The Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung has published an illuminating interview about Ukraine and the Kremlin with Andrei Illarionov, a prominent Russian economist who served as Vladimir Putin’s top economic adviser from 2000 to 2005, as well as the Kremlin’s representative to the G-8. Illarionov’s comments are important, given his direct knowledge of Putin’s Kremlin, and deserve a wide audience. The interview, which includes troubling truths about Russia now, follows in toto.
“Crimea is Only the First Step”
Q: What are Putin’s intentions with regard to Crimea?
A; The Russian Black Sea Fleet has its bases in Sevastopol in Crimea and Vladimir Putin wants to secure them. The Russian president fears that the new Ukrainian government may terminate the basing lease and let NATO use the ports. In addition, he wants to bring the Russian and Russian-speaking population home into his empire.
Q: A majority of the residents of Crimea voted in favor of splitting off from Ukraine.
A: The referendum offered Putin a legal basis to send his troops into Ukraine. Crimea is only the first step. Russia will not spare the South and East of Ukraine. The violent clashes in Kharkiv and Donetsk and the occupation of the local administrations there were arranged by the Kremlin. Putin wants to destabilize Eastern Ukraine and possibly plunge it into a civil war. Then, he could also invade the Eastern regions.
Q: Eastern Ukraine does not want to have anything to do with the interim government in Kyiv, claiming that there are fascists in power there. Is it not understandable that the Eastern Ukrainians want to have a protector?
A: Do you in the West believe the fable about fascists? Putin is only looking for a pretext for a larger military intervention. By the way, I have doubts that the majority of Russians believe the fascist theory.
Q: Opinion polls say that more than sixty percent of Russians would approve of a war over Crimea.
A: Opinion polls in authoritarian states are untrustworthy and do not reflect people’s real views. Public opinion in Russia is the result of propaganda and brainwashing. The best example of this is Russian television with its extremely unbalanced coverage of Ukraine.
Q: In February, Ukraine’s interim government overturned a language act, as a result of which Russian lost its status as official language. Has this not added fuel to the fire?
A: This was certainly a mistake. However, the Russian language in the East and South has never been in jeopardy.
Q: Shouldn’t the Ukrainian government reach out to the Kremlin to defuse the situation?
A: What the Ukrainian government should do above all is show strength, but it fails to do so. Kyiv should have brought Crimea under its control at the very start. Only from a position of strength would Kyiv have had a chance to be heard by the Kremlin. Just imagine: Ukrainian companies continue to deliver defense technology to Russia – knowing full well that Russia could use it against Ukraine.
Q: Was it a mistake that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the 1990s?
A: In the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the West guaranteed Ukraine’s security provided it gave up its nuclear weapons. Yet now, the West is unable to keep its promise. If Ukraine had nuclear weapons right now, the crisis over Crimea would not have happened.
Q: The West has punished persons close to the Crimean government loyal to Moscow by imposing travel bans. Other sanctions are being considered. Will Putin be impressed by that?
A: No, such sanctions are not effective. They should have been agreed upon months ago. Putin will not be frightened off by travel bans.
Q: Should the West supply arms to Ukraine, as some Republicans in the United States are demanding?
A: Arms supplies are not enough. Putin must be confronted militarily. I do not mean acts of war. But the West should show a military presence in the Black Sea, for example. This is the only way to stop Putin.
Q: Does the West have to fear Putin?
A: Angela Merkel says that Putin has lost touch with reality. This is what it looks like from the viewpoint of a typical European politician, but it’s wrong. Putin does not behave like a normal statesman. The West should see the world with Putin’s eyes and understand his logic.
Q: What is Putin’s logic?
A: He is driven by personal and political power and has unleashed hysteria in Russia about becoming a new empire. This puts global security at risk. He will carry on until he is stopped.
Q: You were Putin’s adviser for a number of years. Why did you quit?
