The Moscow weekly Novaya Gazeta, which is the last independent newsmagazine left in Russia that has a critical stance towards the Kremlin, has published an extended interview with Aleksandr Boroday, the Russian national who until recently was the “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) in eastern Ukraine. As I’ve previously reported, Boroday is an odd duck who has an extensive history with Russian intelligence, what they call the “special services” in Moscow, as well as strong connections with Russia’s hard-line nationalist scene. He stepped down on 7 August, in favor of Aleksandr Zakharchenko, an actual Ukrainian, with Boroday becoming the “deputy prime minister” of the ailing pseudo-state, which is in slow-motion collapse under pressure from Kyiv’s advancing armed forces.
Boroday has long been known for his vehement views, and they are on full display in this rambling interview, conducted by Pavel Kanygin, which gives the subject many opportunities to castigate his foes and rivals. The interview is remarkable for both its tone and content, which demonstrate how far removed from earth orbit is the worldview of the motley band of fanatics and mercenaries that Vladimir Putin has employed to destabilize eastern Ukraine. I am passing on some highlights that clarify Boroday’s unique perspective.
Kanygin interviews his subject in a non-descript DNR building in Donetsk, with “almost nothing at all to catch the eye in the office unless you count the portrait of Putin.” Boroday speaks with a pistol strapped to his waist, which he takes out on several occasions as he walks around the office, talking to the reporter. Shellfire is heard in the distance, not far from the city. Boroday belligerently denies suggestions that Ukrainian forces are closing in on the DNR “capital”: “The Ukrainian so-called military, all those gangsters, mercenaries, and all kind of scum, including the military, are trying to encircle us. They are making a bad job of it.” Kanygin notes that he saw absolutely no DNR forces in the city, asking a question about it, leading to this remarkable reply:
Q: Your combatants are not to be seen in the city at all.
A: You should not forget that today is a day off.
Puzzled, the interviewer continues, asking Boroday about his own safety, citing reports that Russian special services have him, along with several other DNR higher-ups, on a death list, as targets for liquidation. This suggestion Boroday brushes off:
I remind you that I am a Russian citizen and somehow I have difficulty in imagining the Russian special services launching certain operations against me. And against any other leader of the Luhansk or Donetsk Republic. That’s bullshit. My bodyguard protects me from the enemy, from the Kyiv junta, from their mercenaries. And it is absolutely not protecting me from the Russian special services, because I don’t need that.
This provides a segue to a revealing discussion about just exactly what and whom Boroday considers to be Russian. This leads to analysis of the inverted world that is the DNR:
Q: Who then are the separatists?
A: The Kyiv junta are separatists. Because there is a gigantic Russian world which has formed over millennia. This is a common civilization — Russian, Belarusian, and Little Russian. For hundreds of years we had a common state which was forged with sweat and blood.
Q: Fine. But where are the borders of this state?
A: They are known. Where the Russian language is heard, where Russian culture is active, where Russian blood has been shed…
It bears noting that the term Boroday uses for Ukraine is “Little Russian” (малороссийская), a Tsarist-era term; he avoids using the actual name for Europe’s second-largest country. Moreover, his definition of what constitutes Russia now is remarkably similar to the 1990s definition employed by Serbian nationalists to define the boundaries of Greater Serbia: “Wherever there are Serbian graves.”
Unsurprisingly, Kanygin’s observation that Russians have shed blood for Estonia also is dodged by Boroday, who is reluctant to openly advocate aggression against a member of NATO and the European Union. Nevertheless, he does state that he wishes to discuss “the borders of the Russian Empire in 1913″ — which would include all the Baltic states as well as much of present-day Poland.
Boroday then mentions his comrade in arms Igor Ivanovich Girkin, AKA Strelkov, the Russian mystery man who until recently was the DNR’s “defense minister.” Boroday admits that he has known Strelkov, “one of our highly trained military men,” since their mutual involvement in Russian military adventures in Moldova twenty years ago. Bizarrely, he recalls that Strelkov, a devoted reenactor hobbyist, repeatedly invited Boroday to attend Napoleonic War reenactments with him, which he declined. It has been reported that Strelkov, too, is under secret death warrant by his former Kremlin masters, leading to this bizarre exchange about him:
Q: But he may not survive?
A: I am not prepared to discuss that.
After a meandering walk through the confusing politics of the DNR as seen via Boroday’s odd prism, the subject then removes an object covered in tinfoil from a bag, explaining to the reporter, “This is my Moscow telephone, an iPhone, it’s wrapped up in many layers of tinfoil as a security measure.”
A: The GPS satellites get confused and cannot identify my whereabouts.
Q: But you turn it on when you enter Russia?
A: Absolutely right. I turn it on when I enter the Russian Federation. But when I am here not a single telephone call from Moscow reaches me here in the Donetsk republic. That’s all there is to it. I also have a local telephone with a local number
Q: I don’t understand., Surely people can phone you from Moscow on this telephone?
A; They can, but they don’t.
