Top German Spies Unload on Merkel’s Kowtowing to Putin

One of the West’s open secrets is that Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, consistently behaves in an obsequious manner towards Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian Russia. Time and again, Berlin has refused to confront the Kremlin over its egregious misconduct – from espionage to subversion to terrorism – while throwing NATO allies under the bus to keep Moscow happy.

Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor for 14 years, is no different from Germany’s political class, which seeks to stay in Putin’s good graces at seemingly any cost. Berlin’s preachy pontifications about democracy, decency, and human rights are customarily aimed at NATO allies, seldom at Moscow.

For years, German intelligence higher-ups have chafed at this situation, viewing the Kremlin as a threat to NATO, the European Union, and German security, while Merkel and her ilk pretend otherwise. The spies finally had enough this August when Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian of Chechen background living in Germany as a political exile, was assassinated in a Berlin park in broad daylight. His killer was a Russian thug with easily detectable ties to the Kremlin.

This was a step too far. When the Merkel government showed its customary inability to confront Moscow over anything, German spies – with backing from U.S. intelligence, which valued Khangoshvili – privately made plain that this brazen crime could not be ignored. Once the case was in the hands of prosecutors, following months of delay, Berlin two weeks ago expelled two Russian diplomats – in reality, spies.

That was just the beginning of pushback by German spies against Merkel and her giving Putin carte blanche to do whatever he likes in Germany. A firehose of leaks just burst into public view in Bild, a populist-conservative tabloid that’s Europe’s biggest-circulation newspaper, which takes a hard line on the Kremlin, a rarity in Germany.

Yesterday, Bild ran the sensational story “Former spy chiefs settle accounts with Merkel,” which revealed to the public for the first time just how subservient Germany’s chancellor has been to Moscow. Several retired spy bosses took Merkel to task, denouncing her conduct towards the Kremlin with harsh words: “Obsequiousness” and “Cowardice” were cited, while one former spy chief stated that the chancellor “blamed her own intelligence services” rather than Putin for problems in the bilateral relationship.

Bernd Schmidbauer, who served as the cabinet-level coordinator of Germany’s intelligence and security agencies (a position roughly equivalent to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence), denounced Merkel’s handling of German security vis-à-vis Russia as “worse than bad,” adding it is “a disgrace to our country” how weakly Berlin responded to Khangoshvili’s brazen assassination. This cannot be dismissed as partisan grousing. Schmidbauer, a lifelong member of Merkel’s own party, termed the expulsion of two Russian spies “laughable” given the gravity of the crime perpetrated by the Kremlin in Berlin.

Another former German intelligence chief who did not wished to be named told Bild that Merkel’s conduct towards the Kremlin “from many viewpoints is incomprehensible,” adding that Putin “walked all over” Merkel publicly after the Khangoshvili assassination, as Berlin stood by silently as the Kremlin maligned the murdered man. Another senior German intelligence official denounced Berlin’s handling of the case as “unprofessional…a declaration of political bankruptcy.”

This bombshell from the spooks exploded the pleasant myth, popular in certain circles, that Merkel is the “leader of the free world” now that the United States has abdicated that role with Donald Trump in the White House. The unpalatable truth is that current U.S. policies towards the Kremlin – to be distinguished from Trump’s tweets and rants – are tougher than they were under Obama, and much harsher than they have ever been in Berlin under Merkel.

Adding fuel to the fire, only a few hours after the first spy-leak salvo, Bild ran another story, “The trail of Putin’s spy leads to Parliament,” which shared tantalizing details about Evgeniy Sutskiy, a deputy military attaché at Russia’s Berlin embassy who was expelled earlier this month over the Khangoshvili hit. In reality, Sutskiy is a senior officer of Russian military intelligence or GRU, and Bild supplied details about him and his family. In particular, the story revealed that Sutskiy devoted considerable effort to penetrating Merkel’s ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union or CDU.

Sutskiy had several meetings with Salahdin Koban, a German of Kurdish background and a former CDU parliamentary candidate. Since these Berlin rendezvous smack of clandestine intelligence gathering, given known GRU tradecraft, Bild’s account raises troubling questions about Merkel’s own party and how deep its Kremlin ties really are.

