Putin’s next move in Ukraine?
Having swallowed the Crimea without a fight, Vladimir Putin is beginning to digest it. With a referendum coming soon on the peninsula’s status, whose outcome is known no matter what the vote tallies are, it’s obvious that Moscow has won this round handily, and as I’ve explained, NATO’s real task at hand is deterring Putin’s next aggressive move, likely into Eastern Ukraine.
Whether Putin actually will move troops into Donetsk and Kharkiv and seize the East is anyone’s guess. It is certainly within his capabilities, given the lamentable state of the Ukrainian military right now. It’s evident that Russian intelligence, particularly the military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), has been laying the groundwork, rallying ethnic Russians and planning aggressive acts, including provocations to justify an invasion to “protect” innocents from rampaging Ukrainian “fascists.” This script was written some time ago and is classic Russian espionage tradecraft, what they tellingly refer to as konspiratsiya.
Yet any invasion of Eastern Ukraine, even one undertaken with some deniability by Russian troops masquerading as “self-defense militias,” is bound to lead to a wider war, one that Moscow may not win in the long run. Certainly the fight for Ukraine would become protracted and expensive for Putin in a way that his bloodless triumph in Crimea has not been.
Therefore any wise, reality-based adviser would be telling Vladimir Vladimirovich right now that it’s best to stick with Crimea and not move further. He’s won a major victory that has established his dominance over Kyiv, secured Russia’s precious access to its Black Sea Fleet (and therefore to the Mediterranean and beyond), shown the world that the Kremlin will not be trifled with, and most of all he’s thoroughly humiliated America and NATO. It’s come the hour to savor that, consolidate this big bloodless win, and bide the Kremlin’s time. It’s all well and good to taunt and intimidate Ukraine – and Moscow certainly will – but an actual invasion of Eastern Ukraine would result in diplomatic, military, and economic headaches that might quickly outweigh any gains for Russia.
I don’t doubt that there are some reality-based advisers inside the Kremlin who are gently telling the Chekist-in-Chief something like that. Whether they are getting through is another matter. Decision-making in Putin’s Kremlin is something few outsiders understand well, not least because the Russians are a secretive bunch, especially the “former” KGB officer who runs the country, surrounded by a whole bunch of “former” spies in all the power ministries.
What of Putin’s intelligence briefings? That is an important matter, given how highly he values anything to do with espionage and covert action, but we know very little regarding what Putin is being told about Ukraine by what the Russians term the “special services.” There is no doubt that GRU, plus SIGINT from the Federal Security Service (FSB) and HUMINT from the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), are providing the Kremlin with volumes of information about the situation in Ukraine, given their excellent access to their neighbor. Under Yanukovych, Ukraine’s intelligence apparatus had an exceptionally close relationship with Russian partners, and given long-standing practice, there’s no doubt Russian spies used liaison to recruit numerous assets inside Ukraine’s security services.
So we can assume that GRU, the SVR, and the FSB together are giving Putin a hefty briefing book every morning with lots of juicy details about what’s happening in Ukraine right now. But do those reports tell the truth? During the Soviet era, the KGB and GRU did a masterful job of stealing secrets all over the world, besting Western counterintelligence most of the time, yet their track record of turning HUMINT and SIGINT gold into what Westerners term “actionable intelligence” was a decidedly mixed bag. In tactical terms, they often did well, but more complex problems, particularly regarding high-level political analysis, frequently eluded them, and Soviet “intelligence analysis” was perennially marred by the need to tell political superiors what they wanted to hear, all the while sticking to Marxist-Leninist ideology.
It’s no wonder that, confronted with these pressures and blinders, Soviet intelligence did a rather poor job of predicting the future, as the two volumes authored by British scholar Christopher Andrew, based on the records purloined by KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin, bear out in great detail. Time and again, superb espionage was undone at a high level when the take was “politically incorrect” or simply turned out to be something that “the top” did not want to be told.
This is hardly a uniquely Russian problem, as any intelligence officer anywhere who has had to brief his or her political leadership will tell you – I can do the same – yet the Kremlin, as always, brought a certain peculiarly Russian spin to what Americans term “the politicization of intelligence.” The Cold War was filled with many examples, but my favorite comes from a former KGB officer and friend of mine, who was directly involved in this case.