Inevitably the issue of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, shot down near Donetsk on 17 July with the death of 298 innocent people, comes up, with Boroday brushing off questions about DNR reactions to the disaster, specifically why international investigators were kept from the crash site for nearly a week, as “more bullshit.” Naturally, Boroday places all blame for the shootdown on the Ukrainians, leading the interviewer to inquire why his subject is certain of this:
Q: How did you establish the Kyiv junta was to blame?
A: You know this is so obvious that in principle there is no need of proof. You must understand, this is a simple matter…
Q: What does ‘obvious’ mean, Aleksandr Yuryevich?
A: Please don’t interrupt me.
As a distraction, Boroday goes on extended rant about the supposed “fifth column” inside the DNR — and even in Russia itself — which, he maintains, “this fourteen percent, unfortunately, have a quite high level of social activity.” This leads to a further explanation:
Yes. I am saying that our fifth column is large and profuse. Accounts in Switzerland, homes in London or somewhere on the Cote d’Azur, this is all the fifth column. But there are those among its ranks who are sitting around doing damage on the social networking sites. Incidentally, let me note that I am not on the social networking sites. What I am saying is that when I arrived in Moscow, I found to my surprise that I had a presence on Facebook and Twitter. But I state officially: This is not me, this is a fake. I have a negative attitude toward social networking sites. Because the sites are an opportunity to manipulate public consciousness.
Kanygin asks about the relationship between the DNR and Kyiv, particularly in light of recent military successes in the east registered by Ukrainian forces. He inquires about the possibility of a long-term truce with Kyiv, leading Boroday to explain, “We are certainly not prepared to conclude a peace on capitulation terms.” When asked about his objectives, Boroday’s response is revealing:
Q: But what is your aim? To create two autonomous regions inside Ukraine?
A: But there is no longer any Ukraine. It does not exist, because the state has in fact collapsed. There are no authorities and there is no longer a country.
Q: But the country has elected its president by a majority
A: But how could it elect when there was no vote in Crimea, Donetsk, or Luhansk? Three enormous oblasts have split from Ukraine. That means it is no longer the same country. And the authorities who have now become entrenched in Kyiv emerged as the result of an armed coup.
Q: The same can be said of you: There was a seizure of power in Donetsk and you organized a junta. And you have looters and gangsters here.
To that, Boroday has no coherent answer. He then flatly denies that any journalists have been abducted by DNR forces, despite evidence to the contrary. Kanygin inquires about reports that DNR military police have been shooting people, leading to this astonishing reply:
Q; And the shootings authorized in Slovyansk by Girkin by Stalin’s edict from 1941 — what was that?
A: We have a tribunal in operation — a military field court martial which regularly authorizes shooting sentences. Why? Because martial law has been introduced in our republic with all ensuing consequences. Yes, some looters and deserters and, thank God, there have not been many of them, have been shot.
After a final citation of the interviewer as “a representative of enemy media,” Boroday concludes his discussion. The magazine appended this as a concluding line: “P.S. Novaya Gazeta‘s chief editor has left A. Boroday’s interview without comment.”
What to comment, indeed?
Amidst sketchy reports of Russian military moves across the Ukrainian border, the website of the Moscow magazine New Times has posted a picture of Russian BTR armored personnel carriers (APCs) with the following text: “Photo by Sergey Khazov, The New Times, 2125, 14.08.2014, near Kamensk-Shakhtinskiy, Rostov Region” as well as the following explanation:
Approximately at 2120* — it’s completely dark here — a convoy of armored vehicles drove past my hotel, which is located literally in the open field, near Kamensk-Shakhtinskiy (Rostov Region): a few dozen APCs, infantry military vehicles, and military trucks pulling artillery guns. At first it seemed that they were moving in the direction of the Izvarino checkpoint, where the Russian checkpoint is and where the crossing is to the Ukrainian region which is controlled by the separatists. However, they are not at the Izvarino checkpoint — the author has checked; they have not been at the Severnoye checkpoint either. Obviously, the vehicles crossed the border somewhere else under the cover of night. Anyway, they are not on the Rostov-Donetsk road. They say here that today Ukrainian servicemen who were surrounded at the Luhansk airport have managed to break through the encirclement and started pushing the separatist groups towards Krasnodon. Probably, this is what caused by the transfer of APCs and artillery across the Russian border.
At last, the explicit Russian invasion of Ukraine may be underway …. more as it happens.
Long before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and began his slow-rolling aggression against Ukraine, I was explaining the concept of Special War, specifically as an alternative to the very expensive and not always effective high-intensity warfare at which the U.S. military excels. Special War involves the application of less kinetic and overt forms of power, especially espionage, covert action, and propaganda, to achieve national aims. As I’ve explained, this is something at which the American government, particularly our Department of Defense, does not excel, while unfortunately the Russians do.