A: When I joined the Presidential team, Russia was halfway free. I wanted to help the country move ahead in economic terms, and I did. After all, Russia made a leap forward and recovered from the chaos of the 1990s. Yet in political terms, Putin ruled Russia in an increasingly authoritarian style. I dropped out after the hostage drama in Beslan. When terrorists seized the school in 2004, I argued to act with caution. Yet Putin attacked the school with tanks. More than 331 people lost their lives in the process.
A: If you were still on Putin’s team, what would your advice regarding Ukraine be now?
Q; Every prudent advisor would advise him to keep his fingers out of Ukraine. Unfortunately, Putin does not listen to advice. He is not willing to listen to anybody.
The Russian seizure of Crimea plus Moscow’s intimidation, and worse, of all Ukraine, has created an awkward situation for Edward Snowden’s fans and enablers. That Ed has taken up residence in Putin’s Russia, and continues to pontificate about privacy and the perfidy of Western intelligence while under Kremlin protection, is a bit much, so much so that even MSM stalwarts have begun to ask difficult questions about the whole Snowden-linked apparat.
Judging from their conduct, not to mention the vicious online abuse suffered by myself and others who have questioned the narrative that Snowden is a pure-hearted patriot who “just happened” to wind up in Moscow, it seems justified to ask about the motivations of Snowden’s stalwart defenders in the West. Some may be pawns of Russian intelligence but most, I suspect, are what Communists once called Useful Idiots: Westerners whose hatred of their own society is so profound that they accept baldfaced Kremlin lies uncritically. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the egregious Walter Duranty has present-day equivalents.
Yet espionage cannot be ruled out either. Indeed, Moscow’s powerful intelligence apparatus has long considered Western journalists to be an easy and tasty target, not least because so many volunteered their services freely, or at least cheaply. Post-Cold War revelations made clear that among numerous Useful Idiots in Western journalists there were paid-up Soviet agents too, who consciously transmitted Kremlin Line agitprop masquerading as “daring” journalism.
This rot was present from the start. The father of Central European “investigative journalism,” Egon Erwin Kisch, can serve as our Patient Zero. In the waning days of Austria-Hungary, the young Kisch, who gave himself the sobriquet “the raging reporter,” cemented his reputation in 1913 with his scoop about the notorious traitor Colonel Alfred Redl – a sordid tale of espionage, corruption, suicide, and sex – who was probably the Spy of the (20th) Century. Kisch virtually created the image of the hard-boiled, cynical journalist who went the extra mile to uncover what others sought to hide: “nothing is more annoying than the truth” was his mantra.
Yet behind the muckraking there was an unpleasant, if concealed, reality. After 1918, as he rose to journalistic stardom across Europe, Kisch was a committed Communist who secretly served Soviet military intelligence (GRU). His solidarity with Moscow was unshakable, as he was every bit as credulous about the Kremlin as he was incredulous about everything else, and while he reported on all sorts of scandals that put “bourgeois society” in a bad light, he was taking GRU orders. Kisch’s allegiances were an open secret in certain circles and even some committed Leftists found his stock line, “I am Stalin’s soldier,” hard to swallow. Through the Ukrainian genocide-famine, the Purges, all the worst Stalinist excesses, Kisch was a deeply devoted Soviet agent while posing as a truth-teller to his Western readers. His devoted service to one of the most murderous regimes in history notwithstanding, there is an Egon Erwin Kisch Prize for journalists in Germany today.
American journalism, too, had “secret soldiers of Stalin” in its ranks, and there were more than a handful. In a case I was involved in decades after the fact, back in the 1940s one of the most prominent members of the U.S. journalistic scene was, we discovered much later thanks to information derived from KGB sources, also a devoted secret Communist. He was so overtly pro-Stalin that it creeped out his fellow-traveling friends, and during World War II he apparently passed U.S. classified information to the Soviets. However, by the late 1940s, he had a change of heart and over time became a committed anti-Communist, which was not uncommon back then. Moreover, there was nothing to be done with the case, as we learned of his treason decades after the event, which was mitigated by the reality that he abandoned the Moscow Line early in the Cold War, and he was dead to boot. It’s an interesting file that some researcher will make an intriguing “footnote to history” out of decades hence, once it’s been declassified and released to the archives.