In the early 1970s, the KGB’s Washington rezidentura made great progress recruiting spies in the U.S. capital. By 1973, they had much to brag about, including recruitments inside the Nixon White House (note plural), and every week they were sending intel gold back to The Center (i.e. KGB Headquarters) in Moscow, including juicy reports about the inner workings of the administration. This was being read by Chairman Brezhnev himself, who followed the White House with great interest, not least because the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) were really getting off the ground between the Soviets and the Americans.
Before long, the KGB in Washington was sending scandalous news back to Moscow. Sources in the White House made it clear that the brewing Watergate scandal, which was only beginning to register with the U.S. media, was dire indeed; soon Beltway insiders were telling Soviet spies that the affair would ultimately doom Nixon. KGB officers in Washington were ecstatic with their hot reporting line, which they knew The Center and the Politburo would be reading with great interest.
Except they did not. Soon, The Center sent a secret message to the DC rezidentura to cease all reporting about Watergate. Believing this had to be a mistake, given the value of this information, the spies kept sending juicy, indeed salacious reports about the implosion of the Nixon White House back to their superiors in Moscow. Before long, they got a visitor, one of the highest-ranking officers in the whole KGB, who came to Washington, DC, under cover, to talk to the officers running espionage operations against the White House.
They met in a small room, this handful of spies, most in their 30s, KGB officers on the make who up to now had been very pleased with themselves and their reporting. The general, however, was in no mood to celebrate. What he knew, but no one in the Soviet Embassy in DC did, was that Chairman Brezhnev was deeply upset by reports about Watergate. SALT was a point of pride with the Soviet leader, who had invested heavily in these talks to reduce nuclear weapons with the Americans, and he believed that success here – in his major foreign policy initiative – was dependent on his personal relationship with President Nixon. Brezhnev was horrified by the notion that Nixon might go under, as he believed that would imperil SALT, and he refused to read any further reports that indicated trouble in the White House. By continuing to send such reports, the Washington, DC rezidentura had created a big headache for the KGB’s leadership. Rather than explain this directly, however, the general decided to fall back on a very Russian metaphor. He told the officers:
There is a wedding happening very soon. The entire village has come out to celebrate. Everybody is so happy, smiles are everywhere. The bride looks radiant, her family is happy. The groom is so proud. Zakuski are ready, vodka is chilling, a great party is about to begin. But there is one table in the back that keeps chanting: “The bride is a whore, the bride is a whore …”
The point was not missed by the assembled officers, who immediately ceased writing any reports about scandals in the White House. Of course, a few months later the Watergate scandal indeed did force President Nixon to resign but, happily for everyone, it did not spell the end of SALT, which bore fruit in nuclear arms reductions down to 1979.
Telling leaders difficult truths is far more than just an intelligence problem, but it can affect intelligence acutely. How political leaders deal with intelligence varies a great deal. During the Second World War, Prime Minister Churchill became a very savvy reader of other people’s mail, taking time every day to examine his intelligence reporting, which was overwhelmingly derived from high-grade SIGINT, the famous ULTRA secret. Churchill made notes on the reports, which he read closely, and knew how to take action based on this most valuable source. In contrast, President Roosevelt never took much interest in serious intelligence matters, preferring spy stories of derring-do over actual espionage; the dilettantish FDR paid little attention to ULTRA throughout the war (fortunately many of his senior staffers understood it well), which given his disposition and lack of understanding was perhaps just as well.
How Putin uses intelligence is therefore a great and important question right now. People with a background in espionage make the best – and worst – consumers of intelligence once they rise to positions of political leadership. Some have the professional’s eye for information and intuitively know how to read between the lines, making them a delight for intel briefers to deal with; others, however, still want to be a spy, and serve as their own First Intelligence Officer, and can easily overlook important matters: Forest vs. Trees 101. We don’t know which of those Putin is, but it can be assumed, given his background, that he pays attention to the reporting he receives daily on the situation in Ukraine. While it is certain that Russian intelligence spins matters to a degree – all intelligence services do somewhat – there is no longer any Marxist-Leninist straightjacket to overcome, so it can be hoped that GRU, SVR, and FSB reports to the Kremlin are portraying matters as they actually are, rather than how intelligence officials think they should sound to “The Boss.”
As for the reality of what Putin is hearing from his spies, we will have to wait decades to find out (since this is Russia, perhaps centuries). In the meantime, let’s hope cooler heads prevail and the War for Ukraine does not extend beyond Crimea.