My discussion of Special War became a minor meme and has entered the lexicon of strategy talk, which ought to stimulate a necessary debate, but there’s no evidence yet that anybody in Washington, DC, has thought hard about how to systematically get better in these dark arts. In recent months we’ve had a public demonstration of the Kremlin’s acumen in Special War, above all with the near-bloodless seizure of Crimea by Moscow’s “little green men,” while lately Ukraine has been subjected to the full covert arsenal of Russia’s military intelligence, GRU: spying, subversion, agitprop, and terrorism, much of it executed through cut-outs and proxies. Although the Kremlin’s efforts to subdue Ukraine without invasion are faltering — Putin seems to have grown recklessly overconfident after his Crimean victory and underestimated Kyiv’s resolve — there is no doubt that Moscow’s Special War has rendered sterling service in espionage and propaganda, including in the West.
It’s important to note that the Kremlin’s Special War is waged against the West in toto, not just Ukraine. For Putin to achieve his easily decipherable strategic aims — dividing NATO and bringing the European Union to heel while keeping the United States on the margins, thereby assuring Moscow’s free hand in Eastern Europe and restoring Russian greatness — he must demoralize and divide those in Europe who seek to challenge rebounding Russian influence in Europe and hegemony in the East. This is where the Kremlin’s powerful intelligence agencies, what they call the “special services,” come into play.
As I’ve discussed previously, Russian espionage against the West is at an all-time high, equal to if not exceeding Cold War levels. In many Western countries, GRU and its civilian counterpart, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), have at least as many intelligence officers posted as the Soviets ever did. States that are members of NATO and the EU are of particular interest to Moscow as it seeks to divide alliances and conquer without fighting.
No European country better illustrates how Russia wages Special War than Hungary, which is a member of both NATO and the EU. Russian intelligence is highly active in Hungary, as I’ve explained before, with its agents burrowed deep into politics, the security sector, and the economy. I recently wrote about the consternation of French intelligence that the Russian company Rosatom sold a nuclear reactor to another European country because the SVR had been secretly informed about the offer made by its French competitor, Areva. That country was Hungary. Budapest has a strategic counterintelligence problem on its hands that it is unlikely to defeat on its own.
Neither is it evident that Budapest possesses the political will to seriously confront this covert threat from Moscow. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has led his ruling Fidesz party down an increasingly Putinesque road, while Orbán’s admiration for the Russian leader is undisguised. Not only has the current government forged close economic ties with Russia, Orbán speaks respectfully about Putin, while a recent speech the prime minister gave which denounced liberalism and the existing European democratic model, while holding up Russia as an “illiberal” model worthy of emulation, caused shock across the EU. Although Orbán was castigating Western (neo)liberal economics more than democracy, per se, this was cold comfort as it’s evident that Putinphilia is in fashion in Budpest’s power circles.
While many in the West have registered their displeasure with Orbán and his throwback nationalist ways, and some have wondered if Hungary is something of a Russophilic Trojan Horse inside NATO and the EU, the alarming fact is that Fidesz is not a particularly right-wing party by current Hungarian standards. While Orbán possesses a strong parliamentary majority, it bears observing that the opposition is far to his right, and there lies the real concern — and Moscow’s opportunity.
In April, second place in Hungary’s national elections was taken by the far-right party Jobbik, which secured twenty-one percent of the vote and twenty-five seats in parliament. Founded in 2003, Jobbik (which means “better”*) is an unapologetically radically nationalist party that despises the EU and espouses overt anti-Semitism. While Jobbik’s particular bugbear is Hungary’s Roma population, which it has unpleasant plans for should the party ever come to power, Jobbik’s dislike of Israel and Jews isn’t something they seek to hide. In a typical case, Krisztina Morvai, Jobbik’s top female politico, suggested that Hungarian Jews who don’t like her or her party masturbate with “their tiny circumcised dicks.” In more-Putin-than-Putin fashion, Jobbik aggressively espouses traditional values and strongly dislikes gays.
The party’s youthful leader, Gábor Vona, who has led Jobbik since 2006, is prone to radical and sometimes downright odd statements, including praising Islam and espousing considerable Turcophilia in addition to his admiration for Putin’s Russia. (Affection for Turkey, whom they view as ethnic kin, has been a trope among Hungarian ultra-nationalists for over a century.) Vona’s comments about Iran are customarily warm also, as Jobbik sees Tehran as an ally against the World Zionist Conspiracy.
Of greatest concern to NATO and the EU, however, are Jobbik’s views regarding most of Hungary’s neighbors. The party espouses open irredentism against nearly all neighboring states, where large Hungarian minorities are present. After World War One, no defeated power suffered greater territorial losses than Budapest. The Allied-imposed Treaty of Trianon deprived Hungary of the majority of its territory and population, while leaving nearly a third of all Magyars (i.e. ethnic Hungarians) outside the borders of much-truncated Hungary. There remain large Magyar populations in neighboring states, including over 150,000 in Ukraine, more than a quarter-million in Serbia (specifically Vojvodina), some 460,000 in Slovakia, and above all more than 1.2 million Magyars in Romania.
Most Hungarians continue to view Trianon as an injustice, while Magyar right-wingers have foamed at the mouth about it for nearly a century. Prime Minister Orbán has not been above playing the nationalist card, hinting at possible revisions to Trianon, causing alarm in the Danubian basin, but Jobbik goes considerably further. The party has frequently called for border revisions, leading to significant tensions with Romania and Slovakia, both of which are fellow members of NATO and the EU. While Fidesz exploits the Trianon issue every once in a while to score points with Hungarian nationalists, few think Orbán takes the issue seriously, while on the matter of its co-nationals outside Hungary Jobbik seems to be deadly earnest.