Then, today, Bild ran a third piece, “How Putin’s network in German works,” a detailed counterintelligence report that clearly draws from high-level leaks in Berlin. “Espionage, influence operations, sabotage, money laundering, gun- and drug-smuggling,” are what Moscow’s spies have been doing in Germany for decades. Bild asserts that at least 3,000 Russian spies are active in Germany at present, counting “sleepers.”

The report runs though the various ways that Russian spies operate in Germany, via “legal” outposts in diplomatic missions to “illegals” operating without diplomatic cover. Bild adds the role played by the Russian diaspora in Germany in espionage, as well as a prominent part played by the Russian Orthodox Church in clandestinely serving the Kremlin abroad. Think-tanks, too, get mentioned, given their important role in disseminating Russian propaganda in Germany and beyond.

Bild likewise notes the significant part played by Russian business interests, including Gazprom, in supporting Kremlin espionage and influence operations in Germany. Neither does the piece shy away from mentioning the clandestine role of Russian intelligence behind various sports clubs, as well as Kremlin connections to drug-smuggling rings operating in Germany. Most controversially, the report states that certain German politicians, ranging from the Alternative for Germany on the right to Die Linke on the left, are handled by Russian intelligence via “traveling diplomats.”

This is all old hat to counterintelligence veterans, who understand how deeply Russian spies since the Cold War’s end have penetrated German politics, economy, and society at all levels, but this will be shocking news to average citizens. Bild’s reporting this week constitutes a direct challenge to Angela Merkel and her government about their willingness to let Vladimir Putin literally get away with murder on German soil. Germans should have questions about what’s really going on here, and why.

More is coming…watch this space.

Kremlin Wetwork Reaches Germany

No major European country is as enamored with Vladimir Putin’s Russia as Germany. There, even the most serious Kremlin violations of international laws and norms will find defenders across the political spectrum. Pro-Russian views are so commonplace in Germany that there’s term, Russlandversteher (“Russia-understander”), for those who incline to Moscow’s viewpoint.

The perennial challenge facing Russlandversteher, however, is that Putin’s regime keeps resetting the bar with its outrageous conduct. Assassinations abroad perpetrated by Kremlin killers, most infamously the near-murder of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England with a weapons-grade nerve agent in March 2018, strain the ability of even Putin’s most ardent German fans to defend. Now, they face the even more embarrassing prospect that Russia has perpetrated a state-sanctioned assassination, what Kremlin spies term “wetwork,” right in Germany’s capital.

The crime occurred last Friday at midday in Kleiner Tiergarten park in the heart of Berlin. A 40-year-old Georgian national named Zelimkhan Kangoshvili, a pious Muslim, was walking to pray at his local mosque. He had entered Germany in early 2017, claiming asylum for himself, his wife, and their five children, which was granted after German authorities determined that Kangoshvili was neither a terrorist nor an extremist.

Two minutes to noon last Friday, as Kangoshvili was pacing to his mosque, his killer approached him from behind and shot him multiple times in the head at close range. Death came quickly. Several witnesses attested that the killer fled at once on a bicycle. He didn’t get far, dumping a plastic bag in the nearby Spree river which turned out to contain the murder weapon – a Glock 26 with a silencer – as well as a wig. Two alert 17-year-old witnesses notified the police, who found the killer hiding behind bushes with a scooter which was intended to facilitate a getaway that never happened.

The suspect was taken into custody without delay. A 49-year-old Russian national, he has been identified only as Vadim S. by German police. Investigators were immediately suspicious of his motives since the suspect possessed a large amount of cash as well as paprika, which is used by professional criminals to throw police dogs off their scent.

The murder weapon, a so-called Baby Glock with a silencer, is favored by professional killers, while the method of execution, the vaunted “double-tap” to the head at close range, indicated this was no random crime or robbery gone wrong.

That the Kangoshvili killing was a mafia hit loomed as a serious possibility. Chechen criminal syndicates control much of the drug trade in Berlin, as in several German cities, and the victim was a member of Georgia’s Kist minority, who are ethnic kin of the neighboring Chechens. However, with help from German intelligence, detectives learned that Vadim S. had gotten to Berlin via an unusually circuitous route.

The murder suspect entered the Schengen zone in Paris, having applied for his visa in Russia in late July, arriving by air from Moscow. He then made his way to Germany to kill his target. It’s not yet known if Vadim S. visited other countries before the Berlin murder, but German police believe that he surveilled Kangoshvili before shooting him. This all smacks unmistakably of spycraft more than mafia methods.