The most notorious case, however, is that of I.F. Stone, Izzy to his legions of admirers on the Left, who cultivated the image of the muckraking journalist for truth pitch-perfectly for decades. It was a fraud. Inconveniently, he was an agent of Soviet intelligence in the late 1930s, at the height of Stalin’s purges, and maintained some sort of witting relationship with the KGB to 1956, when he broke with Moscow – later than many – over the invasion of Hungary. KGB efforts to reestablish their relationship with the elderly Stone, an “old master” in Chekist parlance, in 1968 were not successful. The extent to which Soviet connections influenced Stone’s “daring” reporting must remain an open question, but the vehement efforts of his defenders to deny his ties to the Soviet secret police are thoroughly debunked here.
Needless to add, there is an “Izzy Prize” to reward “special achievement in independent media” in honor of I.F. Stone. Its inaugural winner was Glenn Greenwald, who along with Jeremy Scahill was recently named to the “I.F. Stone Hall of Fame.”
For too many decades, among too many Western investigative journalists, secret loyalty to the Kremlin has been more a feature than a bug. As we enter a Second Cold War of the Kremlin’s creation, it’s time to face up to this reality and start asking about the real motivations of “truth tellers” who like to criticize the West while dodging negative comments about Moscow.
News from Ukraine today grows increasingly dire as Russian forces dismantle the Ukrainian Navy in Crimea and Kremlin-stoked tensions are now spreading deep into Eastern and Southern Ukraine. How Ukraine would fare in the event of an all-out Russian onslaught, and how likely that invasion might be, are important questions that do not get sufficient informed attention in the Western media. Most accounts you will find about the condition of Ukraine’s military note that it’s long been underfunded and doesn’t have much of a chance in a stand-up fight against Russia.
But what do actual experts think? The Ukrainian news website Tyzhden recently ran a long interview with retired General Mykola Melnyk that’s filled with insights and wisdom about what’s really going on in Ukraine now, militarily speaking. Melnyk’s credentials are impeccable. Although he retired nearly a decade ago, he was one of the founders of independent Ukraine’s military after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He also served as deputy chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR) of the Ukrainian General Staff and Melnyk has important insights on intelligence matters.
This extended interview offers many views worth pondering, not least Melnyk’s description of Yanukovych’s defense minister Pavlo Lebyedev as “indisputably a creature of GRU” – that is, Russian military intelligence. Yet Melnyk castigates Ukraine’s whole political class post-independence, which has left the country weakly defended: he chastises politicos “selling everything right and left between sauna visits. And this went on for the entire twenty-three years of independence, plus permanent terrible underfunding.” Yet, like a solid military man, Melnyk advocates dealing with present realities and not dwelling on the past, particularly as the threat of Russian invasion looms, while admitting that Ukraine has no chance of freeing Crimea from Kremlin occupation without direct NATO help. On the key matter of whether full-scale invasion is imminent, and what might happen then, Melnyk’s comments are important:
Q: The question that is of greatest concern to everybody: is the Ukrainian army with its weaponry capable of stopping the Russians? And will the Russians launch a full-scale military conflict in spite of everything?
A: I won’t lie to you: it will be extremely difficult to stop them with the army alone. The 75,000 troops that were brought in to protect the Olympic Games in Sochi are the best of the best, and they all still remain on our border, plus many other forces have been added in recent weeks. According to my information, there are now about 150,000, maybe even more. Unfortunately, I think Putin will not stop. Indeed, everywhere where there are attempts to destabilize the situation, we should expect invasion. And that means almost the whole South and East of the country. A huge problem is the loss of control over the state security system, something that the Russians have made the most of – and above all, this involves the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine. As far as weapons are concerned, our levels are approximately the same, although Russia’s are more modernized and more accurate. We have enough identical tanks, small arms, as long as we have the crews, plus we need components. We lag behind in aircraft and missile units.