Then there is the troubling question of foreign support for Jobbik. Many believe the party has taken secret funds from Tehran, but that has yet to be proved, while Jobbik’s close ties to Moscow are no longer a matter of conjecture. In May, Hungary’s Parliamentary National Security Committee accused Béla Kovács, a leading Jobbik player and a member of the European Parliament (MEP), of being an active Russian spy. Although he was short of funds for years after his salad bar restaurant failed, Kovács by 2010 was flush with cash, leading to questions about the origin of his wealth. This may have something to do with Kovács’s regular clandestine meetings with Russian case officers that Hungarian counterintelligence uncovered.
Kovács lived for several years in Russia and made no efforts to disguise his deep admiration for that country and Vladimir Putin. He was an agent hiding in plain sight. In Brussels, as an MEP, Kovács was widely considered to be more a lobbyist for Moscow than for Budapest. Significantly, Kovács also serves as the President of the Alliance of European National Movements, an umbrella group of far-right parties across the EU, several of which are believed to be on the Kremlin payroll. Kovács protested his innocence of any espionage, and Jobbik brushed off accusations of secret Moscow ties, but the Hungarian media was generally skeptical, calling the suspect “KGBéla” — the nickname by which he was known inside his own party!
It is widely suspected that Kovács is not the only Jobbik higher-up to be secretly working for Moscow. Party leader Gábor Vona has made trips to Russia, palling around with leading Kremlin ideologist and ultra-nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. Former Jobbik members have stated that Vona is actually a Kremlin agent, while the Budapest media wondered about the Jobbik’s head’s curious comment in January: “masses of our sleeping agents await our victory in state administration. They are still wary of showing their support in public, but we can count on them when the time comes.” More than a few Hungarian patriots have looked at Jobbik and determined that it is not an actual nationalist party, rather a fake one in the pay of Moscow.
This background inevitably raises questions about some of Jobbik’s recent actions. The party has fully taken Moscow’s side in the Ukraine crisis, denouncing the government in Kyiv as “chauvinistic and illegitimate,” while Jobbik has also encouraged ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine not to serve in the military to resist the Russian-directed war in the country’s east. Jobbik has tried to stir up trouble for Ukraine in the Transcarpathia region, where the country’s Hungarians are, and there have been strange events happening lately near the Hungarian border. Antiwar protests among ethnic Hungarians have become a nuisance in Transcarpathia, where local Hungarian politicians have openly accused Jobbik of fomenting unrest to aid Moscow in its war against Ukraine, a view which is held by Ukrainian intelligence as well. Last week’s mysterious attack on the headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) headquarters building in the border town of Uzhhorod, adjacent to Hungary, by four men in camouflage, has raised more questions still.
Of greatest concern are Jobbik’s recent efforts to stir up serious trouble inside NATO and the EU, particularly with regards to Romania, a critical frontline state for the Atlantic Alliance as its neighbor Ukraine is convulsed by war. Last week, party leader Vona, in a speech that praised Russia and denounced Hungary’s “Euro-Atlantic orientation,” stated that autonomy for Hungarians living in Romania is inevitable, “no matter what the Romanian state might do.” Needless to add, this provocative statement caused serious concern in Bucharest and has raised tensions between Romania and Hungary, yet again, at a critical time when such disharmony is detrimental to both NATO and the EU.
Cui bono? is the obvious question to be asked here. While Jobbik certainly are Hungarian nationalists who pine for the revision of Trianon — which most Hungarians understand is a fantasy in any military and political terms — the timing of the party’s provocations against Ukraine and Romania must be questioned. Given its known ties with the Kremlin and its intelligence services, one need not be overly suspicious to wonder about who is calling the shots inside Jobbik. This issue matters far beyond Hungary, and with the rise of far-right parties in many European countries, some of whom, like Jobbik, openly admire Putin and his country, all those in the Euro-Atlantic region who think Russia does not represent a positive force for peace should pay attention.
*Its full name is Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom)
WIRED has a new interview with Edward Snowden, conducted over several days in Moscow, which claims to be the most significant media discussion with the world’s most famous IT contractor since he fled to Russia in June of last year. I won’t comment on the magazine cover shot, with Ed wrapped in Old Glory, representing an American super-patriot, which is a rare breed in Putin’s Russia.
The interview was conducted by James Bamford, who is anything but an impartial observer of U.S. intelligence (my views on Bamford have been previously noted here), indeed he admits to feeling kinship with his subject, and it shows. The piece is filled with so many fawning soft-balls and obvious unasked questions that it makes previous media interviews with Ed, which I considered pretty soft-edged, look like interrogations by Stalin’s NKVD.