Moreover, Kangoshvili, who lived in Germany under multiple aliases for protection, was a wanted man in Russia. He feared for his life since enemies, presumably on Kremlin orders, tried to assassinate him before, including in Georgia in 2015. A German friend asserted that Kangoshvili had received threatening messages via SMS and WhatsApp before his murder.

Russia’s Federal Security Service, the powerful FSB, placed Kangoshvili’s name on a public list of known terrorists, asserting that the wanted man was an Islamist militant. Although the victim was pious Muslim who had fought in the Second Chechen War against Russian forces in the early-aughts, Kangoshvili’s friends insist that he was no jihadist radical, a view that’s confirmed by German security services who approved his asylum in their country.

German authorities have offered unsubtle hints that last Friday’s murder was a political assassination, not a mob hit or random crime. Russia’s increasingly rogue military intelligence arm, known as GRU, has been mentioned by German investigators. GRU operatives tried to murder the Skripals last year, while that spy service has become Vladimir Putin’s weapon of choice for wetwork and related unsavory secret activities around the world.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s protégé and Chechen strongman, must also be considered a short-list suspect. Kadyrov boasts of killing his enemies wherever they may be and several Chechens who got on his bad side have indeed been assassinated abroad, particularly in Turkey, over the last decade – attacks that Western counterintelligence experts assess are Kadyrov’s handiwork.

The Kangoshvili killing is reminiscent of the assassination of Umar Israilov, another veteran of the Second Chechen War and Kadyrov enemy who was gunned down in broad daylight in Vienna at the beginning of 2009. Two years later, three Chechens were convicted of Israilov’s murder and Austrian police had no doubt that Kadyrov stood behind the crime.

Regardless of who exactly ordered the murder of Zelimkhan Kangoshvili, that his killer’s trail leads to the Russian Federation does not appear to be in any doubt. It remains to be seen how energetic German investigators will be in attempting to determine who exactly sent Vadim S. to Berlin and why.

This is an awkward moment for Germany’s prominent Russlandversteher, who have denied and explained away the Putin regime’s crimes at home and abroad. Now, in a bloody act that’s reminiscent of the Cold War – when secret police killers from the East roamed West Germany without excessive interference from the local authorities – the unpleasant nature of Russia’s government has been forced onto the front pages of German newspapers, at least for a while. If Berlin doesn’t take the Kangoshvili assassination seriously, this won’t be the last episode of Kremlin wetwork to be visited on German soil.

It Sure Looks Like Jeffrey Epstein Was a Spy—But Whose?

In terms of scandals, the sordid saga of Jeffrey Epstein has it all. Mysterious gaudy fortunes. Jet-setting debauchery. Lots of pretty girls—including very young girls. Sex and more sex, not necessarily legal or consensual. Add a battalion of VIPs, including billionaires, A-list celebrities, royalty and no less than two American presidents.

The only thing missing was espionage… and it’s not missing anymore.

This week, the Epstein story took center stage for all the reasons listed above. The surprise arrest of the 66-year-old admitted pedophile on Saturday night at New Jersey’s Teterboro airport, as he was headed home from Paris, reopened it all. The case had jumped in and out of the news since 2007, when Epstein admitted his affection for underage women to the Department of Justice, in exchange for lenient treatment.

The media has been agog since the weekend, as details of Epstein’s shocking private life are emerging. Public horror has followed—another alleged victim came forward just today, claiming Epstein raped her in 2002, when she was 15—and more seems certain to come.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Why J. Edgar Hoover Was Right to Spy on Martin Luther King, Jr.

New revelations from secret FBI files show that the civil rights icon had the morals of a goat – and that he had a troubling relationship with Kremlin agents.

Few stories are guaranteed to get liberals in a greater lather than the 1960s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr. by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover – the notorious micromanager who was possibly gay and maybe even partly black himself – conducted years of secret surveillance on the civil rights icon has been a sore point with progressives for decades.

What the Bureau reputedly discovered about King, especially his extramarital activities with a string of lovers, hardly seemed to comport with the clergyman’s saintly public image. Neither was it exactly a secret that MLK’s private life verged on the sordid, since members of the martyred minister’s inner circle have previously gone on record about his weakness for women.