Our weapons are often better than Russia’s, but lately everything was shipped for export and nothing was purchased for domestic use. In view of this, I recommend the new leadership turn its attention to the state-owned enterprise that sold the arms - with exceptional profits for itself and enormous losses for the state. Nevertheless, the patriotic spirit of Ukrainian troops is extremely high. Plus we have an excellent mobilization potential of top-notch military experts. So if Russia launches an attack, there will be very many casualties, but she has no chance of winning, because we have limitless human resources and moral superiority.
Regrettably my assessment is close to General Melnyk’s: Russia is likely to launch a full-scale invasion in an effort to occupy South and East Ukraine, where ethnic Russians exist in some numbers. But this will unleash a terrible war that, like so many of them, will be easy to start and very difficult to end, because there are plenty of Ukrainians who are willing to resist the ancient Muscovite foe to their dying breath. There is still time to avert this catastrophe, let us hope Putin decides to do so – the choice is his.
Clearly Vladimir Putin did not heed my advice to cool it after his bloodless seizure of Crimea. Instead, he has doubled down, issuing a fire-breathing speech before the Duma yesterday, filled with Russian nationalist paeans and Chekist threats. Violence in Ukraine provoked by the Russian military has become serious, and no more is this a bloodless happening. Today it is clear that the Kremlin has conquest on its mind and where this crisis goes from here is anybody’s guess but I feel safe in saying: nowhere good.
The Western response to this has been frankly modest. Moscow has publicly mocked the decidedly unpunitive sanctions announced by the United States, and the even more limited ones coming from the European Union. The U.S. Department of Defense has suspended its ties with the Russian military, and NATO is likewise cutting back on its links to Moscow, what those in the trade call “mil-to-mil” links. Are the Russians intimidated by this? On the contrary, Russian officials today mouthed threats against Estonia, a NATO member, and announced the movement of Crimean Tatars against their will, in a truly shocking reminder of Stalinist crimes.
Just how unseriously Moscow takes NATO responses was made clear in an analysis published today in Rossiyskaya Gazeta – which, to be clear, is the Kremlin’s official newspaper – by the regime-linked analyst Yevgeniy Shestakov and titled “NATO Loses Faith.” This piece is so utterly contemptuous towards the West – you will note talk of NATO “punishing” Russia by the quotes around it – that I am including it in full:
It appears that the already not very intensive cooperation between Russia and the North Atlantic Alliance is coming to its logical conclusion. The bloc’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated that the organization is re-evaluating relations with Moscow in connection with the events in Ukraine. So, how does NATO intend to “punish” Russia?
Having repeatedly participated in ministerial meetings of the Russia-NATO Council as a journalist, I long ago came to the conclusion that, first of all, the dialogue between the bloc’s military structures and our country was primarily beneficial to the Alliance itself. And, secondly, this so-called dialogue was a smokescreen, behind which the NATO leadership consistently implemented its own plans without the slightest regard for Moscow. Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu spoke out rather eloquently about such “cooperation.” “We all talk and smile at each other, but everything continues. Joint work is not being carried out, and our concerns are not taken into consideration.”
It is easy to become convinced of the fact that Moscow’s cooperation with the bloc – which Rasmussen had announced in a sweet voice from all sources in the past – is nothing more than a demonstration of good intentions, propped up by individual second-rate programs. It is enough to take a look at the content of the “ambitious program of cooperation for 2014,” as the NATO Secretary General announced in December 2013. These were joint programs on mine-clearing in Afghanistan, the struggle against homemade explosive devices and drug trafficking in that country, and the identification of suicide bomber terrorists. At the same time, the progress remained zero on the key question –missile defense systems.
NATO’s threats to review relations with Russia are “insignificant” in nature, because there has never been anything strategic or important to Moscow in this cooperation.
With such an agenda, all of Rasmussen’s reasoning about the strategic partnership between the organization and Moscow appeared far removed from reality. And so, who will “punish” whom if the alliance rejects cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan?