The piece requires a nearly line-by-line analysis of its numerous misstatements, lies and obfuscations, but I lack the time or inclination for that. Most minds were made up about Snowden months ago, with some people seemingly uninterested in the obvious gaps and problems in Ed’s Official Narrative; regrettably more than a few of these people are in the tech industry, and the WIRED piece is aimed right at them.
That said, there are a few points that need to be addressed, In the first place, up front Bamford makes clear that his subject is not in bed with the Russians, despite the fact that he’s just received a three-year residence permit to remain there:
When Snowden fled to Russia after stealing the largest cache of secrets in American history, some in Washington accused him of being another link in this chain of Russian agents. But as far as I can tell, it is a charge with no valid evidence.
This begs the question: How far can Bamford actually tell? How informed is our interviewer about the methods of the FSB, Russia’s primary security agency? Since Bamford places this statement early in his interview, preemptively, one wonders what he thinks would constitute “valid evidence” of Ed’s cooperation with the Russian security services. A press release from FSB headquarters?
As I’ve said before, whether Ed was cooperating with the Russians before he reached Moscow is a debatable question, but his status with the FSB now is not actually an open matter, as everyone who understands Russian intelligence knows. Bamford believes his subject is the first Western intelligence defector to Russia ever not to cooperate with the Kremlin’s secret services, and that is his right. It is also everyone else’s right to point out this claim is ridiculous.
Without irony, a few paragraphs later, Bamford notes that “Snowden’s handlers repeatedly warned me that, even switched off, a cell phone can easily be turned into an NSA microphone.” Who exactly are these mysterious “handlers”? Bamford does not tell us. Did he even ask?
Anatoliy Kucherena, Ed’s Russian lawyer, a man with extensive FSB connections, recently told the media that his client does not enjoy official Kremlin protection. Rather his security is handled by unnamed private security experts. Paid for by whom, Kucherena did not clarify. Relatedly, Bamford observes that Ed, despite a lack of funds, is doing well in his new home, which is an upgrade from his native country: “He has learned to live modestly in an expensive city that is cleaner than New York and more sophisticated than Washington.” Since Ed clearly isn’t footing the bill for his 24/7 security — the interview demonstrates that Snowden lives in constant fear of abduction by American intelligence, even in his undisclosed Russian home — who is? That, like so many things, Bamford does not ask or explain.
The interview brims with many strange and unsupported statements that portray Ed as a 21st century martyr who has offered himself as a sacrifice for America’s myriad sins against the planet. If you like this kind of thing, you like this kind of thing. Ed explains at length how easy it was for him to steal all those classified materials from the stupid NSA, and still the stupid NSA can’t figure out exactly what he did, despite Snowden’s charitably leaving behind clues, he says, to assist their investigation. If you prefer your narcissism unadulterated, this is the interview for you.
There is, however, one substantive issue in the piece that needs to be discussed. Towards the end, Bamford dramatically explains how it was that his subject decided that he had crossed the Rubicon, while in a secret NSA facility buried deep under a pineapple plantation in Hawaii:
On March 13, 2013, sitting at his desk in the “tunnel” surrounded by computer screens, Snowden read a news story that convinced him that the time had come to act. It was an account of director of national intelligence James Clapper telling a Senate committee that the NSA does “not wittingly” collect information on millions of Americans. “I think I was reading it in the paper the next day, talking to coworkers, saying, can you believe this shit?”
Snowden and his colleagues had discussed the routine deception around the breadth of the NSA’s spying many times, so it wasn’t surprising to him when they had little reaction to Clapper’s testimony. “It was more of just acceptance,” he says, calling it “the banality of evil”—a reference to Hannah Arendt’s study of bureaucrats in Nazi Germany.
I won’t even address the Obama’s-America-as-Hitler’s-Germany trope, which is exactly the sort of nonsense you’d expect from a half-educated and self-important auto-didact like Snowden. To be clear, Ed now says it was Clapper’s testimony of March 13, 2013 (“the time had come to act”) that caused him to go rogue and flee Hawaii on the lam two months later with all those classified documents, after releasing them to members of the media.
Wait. Wait one minute.
In the first place, it’s impossible to imagine that even self-proclaimed master-hacker Edward Snowden managed to steal 1.5 million classified documents off NSA servers in just a few weeks (although Ed denies the number is that large, he does not refute that the haul was indeed vast).
More important, Glenn Greenwald, Ed’s partner in the operation, recently admitted that he was in contact with Snowden long before Ed’s alleged awakening and decision to go rogue. In Glenn’s words: “[Ed] first tried to contact me — or did contact me back in December of 2012, when he sent me an anonymous email.”
Are we really expected to believe that Ed began stealing thousands of classified documents, then reached out to Glenn Greenwald, one of the most vehemently anti-American commentators anywhere — just, well, because — but it was Clapper’s comments a few months later that convinced Ed to do something seriously wrong?
At this point, the players in the Snowden Operation cannot even keep their basic stories straight. This is aided by certain members of the media who refuse to ask obvious questions about the case, as here. The Bamford interview is nice if you want to feel good about Snowden and what he’s done, but as an effort to record what actually happened it’s unreliable. All propaganda is.