Nevertheless, what David Garrow published this week has produced great gnashing of teeth, not least because the author is an esteemed left-liberal historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for a celebrated biography of King. If Professor Garrow has an ideological motive, it’s hardly anti-King, which only makes his findings more painful.

First, let it be noted that Garrow ran his explosive piece in Standpoint, a center-right British magazine, after it was turned down by several mainstream media outlets which didn’t want to touch a story this hot. And hot indeed it is, including details of King’s cavorting with north of 40 women not his wife, as well as seductions of parishioners, full-blown orgies, plus an apparent illegitimate daughter. Worst of all, King reportedly watched and cracked jokes while witnessing the rape of a church-going lady by a friend and fellow man of the cloth. In any age this is shocking stuff, and never more than in the #MeToo era.

Garrow uncovered this unpleasant account in FBI files while diligently researching in the National Archives. In 1977, a Federal court ordered the Bureau’s wiretap recordings of King to be held under seal for 50 years, but some transcripts, once classified, wound up in the archives, thanks to post-Cold War declassifications, where Garrow found them while digging in the files – something which previous historians failed to do.

There can be no doubt of their authenticity. Garrow’s opponents are now coming out of the woodwork and smearing him for telling unpalatable truths, attempting to cast doubt on the archives. The notion that veteran FBI agents would fabricate secret wiretap transcripts which they knew were likely to wind up on the desk of the obsessively detailed-oriented Mr. Hoover is patently absurd.

While King’s revolting sexual conduct is getting all the media attention, that’s not the important part of this story, historically speaking. Garrow’s report includes details about the FBI’s infamous Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which in the 1960s and early 1970s surveilled and employed dirty tricks against radical groups which Hoover assessed as threats to national security. These FBI operations against student radicals and various minority groups like the Black Panthers have generated a great deal of polemical literature. That COINTELPRO’s greatest success was breaking the back of the Ku Klux Klan is less frequently noted.

The FBI has long been criticized for surveilling King, who over the half-century since his assassination has become a secular saint complete with his own Federal holiday (an honor bestowed on no other American). On the Left, it’s an article of faith that Hoover’s motivation for spying on MLK was prejudice, even racism, pure and simple.

Garrow’s account makes clear that was not the case. Hoover’s reason for ordering the Bureau to closely watch King beginning in 1963 was fear of Kremlin influence on the civil rights leader. The essence of this story has been known for decades. Hoover worried about Stanley Levison, a left-wing attorney who entered King’s orbit in late 1956, quickly becoming MLK’s closest confidant. Levison served as all-purpose consigliere to King and authored some of the civil rights leader’s most famous speeches.

Hoover fretted about the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) infiltrating the civil rights movement, particularly because the FBI knew that the party had secret members, known only to CPUSA leadership, who were employed to clandestinely influence non-communist groups. Worse, the Bureau knew that Stanley Levison was one such secret CPUSA member.

They knew this thanks to Jack and Morris Childs, two brothers who joined the party as youths and rose high up, including serving as Soviet spies (any line between the CPUSA and Soviet intelligence existed in theory, not in fact). However, by the 1950s the Childs brothers had flipped and become FBI moles inside the party, passing the Bureau reams of information about the CPUSA’s inner workings as the cornerstone of Operation SOLO, which became one of the FBI’s great Cold War successes.

The Childs told the FBI about Levison’s secret party ties, so the Bureau began watching Levison. They discovered that he was meeting with Viktor Lesiovsky, a Soviet diplomat assigned to the United Nations in New York, who rose to become special assistant to the UN secretary general, but the FBI knew that Lesiovsky was really a KGB officer.

This rang enough alarm bells within the Bureau that Hoover informed President John F. Kennedy about counterintelligence concerns regarding King’s inner circle; these concerns were endorsed by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the president’s brother. This led to a White House meeting on June 22, 1963, during which the president asked King to sever ties with Levison, whom Kennedy termed a “Kremlin agent.” This was the very height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union nearly had a nuclear war between each other a few months before, yet King ultimately refused to part with Levison, who remained MLK’s top adviser until his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. It was King’s unwillingness to cut ties with Levison which led Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to authorize full FBI surveillance of the civil rights leader shortly before President Kennedy’s own assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Garrow adds important detail to this story, including the fact that the FBI was aware of Levison’s role as a major CPUSA bagman. Between 1957 and 1962, Bureau files reveal, Levison gave the party an astonishing $76,500 ($650,000 in 2019). Since Levison was not a wealthy man, this funding can be assumed to have come from the Kremlin in some fashion, since communist parties overseas were funded by the KGB through various clandestine methods.