Speaking about the problems that exist in relations with NATO, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was not shy in his expressions. In his opinion, “the possible expansion of the Alliance is a perpetuation of the old confrontational logic from the times of the Cold War. The events in Crimea have once again demonstrated that the bloc’s leadership has always, in every way, been guided only by its own geopolitical considerations, and does not want to hear the position of its partners. Even before, Moscow had repeatedly asked the question: Is the Russia-NATO Council necessary in its current, “smokescreen” form? Now, the answer is becoming clear: The demonstrative desire of the alliance leadership to participate in the sanction campaign against Russia makes our country’s cooperation with the bloc a useless waste of time.
And so, how is Rasmussen threatening to punish Russia for its decision to include Crimea in the complement of the Russian Federation?
I quote: “We had planned to conduct a joint operation at sea on safeguarding an American vessel on which Syrian chemical weapons would be destroyed. Now, we will guard it, but Russia will not participate in the operation.” I think that, after this statement, the Russian Defense Ministry breathed a sigh of relief. After the events in Ukraine, it really would be unseemly for the Russian military to guard an American ship. It is another matter that the operation on destruction of chemical weapons in Syria is being performed under the auspices of the UN, and the alliance is merely one of its participants. So it is unclear why Rasmussen believes that he has the right to include or exclude any countries from the operation on chemical disarmament of Damascus.
Evidently, NATO threats to review relations with Russia are “inconsequential” in nature, because there has never been anything strategic or important to Moscow in this cooperation, and nothing of the sort was ever foreseen. At the same time, the Alliance must understand that the more hostile statements it makes about Russia today, the more difficult it will be to restore relations in the future. “The people of Crimea have made their sovereign choice. And no statements can influence this choice,” Russia’s Permanent Representative to NATO Aleksandr Grushko wrote on the Russian mission’s web page in regard to Secretary General Rasmussen’s threats.
This sort of blunt, indeed contemptuously rude, language from the Kremlin indicates that we are close to a new Cold War, of Moscow’s making. Putin and his regime have no interest in conciliation with the West. They are winning in Ukraine and elsewhere, and see no need to stop while Western resistance is feeble. As I’ve explained before, NATO needs robust leadership leading to effective deterrence, without any delays. There is no time to waste.
We won the last Cold War without major combat between NATO and the Soviets. While I am confident that the West will win this struggle too, as Vladimir Putin leads his country into a dead-end that will culminate in tragedy for the Russian people, I am concerned how long we can avoid war if one side continues to gamble so recklessly and address the West with such utter contempt, scorning any cooperation that could reduce tensions, all the while crushing the liberties of people who want to be free.
In his memorable 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade, novelist and screenwriter William Goldman repeatedly cites a line, Nobody Knows Anything, meaning that, despite vast hours and sums spent by Hollywood on testing films with audiences, nobody in Tinsel Town really has a clue how a movie will do at the box office until it’s actually released. It’s all guesswork, and always has been.
Unfortunately, the recent Ukraine crisis has revealed that American foreign policy similarly has little idea what outcomes will be – here the recent and utterly unprecedented intelligence debacle engendered by Edward Snowden & Friends is surely a factor – and generally appears clueless when confronted by Putin and his merry band of Chekists in the Kremlin. That the stakes are higher here than in the entertainment world should be obvious to all. I have repeatedly explained just how weak I think the Obama foreign policy team is, filled with impressive-sounding people who clearly cannot handle a real struggle with Moscow, so there’s no need to belabor that point again. Recent weeks have made abundantly clear that the White House simply does not know what to do when confronted with hard problems being pushed by hard men who are more than willing to use cunning violence and naked intimidation as a matter of routine.
However, the rot goes far deeper than this White House, and is not confined to any party; indeed, the remarkable decline in American foreign policy over the last generation is one of our few truly bi-partisan national efforts, so there’s no point in fantasizing that an election or two will change this. This sad truth I explained in a recent post which got quite a bit of attention, particularly this part:
A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.