My resignation from the Naval War College, effective the end of this month, has produced minor media commentary as well as a lot of warm wishes from people online. In response to this event, Ars Technica, a website with a large readership, did a story about me by David Kravetz. However, it might be best to call it a “story” since it includes a malicious lie that needs to be clarified. I quote them:
A former National Security Agency analyst who was part of a task force that claimed Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction, Schindler was employed by the college since 2005.
Now this lie is not new, in fact, like so much nonsense it emanates from the Firedoglake crowd, but the link goes to something I wrote about myself on an intelligence bulletin board in September 2012, which I quote in full (note: IPP = Iraqi Perspectives Project):
Bob Mackey correctly notes that Iraqi denial & deception (D&D) on the nuclear issue had a significant impact on IC judgements, even though it’s clear that Saddam’s D&D efforts were aimed at Iran, not primarily the US and the West. Scholarship has yet to fully unravel this difficult issue, which may never be understood in all details, since it’s so complicated and, as the IPP makes clear, the regime was itself confused about who had what, WMD-wise, even at a very high level in the military.
In the run-up to OIF, 2002-03, I headed an interagency intelligence task force which looked at the Iraqi military and we, too, were fooled. All evidence seemed to point in the direction of Iraq having WMDs – that’s how D&D is supposed to work. And in the Dick Cheney 1% threat doctrine world of 2002-03, that led to only one possible conclusion, even though, with hindsight, much of the evidence cited was incomplete at best.
I later was the author/editor of NSA’s official study of OIF (2002-04) and although that study remains classified, I can attest that I never saw any evidence of intentional misuse of incomplete intelligence – we really believed Iraq had some sort of WMDs, as did many of Saddam’s own generals.
Let me be perfectly clear. The intelligence Task Force I headed had nothing explicitly to do with WMDs, though like all analysts looking at Saddam’s Iraq in 2002-03 WMDs were a topic of high interest, neither did I brief any USG leadership at any time on Iraqi WMDs. Not once. Never, as in “not ever.” Looking for Saddam’s WMDs was the full-time job of others in the IC back then, not me; we were looking for Iraqi conventional forces. Sorry to disappoint the conspiracy-mongers, but Cheney and Feith and I did not get together in a dark corner and cook up the Iraq War.
Of course, Firedoglake and Ars Technica could have easily learned the real story had anybody bothered to ask me — I’m pretty easy to find on Twitter — but truth would spoil the smear.
Among the many untruths propagated by the Snowden Operation is the notion that the National Security Agency is busy spying on private firms to seek economic advantage for the United States. In Germany especially, this caused a firestorm of controversy, with many believing that Germany’s powerful economy is at risk from American espionage against German industry.
Left-wingers in Berlin grew sufficiently worried about this issue that they asked the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s counterintelligence agency, to investigate the matter. Their assessment has been obtained by the Berlin daily Die Welt, which reported its findings today. The BfV is aware of some 200 cases of potential or actual espionage against German firms since 2005. However, in only in a few of those cases did the counterspies find “concrete evidence” of intelligence service involvement in industrial espionage.
Many such cases involved Chinese individuals and firms, but given their possible ties to governing structures in Beijing, it was difficult for German counterspies to determine what was private data theft or the work of an intelligence entity operating through a cut-out. In the BfV’s words: “Because of the close links between the industry and the state, for example, in the People’s Republic of China, it is difficult to differentiate whether the industrial spying was done on behalf of the state or competing foreign companies or private persons acting on their behalf.”
The question of American involvement in industrial espionage against German firms was investigated closely by the BfV, which came to this conclusion: “There is currently no concrete evidence of potential involvement of U.S. intelligence services in espionage attacks on German companies,” adding, “the U.S. Government has assured the Federal Government several times that its services do not conduct economic espionage.”
Instead, according to the BfV, known cases of industrial espionage since 2005 have “almost exclusively” involved spying by China and Russia. “The companies have not reported any indications of spying activities by Western countries,” reported German counterintelligence.
As a historian there’s nothing I dislike more than history’s misuse in bad analogies with current events. The subspecies that most needs to go away is the Forever Munich crowd — mostly neocons with quite a few neolibs; it’s always neo-something — for whom October 1938 is frozen in time eternally and the West is falling into “appeasement” to some nasty dictator somewhere. The more that said dictator can be portrayed as vaguely Hitlerian the better, but facts don’t always matter with the Forever Munich brigade. Their perennial point is that the West must “get tough” or something very bad will happen to someone, somewhere.
My loathing of the bad Hitler analogy notwithstanding, you have to be pretty ignorant of the history of Europe in the 1930s not to be more than a little creeped out by the similarities between what Adolf Hitler sought in Central Europe then and what Vladimir Putin is seeking in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, now. In both cases, you’ve got a kinda-elected dictator who has successfully stoked powerful ethno-nationalism to remain popular, while bringing the economy back from the dead after a huge national defeat, and focusing attention on the fate of your co-nationals who have been cruelly left outside your borders by the last war. To fix that, you employ diplomacy, espionage, military power, threats, intimidation, and by far your best weapon is the unwillingness of your (actually far more powerful) adversaries to confront you in any sort of serious way. They fear conflict; you do not.