More troubling still is Garrow’s revelation from FBI files that Levison gifted his new friend King with $10,000 in cash during 1957-58, an amount equivalent to $87,000 today. The Bureau learned of this donation from the IRS, leading Hoover to exasperation. Given Levison’s Kremlin connections, there is reasonable suspicion that this cash came from the KGB too. Which makes the FBI’s apparent failure to inform the White House about Levison’s role as CPUSA bagman, including payments to King, rather difficult to explain.

Garrow concludes his piece with the assessment that what he learned from FBI files about King “poses so fundamental a challenge to his historical stature as to require the most complete and extensive review possible.” Given the vituperative criticism that Garrow has gotten for publishing his findings, there’s no reason to think that historians and journalists will be eager to dig deeper into the archives about King’s secret life. However, Garrow makes clear that J. Edgar Hoover was right to have grave counterintelligence concerns about the civil rights leader and his secret connections to the Soviet Union. Given high public interest in the clandestine role of Moscow’s spies in American politics, thanks to Donald J. Trump, the role of Stanley Levison, a known Kremlin agent, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inner circle now merits dispassionate examination by experts, not partisans.


We Need to Stop Operation PERSIAN FREEDOM—And We Need to Stop It Right Now

Dodgy intelligence supports ramping up for war against a troublesome four-letter Middle Eastern country starting with ‘I’—what could possibly go wrong? If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you have.

Today, Tehran announced its partial withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama’s diplomatic crown jewel. President Hassan Rouhani went on television to explain his country’s intent to back away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), faulting “hardliners” in the United States for the deal’s implosion.

Of course, Rouhani’s right here. President Donald Trump, despite warnings from our European allies, pulled America out of JCPOA already, denouncing it as “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made.” His administration then upped the ante by announcing its intent to destroy Iran’s already sanctions-hobbled economy by blocking Iranian oil sales abroad. This move is viewed as tantamount to a U.S. declaration of war by the mullah regime, while Americans ought to ponder just how much FDR moderated Japanese aggression with his oil embargo on Tokyo in August 1941.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Russian Activities Across Europe (A Contrarian Assessment)

I was asked by the Pentagon to write up my thoughts on Putin’s Russia and its strategic intentions towards the US, NATO and the West for a DoD Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) White Paper. That paper has been released to the public, so here is my portion of the SMA, for those interested.


Russia today is a spoiler in the U.S.-led international system, especially in Europe, where the Kremlin continues to enjoy advantages over USG and NATO in key areas such as espionage and propaganda, in which Russian asymmetric power punches far above its weight. Contrary to conventional analysis, after two decades under Vladimir Putin, Russia represents an ideological challenge to the West, not just a political and military rivalry. Although NATO continues to possess impressive overmatch against Moscow, that edge is dwindling, and Western vulnerabilities in certain military areas are alarming. Moreover, the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological – as well as political and military – aspects of our rivalry with Putinism means that the threat of significant armed conflict is rising.

The Nature of the Regime

Putin’s Russia bears similarities to the Tsarist past and the more recent Communist one but is truly reflective of neither previous system. Although Putin himself is very much a product of the Soviet system, indeed he is derided as a sovok (‘dustpan’ in Russian, meaning one who uncritically admires the Soviet past) by his enemies at home, his two decades in power since the end of the 1990s have delivered significant breaks from the Bolshevik experience in politics and Russian society more broadly.

Putin’s Russia is neither free in a Western sense or unfree in a Soviet one. It is a hybrid regime, a ‘managed democracy’ of a peculiarly Russian sort, with the Kremlin bestowing accolades on aspects of the Tsarist legacy and the Communist one too, while still being critical of both. Though power is centralized at ‘the top’ in the Kremlin, and regional power centers were brought under Moscow’s heel in the early years of Putinism, it would be incorrect to view Putin’s regime as possessing the long arms of the Soviet system under Stalin, for instance.