I stick by all that and I’ll add that the defect in this younger generation of wannabe foreign policy mavens – which, full disclosure, I’m part of, barely – is two-fold. The first part is a lack of courage that’s enabled by a culture of conformism in the corridors of DC power, where one false move with the wrong staffer or donor can derail a whole career before it really begins. “Speaking truth to power” features frequently in novels and films about the nation’s capital, but is seldom encountered in reality for this reason. Savvy young people on the make quickly learn to mouth platitudes and make connections with equally bland and conformist mentors: if any of these people have genuinely novel, much less daring, foreign policy ideas, they learn to suppress them awfully fast.
Second, most of these smart young people really don’t know anything. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they had great SATs and went to top schools and have mastered the art of sounding smart, attaining admirable fluency in that unnatural dialect known as Beltway-speak, but as for any deep knowledge about any particular subject relating to how the world really works, that’s about as rare in this crowd as unicorns and Bigfoot. There should be no surprise that Chekists are winning handily these days.
That said, it’s important to note that the ignorance of reality found among our Bright Young Things in DC is hardly their own fault. It can be attributed to their deformed education, especially among those who have studied International Relations, memorizing Game Theory and related unreality when what they needed to be doing was studying languages and history and getting out of the Beltway more. I won’t beat up on IR more than this, since everybody who has encountered IR lately, between zombies and related silliness, already knows how ridiculous it is.
There is no substitute for actually knowing something about a country and a region and how its people think and what they say; this cannot be learned entirely in books – though you will have to read a lot of books to build a foundation of understanding – and it cannot be done entirely in English. If you want to understand Putin’s Russia, you will need to seriously look at the history and culture of that place, and Ukraine too, and learn their languages to boot. If this is too hard for you, then don’t try. If you want to predict what Russians and Ukrainians will likely do next with any degree of accuracy, learn about Russians and Ukrainians. For Putin and his system, you will need to learn about Chekists too, since their worldview is unique and powerful to the initiated.
This diatribe against IR, and more broadly against Political Science, ought not to be taken as a defense of History, my own discipline, since it, too, has become mired in post-modern silliness. Just when its services are needed to help explain the world to decision-makers, History has self-marginalized to an alarming degree. While I would trust the guesses of random people off the street – cabbies, waitresses, bookies – over your average tenured IR guru, I’m under no illusion that your run-of-the-mill History professor is much better.
So turning to the Academy to help explain what we ought to do next is sadly a non-starter. Capturing the wisdom of the professoriate, which was more helpful than not during the Cold War, is not much of a plan these days, I’m sad to report. Everybody wants George Kennan to magically reappear, but the reality is that poor, brilliant George, were he to magically reappear among us, would immediately be run out of the room on grounds of racism, sexism, xenophobia, generic crankiness, and all-around obsolescence. He would still be brilliant, mind you, we just have lost the ability to listen to OldThink. Until we get over our own biases, hardened practitioners of OldThink, who are far more atavistic and unpleasant than anything Kennan ever pondered at Princeton, will keep winning.
[The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and in no way reflective of the views of any of his employers, past or present.]
As I write, Russian forces, reportedly close to 100,000 troops, are massing on the eastern borders of Ukraine for a possible invasion. The Kremlin is either about to start a major war, or wants the world to think it is: there is no third choice now. Given the scheduled referendum in the Crimea this Sunday, smart money has it that Putin, if he really launches an all-out push for Ukraine – which, as I’ve already explained, could be a disastrous move on his part – it will come early next week. Needless to add, this scenario brings chills to me and to anyone who understands the stakes in what would immediately be the biggest European war since 1945.
Yet that invasion, with its terrible consequences, is what many in Ukraine now expect. That mood of resignation, and what a Russian invasion might look like, are elaborated well in a new piece in Novoye Vremya (The New Times), a Moscow newsmagazine that is a rare outlet for anti-Kremlin views in Russia. The article by Maksim Shveyts, titled “Kyiv: Expecting War,” follows in toto, with my analysis following.