Hitler thereby managed to pull multiple diplomatic-cum-military rabbits from the hat in the latter half of the 1930s, remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936, occupying both Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 without bloodshed, then taking over the rest of the Czech lands in March 1939, meeting no resistance, after having promised London and Paris that was exactly what he would not do. Only following that humiliation did Britain and France begin to take the German threat altogether seriously, and when Hitler finally pushed too far and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, at last encountering a victim who fought back, London and Paris had no choice but to declare war on Germany. Not that they lifted a finger to save their ally Poland, mind you.
In a not dissimilar vein, ever since his fiery speech in Munich in October 2007, where Putin informed the world how much he lamented the death of the Soviet Union while harshly accusing the United States of undermining global stability, plenty of Westerners have averted eyes from what the Kremlin has actually been doing. Georgia was invaded in August 2008, in a punishment expedition that allowed Moscow to demonstrate its continuing power, and the West did, well … nothing really. Estonia was subjected to a serious cyber-attack that caused real pain and, yet again, this allowed the Kremlin to show it’s still there and will not be ignored. Again, the West didn’t do very much. The Obama administration tried its vaunted “reset,” an exercise in wishful thinking masquerading as strategy which history will judge harshly as the wrong policy at the wrong time, implemented by the wrong people.
That said, many Europeans were even more in the thrall of wishful thinking about the Kremlin than Washington DC, and the West did not really begin to pay attention to Moscow’s not-very-concealed agenda in the former Soviet space until this year, with naked Russian aggression in the seizure of Crimea. I, among others, then issued clear warnings about what Putin really wanted and what needed to be done, without delay, to deter further Kremlin adventurism. Instead, the West — broadly meaning NATO and the European Union and its friends — has implemented waves of sanctions which, while they may prove damaging to Russia, have done nothing to actually prevent more of what I call the Kremlin’s Special War against Ukraine.
Now that war is becoming hotter by the day. Russian proxies are nearing defeat in eastern Ukraine, which would constitute a serious political blow to the Kremlin, so Putin must decide very soon if he wants to intervene across the border, perhaps under a “humanitarian” cloak, or allow his “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk to go down to defeat. After stoking nationalist fires at home about Russians facing “genocide” at the hands of “Nazis” in Kyiv, it’s difficult to see how the Kremlin can simply wash its hands of eastern Ukraine and walk away. A loss to Ukraine would constitute a huge psychic blow to this Kremlin. The trajectory of this war will be clear soon.
Regardless, since this piece is about historical analogy, what I want to highlight is Western reactions to aggression in the 1930s and today. There are remarkable similarities in “enlightened” reactions to both Hitler and Putin in the Western media, among the great and the good. Educated, broadly liberal opinion, the sort of people who craft widely read op-eds and advise our top politicos, viewed both dictators similarly: as distasteful but basically rational men who could not possibly actually want war; as with all decent people, anything would be done to avoid a real conflict, and they don’t really mean all that embarrassing reactionary nationalist talk, it’s all a pose. Unfortunately, the West’s “best and brightest” were wrong then — are they wrong now?
Back in the late 1930s, elite Western opinion-makers, the Tom Friedmans of the day if you like, countered worries about Hitler, and his increasingly obvious aggression, with three essential points; you will recognize them being employed more recently as well, with only a few names changed.
1. Germany has legitimate interests in the fate of Germans outside its borders; we must not be unfair, Germany was badly treated after defeat in the last war.
2. Hitler is a risk-taker, he likes playing va banque, but he does not seriously intend to start a real war, not least because his military is not yet ready.
3. The German economy, still not fully recovered from years of devastation, is wholly unprepared for major war, which would bring significant hardship for the German people and undermine the country.
Let it be said that there was a good deal of truth to all three points in the late 1930s. The Tom Friedmans of the day were far from altogether wrong. In the first place, it was difficult to defend how badly the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination had been applied to the Germans of Central Europe. The victorious Allies prevented Austria and the Sudetenland, nearly 100 percent ethnically German, from joining Germany in 1919, even though that was the preferred option of every major political party, from far-left to far-right, in both those places. Instead, the Allies created the vaguely farcical Czechoslovakia, which actually had more Germans than Slovaks, and Prague excelled at progressive talk for Western consumption while refusing to extend to Germans the minority rights they were promised. In short, Hitler did not invent the issue of restless German minorities — the Allies did that — he simply exploited it, to the hilt, employing it as cover for aggression.