Here the prominent role of wealthy businessmen, so-called ‘oligarchs,’ is important but frequently overvalued by Western commentators. Although Putin rules with help from oligarchs and has become a billionaire himself thanks to those close and mutually beneficial relationships, top businessmen who fall afoul of ‘the top’ go into exile and not infrequently wind up dead under mysterious circumstances. [1]

It’s customary to track Putin’s disenchantment with the West (particularly the United States) to his infamous speech at 2007’s Munich Security Forum, yet it needs to be stated that too many Western experts failed to realize just how angry the Kremlin was growing at the West by the late-aughts. Moreover, most of them missed indelible signs in the years running up to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that Moscow was becoming implacably opposed to the postmodern West on an ideological level. Here Putin’s fiery comments at the 2013 Valdai Club, where he denounced the West as godless and even Satanic, deserved more attention than they received abroad. [2]

These themes became regime propaganda, and the events of 2014 were hailed by Putin with an unprecedented dose of Russian (russkiy not rossiskiy) nationalism [3], combined with Third Rome-flavored religious mysticism with the staunch backing of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has become a major supporter of the regime and the de facto state religion under Putin. [4] This heady brew of religious nationalism falls on deaf ears in the West, which finds it strange and atavistic, yet it resonates with average Russians in a way that Bolshevism never did.

It should be noted that Russians are not especially religious in terms of churchgoing but under Putin, Orthodoxy has been reborn and weaponized to bolster the regime and encourage popular support for its policies. Putin himself puts on a convincing act of being an Orthodox believer, and whether he really is one (or not) is immaterial to the prominent role that Russian Orthodoxy now plays in creating pro-regime ideas and actions among average Russians. This hearkens back to ancient Orthodox notions of symphonia (‘symphony’ meaning symbiosis between secular and religious rulers) which stand in marked contrast to current Western ideas about ‘separation of church and state.’ Moscow in recent years has made clear that it views the present clash with the West as having a deep ideological aspect, rooted in nationalism and religion, whether the West notices this or not. [5]

After 9/11, there was a rush among Americans to grasp ‘Why they hate us,’ meaning trying to understand the Salafi jihadist ideology that motivated their aggression. Similarly, it is now imperative for Westerners to grasp the Putinist ideology, what motivates it, and why it is encouraging more confrontation – not conciliation – with the West.

The Special Services

One aspect of Putinism that is unique in Russian history is the dominant role of the security agencies, what Russians term the ‘special services,’ in nearly all regime affairs. The dominance of these secretive agencies in the formulation of policy, foreign and domestic, has no precedent in Russian history, which for centuries has valued its spy services more than Western countries do. The connection of Putin’s special services to the past, including the darkest periods of Communist oppression, is illustrated by the fanfare with which the regime recently celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Soviet secret police – and their direct connection to Kremlin spies today. [6]

Here’s Putin’s past in the KGB plays a major role and as the Kremlin boss he has surrounded himself with senior decisionmakers very much like himself. Indeed, there are few people at ‘the top’ in Moscow who didn’t grow up in the Soviet intelligence apparatus, military or civilian. They are ‘Chekists’ to use the proper term and Putin myself famously stated, ‘There are no “former” Chekists.’ [7] In many ways, Putinism can be viewed as the fulfillment of the long-term goal of Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB from 1967 to 1982 (and briefly the top party boss, 1982-84), who assessed a political system in collapse and wanted Chekists, the only truly reliable element, to take over everything. Under Putin, they have done so.

Here the Federal Security Service (FSB), which Putin headed in 1998-99, plays a preeminent role, and the FSB and Russia’s other intelligence agencies carry much more weight in broad policymaking than any Western spy services do. They function as the regime’s backbone, its corps d’elite, and they possess the favor of ‘the top’ – and all Russians know it. Under Putin, Russia’s special services hold a power and prestige they never had under the Communists, when those had to be shared with the party and the military. However, the dominance of Chekists in Moscow mandates a bias for action (sometimes for its own sake), a knack for tactics over strategy, and a tendency to conspiratorial group-think in the upper reaches of the Kremlin.

The Military

Russia’s military was a major loser of the Soviet collapse, and only over the past decade has it begun to show signs of renewed vitality and operational competence, both of which were sorely lacking in the 1990s, as revealed by the debacle of the First Chechen War (1994-96). More recent operations in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea/Ukraine in 2014-15 have demonstrated that the Russian military is a force to be reckoned with again.