Kyiv: Expecting War - Ukraine is forming a National Guard and preparing in earnest for the defense of the capital against the aggressor
In Kyiv, Russia’s possible plans to invade mainland Ukraine do not appear to anyone simply to be a fantasy. Many recall how during his latest “appearance to the people” in Rostov-na-Donu, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych once again said that he considers himself the legitimate head of state and also promised to return to Kyiv “soon”. The fugitive president could only do this accompanied by the Russian military, local experts are convinced. And, indeed, they do not rule out scenarios in which Russian tanks enter the city.
Vice Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, ex-deputy chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Staff, said that Russia is preparing an air and ground offensive frontal operation against the country. Testifying to this, Kabanenko says, will be the next steps of the Russian authorities: first, “the training of airborne forces of the Russian Federation led by General Shamanov with the involvement of strategic aviation. Second, completion of the formation of an echelon, massing of air defense, and the formation of an air defense force grouping. And, finally, continuation of a deep special operation on the territory of Ukraine and the buildup of a battle group in Crimea and the East.”
Kabanenko called on the country’s political leadership to immediately mobilize reserves and to arm the citizenry. This retired military officer is certain that it is necessary to declare a patriotic war against the occupiers, form a supreme command staff, and began armed resistance to Russia’s plans to invade mainland Ukraine.
Stanislav Shum, director of Ekonomika publishers, says, “the next city where Russian troops are to be expected is Kyiv”: “Because if the Ukrainian Army is as weak as the defense minister maintains, there’s no point from the military perspective in attacking the regions if the capital can be taken. Again, without a single shot being fired, to the cannonade of protests and profound concern of the West,” this expert believes. “Events subsequently will unfold as rapidly as in the final days of February, only in reverse order,” he explains.
Escalation of Tension
Kyiv really does have grounds for fears. On 13 March, the Russian Federation (RF) Defense Ministry announced exercises to be conducted on the eastern border with Ukraine. The same day in Inkerman [in Crimea], the Russian military sealed off a weapons depot. Two explosive ordnance storage units – of the Ukrainian Navy and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – are stationed there. It was then learned that RF service personnel had sealed off the Ukrainian Ai-Petri Battalion. They posted thirty men with assault rifles around the perimeter and said that any transport traveling in the direction of the Ukrainian battalion was “subject to neutralization.” Meanwhile, the Crimean “self-defense force” prepared for an assault on the Ukrainian military unit in Simferopol, with the demand that the fuel depot be handed over to it. The new authorities of Crimea, led by the unrecognized Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, have taken control of the Feodosiya oil transshipment terminal.
On the whole, the mood of the military on the Crimean peninsula has over the past week changed considerably. New Times’ sources in the Ukrainian Navy report that while in the first days of the conflict the Russian military often behaved politely and proposed patrolling together with Ukrainian soldiers, in recent days they have been calling themselves the “bosses” and have been talking to Ukrainians exclusively in superior tones, ordering them around.
Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, commander of the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade stationed at the Bel’bek airfield, became known to the whole country after he defended his right to that airfield. On Thursday, he called the national leadership, the Defense Ministry, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff. Mamchur claims in this call that ultimatums from Russian servicemen are becoming increasingly serious, and he asked the command, therefore, to make a decision as quickly as possible about guidance for his personnel in the event of a direct threat.
“The Russian Federation has in the Luhansk and Chernihiv regions massed an assault force, heavy equipment, and military helicopters. Simultaneously, pro-Russian forces in Kharkiv are preparing an ‘assembly rally’ for the 16th, at which they plan to make a decision on a referendum based on the Crimean model,” independent political analyst Alexey Blyuminov points out. “Considering that the Kharkiv Region Council has refused to conduct any referendums for such purposes, I do not rule out attempts at a strong-arm seizure of the regional council by pro-Russian assault units and their adoption of an appeal to the Russian regime for the commitment of troops. The same provocation is possible in Luhansk region also,” he warns. This expert says the FSB continues to operate in the country’s eastern regions.