Second, Hitler was indeed a risk-taker who grew more confident with each bloodless victory. His growing contempt for British and French risk-avoidance only fueled the Führer’s desire for more conquest. Many top Wehrmacht generals blanched at the thought of taking on Czechoslovakia in fall 1938, which had strong border defenses and (it seemed) solid French backing. But Hitler’s devil-may-care gamble paid off, as they all would until the disastrous invasion of Russia in June 1941, the one dice-roll too many that ultimately doomed the Third Reich. Furthermore, by any rational analysis, the German military really was unready for a major war in late 1939. Hitler’s ambitious rearmament program was in mid-stride when Poland was invaded and the Wehrmacht entered the Second World War as a far less modern force than Blitzkrieg-happy propaganda, both German and Allied, portrayed it. Deficiencies in armor, aircraft, and above all motor transport were manageable in 1939-40 but would prove fatal once the Soviet Union was invaded. Any reality-based analyst would have informed Hitler in September 1939 that starting a European war was deeply unwise until Germany had completed its rearmament, which was still a couple years off, at least. Hitler indeed received similar counsel from Wehrmacht technocrats: he ignored it, and until his frozen panzers stalled in the snows around Moscow in late 1941, he seemed to have been right.
Third, Germany’s economy, despite its impressive rebound under Hitler, particularly in the realm of employment, was fragile in 1939, and the autarchy that the Second World War brought to completion did huge damage to Germany’s war economy. Yet, as Adam Tooze demonstrated in his fine book The Wages of Destruction, although Western commentators were right that a European war would seriously damage Germany’s economy and living standards, thus undermining the very prosperity that Hitler took power to achieve, it all looked different in Berlin. Hitler actually saw war as the lone way out of Germany’s dire economic predicament in 1939: only by invading neighbors and achieving Lebensraum could the Third Reich avoid the stark economic limitations it faced. While this argument was ultimately madcap, it possessed fierce internal logic, particularly for those who accepted the National Socialist racialist worldview. Economic “facts” of the sort so often triumphed by Western experts, then and now, as if they were immutable laws, carried no weight with Hitler, who created his own logic, at least for a time.
What does all this mean today? The three points that Western opinion-makers cited in the late 1930s to explain, if not excuse, Hitler’s aggression have direct counterparts now. Many are the Western journalists (by no means all Useful Idiots to use the proper Soviet phrase) who have noted that the breakup of the Soviet Union stranded millions of Russians outside the Russian Federation. The unhappiness of certain Russians in Ukraine has been much commented on, by no means inaccurately. Whether this justifies war, special or other, against Ukraine is another question altogether. No less, despite impressive reforms since 2008, the Russian military is far from ready for any major war; as I’ve noted, even pacifying Ukraine may be beyond its capabilities, barring a mass mobilization that would hardly be popular with much of the Russian public. Last, Russia’s Putin-era prosperity, though real, is fragile and based on a few sectors of the economy — resource extraction and armaments, mostly — that would be upended by a major war. It is difficult to argue that any extended conflict would benefit Russia, much less average Russians, in any material way.
But it may look very different in the Kremlin right now. To date, Moscow shows no signs of moderating its stance towards Ukraine, indeed the contrary. Putin still has time to de-escalate the crisis he has created, he is the sole person who can do that, and all reasonable people will hope he does. Yet we do not know how Vladimir Putin thinks about this. It’s apparent that he has become increasingly isolated in his decision-making, and may be surrounded by sycophants and yes-men who will not risk careers to say the necessary about foolhardy plans in the Kremlin. History eventually will tell us.
One big difference between now and 1939, of course, is the existence of nuclear weapons, which Russia possesses in abundance. Given this reality, flirting with major war is a far risker and more terrifying proposition than anything on the table seventy-five years ago. Indeed, nuclear weapons make the notion of major war nearly unthinkable to many Westerners, which perhaps explains why they refuse to think about it. Yet here, as in so many areas, Russian views are different, even radically so, from Western perceptions, as my colleague Tom Nichols has explained lucidly. Given their conventional weaknesses compared to NATO, Russian strategists are far more comfortable contemplating nuclear release than most Westerners are, while Russian violations of the landmark 1987 INF Treaty cannot but cause discomfort among those who desire peace.
The notion that Putin may actually seek a major war, an all-out confrontation with a West he considers decadent and dying, is terrifying but cannot be excluded out of hand. We know that the Kremlin wants to fracture NATO, humiliate the EU, and thereby restore Russian greatness. Given some of his statements, a certain messianic religious aspect to Putin’s motivations, which will not aid strategic analysis, cannot be ruled out either. Seeking a direct confrontation with the West would be the most obvious way for Moscow to achieve its rather clear strategic aims.
If Moscow invades Ukraine yet confines its aggression to the country’s Southeast, where its ailing proxies are, the war may be contained and wrapped up rather quickly by the Kremlin. However, if Putin pushes his forces beyond that and attempts to create “Novorossiya” by force across southern Ukraine, a full-scale war will result that will take years, not months, to resolve; casualties will mount and passions will rise among militaries and civilians alike. Containing an all-out war for Ukraine might prove impossible. In that scenario, Putin may get a European war whether he actively is seeking one or not.
What will happen in Ukraine will become clear soon. In the meantime, it is wise to choose proper historical analogies that add to understanding of complex problems, rather than confusing issues further. Above all, it is imperative that educated Westerners, particularly the postmodern denizens of the WEIRD contingent, understand that things they cannot contemplate because they find them unpalatable or even ridiculous may seem quite plausible to others. What you find utterly unthinkable may prove quite thinkable, even reasonable, to your enemies.