The appearance of the Little Green Men of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the latter conflict stunned the world, but just as impressive was the battlefield performance of Russian artillery and electronic warfare, which when linked together decimated Ukrainian units. In these areas, Russia is ahead of NATO, including the U.S. Army, which has lost a generation in artillery and EW and is playing catch-up now. Given the historical dominance of artillery in the Russian army, this merits serious attention by the Atlantic Alliance. [8]

Russia’s military still has major problems with readiness, corruption, and morale compared to most NATO forces, but it is again a force to be reckoned with. While there is little question that NATO would prevail in any protracted war against Russia, in which the Atlantic Alliance’s full military resources could be brought to bear, Russia’s odds in any short or medium-term conflict appear more favorable.

That said, there is a dearth of serious strategic thinking in the Kremlin, as witnessed by the ‘frozen conflict’ in southeastern Ukraine, where the Russian military and its local proxy forces in 2014 purchased a bridgehead to nowhere and nobody in Moscow seems to know how to end that low-boil war while saving face, five years on. Given Russia’s mounting economic problems stemming from its aggression with Ukraine, the fact that the General Staff seems stuck in Donbas raises questions about strategic decision-making in Moscow.

Spiritual Security

That seemingly endless war in Ukraine has been sold to the Russian public as a strategic necessity to protect fellow Russians from the genocide-inclined ‘fascist junta’ in Kiev. The religious aspects of the Ukraine war have been given prime attention in Kremlin media, and the conflict has become a showcase for the regime’s ideology, which approves of conflict with the West – even military conflict – when needed since the godless postmodern West is in league with the Devil: according to Kremlin propagandists, quite literally.

Such messages seem laughable to the West but are taken seriously by many Russians, not least because they possess deep resonance with centuries of their history, which has long preached about the incompatibility of Eastern Orthodox values with the ‘heretic’ West. Now that critique encompasses withering language about Western secularism and decadence too, but its outlines were found in Russia half a millennium ago.

This religious vision has been endorsed by the special services also, which led by the FSB have created a doctrine they call ‘spiritual security,’ meaning an adherence to traditional religion and conservative social values as a core component of national security. This is the driver of Kremlin efforts to kick Western ‘heretics’ (usually Protestant Evangelicals or Jehovah’s Witnesses) out of Russia, which show no signs of abating; rather the contrary since 2014. Putin has stated that Russia’s ‘spiritual shield’ – meaning the Orthodox Church and its teachings, with the backing of the regime – are as important to Russia’s security as her nuclear shield, so the West needs to pay attention. [9]

What Putin Wants

We have no idea what Putin ‘really’ believes as a matter of faith, but in practical terms he is a hard-headed realist who is fundamentally cautious – in 2014-15 he repeatedly turned down General Staff pleas to widen the war in Ukraine when Russian strategic victory over Kiev would have been relatively easy – yet prone to occasional gambling in va banque fashion. We should not expect that Putin will wake one day and decide to unleash all-out war on NATO, but the chances of that happening by accident are rising as both sides grow increasingly wary and prone to provocations.

Putin does not want the restoration of the Soviet Union, nor a Tsarist Empire 2.0, but he does not recognize the 1991 post-Soviet settlement as final. To the Kremlin, those are merely lines on a Communist map. Putin’s acceptance of Ukrainian statehood is conditional at best, and the same can be said for his take on Belarus; Minsk’s efforts to distance their country from Moscow’s tentacles are doomed to fail in extremis. Putin will never part with Crimea, that matter is settled as far as most Russians are concerned, but a negotiated settlement of the Ukraine crisis is possible, yet only on Russia’s terms, which seem unlikely to find favor in Kiev – or Brussels.

At root, Putin wants Russia to be respected as a great power, the historic and geographic hegemon over Eastern Europe, possessing a proprietary interest in Russians outside the borders of the Russian Federation. Putin and his regime view the European Union with undisguised contempt while the Kremlin’s assessment of the Baltic States is that they are not ‘countries’ in the sense that Russia is. The risk of a Russian provocation going badly wrong is notably high regarding Estonia, given recent aggressive FSB operations against that country. [10]

Russia’s current economic problems, derived in large part from sanctions caused by the Ukraine war, will make the Kremlin more, not less, likely to engage in adventurism against the West and NATO. While Putin does not consciously seek major war in Europe, the possibility of that breaking out on the fringes of the former Soviet Union are rising, not falling, in 2019.