American CIA Director John Brennan said on 12 March that a full-scale invasion of Russian troops onto the territory of Ukraine will begin after the referendum in Crimea. The Ukrainian political analyst Pavlo Nuss shares this viewpoint: “On 17-18 March, regular troops of the Russian Federation will begin an invasion of Ukraine,” he says. This expert believes the invasion will begin simultaneously from the south and east of the country. “They will begin the occupation of Kherson and Mykolaiv from Crimea, attempting to take control of the shoreline of the Dnieper. They will attempt simultaneously to enter the territory of Mariupol and Berdyansk to establish control over the Azov region plus the Sea of Azov. This will happen, if we consider the invader’s ‘maritime interest’ scenario. The mobilization of the RF army at the borders of our motherland testifies that Russia is prepared for any scenario of military operations,” Nuss explains.
Guard to the Rescue
On 13 March, the Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine voted to form a National Guard. According to the document, this will be a large military unit with law-enforcement functions as part of the Interior Ministry. The strength level of the Guard, according to the document, could be up to 60,000 men. It will be formed by detachments of troops of the Interior Ministry and representatives of the Maydan Self-Defense Force, and also by some ordinary citizens of Ukraine who have experience of actual military operations and who have already registered at enlistment offices as volunteers in the event of aggression. The Defense Ministry says that there are about 40,000 Ukrainians in the latter group.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security Council, said that the National Guard is seventy percent manned by volunteers.
As far as the armed forces of Ukraine are concerned, they are in a frankly deplorable condition. Ihor Tenyukh, Ukraine’s defense minister, rated the capacity of the nation’s armed forces for switching to the highest readiness status as “unsatisfactorily low.” This official noted the “dispiriting state of training of the personnel of the Armed Forces, the insufficient manning of units with specialists, and the absence of equipment and arms in good working order.” In the ground forces, whose total strength is 41,000 men, “only 6,000 servicemen are really combat-ready,” Tenyukh emphasized. “More than seventy percent of the armored equipment is composed of obsolescent and worn-out Soviet-made T-64 tanks with a time in service of thirty years and more,” Tenyukh provided as an example.
What are Ukrainian politicians to do in this situation? Political analyst Taras Berezovets, president of Berta Communications, believes that local authorities need to “be more decisive in their appeals to the EU and the United States for the imposition of stiff economic and visa sanctions by the EU and the United States against Russian officials and the Russian president’s closest associates.”
“I believe that the probability of war is very high,” political analyst Alexey Blyuminov sums up, in turn. And he adds: “Locally in Crimea this is an almost 100 percent probability, outside of Crimea, over seventy percent. The events of 16 March (the Crimean referendum) could be the kickoff. Hearing one round go off would be sufficient – from either side.”
The notion of a coup de main by Russian forces against Kyiv, led by airborne (VDV) troops, with groundwork paved by intelligence operatives, that was elaborated by VADM Kabanenko, is entirely consistent with Moscow’s longstanding doctrine – think Czechoslovakia 1968 or Afghanistan 1979, among many possible examples – of how to execute quick, decisive operations for political effect. It is also consistent with reports this week of VDV forces marshaling near the Ukrainian border and of Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives caught in Ukraine spying and prepping local ethnic Russians for action.
The real question, then, is would Ukrainians prove to be more like Czechs in 1968 – passive and accepting of aggression – or more like Afghans in 1979 – full of fight to the bitter end against the invader? While I sense few Pashtun-like tendencies among any Ukrainians, I have little doubt that there are plenty of them who are willing to resist if Russian forces really move on Kyiv, the capital. That would be a real war quickly, no matter the dilapidated condition of Ukraine’s military. As the U.S. military learned to its great chagrin over the last decade, relatively small numbers of determined insurgents with small arms, RPGs, and IEDs can cause enormous pain to even the most powerful occupying army.
The Kremlin would be wise to recall that resistance to Soviet occupation in Western Ukraine lasted into the 1950s and cost many thousands of lives; it took brutal Stalinist methods of mass repression that even Putin would not dare attempt in the 21st century to bring Ukraine fully under Kremlin rule after World War II. Clearer heads in Moscow know this and I can only hope they are being listened to now. I suspect we will know the answer quite soon.
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.