What’s Ahead For EUCOM and NATO

Aggressive Russian Special War – that is, espionage, disinformation, cyber-attacks and disruptions, propaganda, terrorism, even assassinations abroad – will continue to be the Kremlin’s major day-in, day-out weapon of choice against NATO and the West. [11] Special War, led by Russia’s powerful and aggressive special services, will be employed, without restraint, to weaken Western resolve while creating political and military conditions favorable to Russia. That Moscow wants the end of both NATO and the EU – and the U.S. military out of East-Central Europe – should not be in doubt.

EUCOM and NATO need to be prepared to blunt aggressive Russian military moves on the Alliance’s fringes, especially the Baltic States, while the possibility of a Kremlin-backed coup in Minsk is real. For want of a rapid response by NATO, such regional confrontations could easily turn into a wider war which nobody on either side really wants.

EUCOM’s current force posture in the AOR is inadequate to realistically deter possible Russian adventurism on the Atlantic Alliance’s eastern edge. Deficits in artillery and EW are especially serious, while overall NATO readiness to contest possible Russian aggression in Eastern Europe is lacking.

What is to be Done?

  1. Understand the ideological aspects of the reborn military and political confrontation between Putin’s Russia and the West since 2014.
  2. Understand the real drivers of Kremlin policymaking, particularly as they relate to Russian activities designed to weaken and divide the West (especially NATO and the EU).
  3. Understand the central role of the ‘special services’ in Kremlin decision-making, and how the dominance of spies in Moscow creates threats – and opportunities – for the West.
  4. Understand Putin’s strategic aims in Europe and the preeminent role of Special War in the Kremlin’s quotidian aggressions against NATO and the West.
  5. Strengthen NATO’s military posture (including rapidly deployable forces) on the Alliance’s eastern edge to deter Kremlin provocations and aggression.
  6. Develop effective NATO counterespionage and counterpropaganda capabilities to limit the damage inflicted on Western institutions by Kremlin Special War, which will not cease, since they are cost-effective for Moscow.
  7. Accept that Cold War 2.0 is here and shows few signs of abating without the fall of Putinism – which is unlikely to happen soon. Moreover, Putin’s replacement could be a more sincere Russian nationalist than he is. This conflict, to include ideological aspects, is here to stay for at least decades.


[1] John R. Schindler, “Another Defector Dead in Washington,” The Observer, 16 March 2016.

[2] John R. Schindler, “Putin’s Orthodox Jihad,” The XX Committee, 27 December 2014.

[3] In the Russian language, russkiy denotes Russian in an ethnic sense while rossiskiy refers to anyone in Russia, e.g. the Russian Federation is Rossiskaya Federatsiya.

[4] On the Third Rome myth and Russian imperial ideology see Marshall Poe, “Moscow, the Third Rome: The Origins and Transformations of a ‘Pivotal Moment’,” in: Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd.49, H.3, 2001.

[5] John R. Schindler, “Russia Has an Ideology – and It’s as Entrenched as Communism Was,” The Observer, 21 March 2018.

[6] John R. Schindler, “Russia Celebrates the Grim Centenary of Police Rule,” The Observer, 22 December 2017.

[7] In the original (which has become a mantra of Putinism): Бывших чекистов не бывает.

[8] John R. Schindler, “Outgunned US Army Isn’t Prepared for War with Russia,” The Observer, 28 August 2018.

[9] Julie Fedor, Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition, from Lenin to Putin (Routledge, NY, 2011), pp. 168-181.

[10] The FSB’s 2014 abduction of the Estonian counterintelligence officer Eston Kohver on the tense border between their countries is precisely the sort of aggressive Chekist provocation that could result in an unwanted war between Russia and NATO. See: “Why Eston Kohver Matters,” RFE/RL, 3 June 2015.

[11] This author coined the term “Russia’s Special War” in 2014, see: “Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia,” New York Times, 20 Apr 2014.


The Full Story of Trump’s Russia Ties Will Come Out—But It’ll Take Time

The big problem with getting to the bottom of President Donald Trump’s Kremlin ties isn’t just secrecy and classification—it’s that practically nobody in Washington wants to know the messy and complex truth.

You need to shut up about what you can’t talk about, as Ludwig Wittgenstein memorably put it. It sounds more meticulous in the philosopher’s original German (Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen), but the point is the same: Some things just aren’t fit to be uttered in polite company.

Espionage is one of those things. The public likes the movie version of spying—fast cars, beguiling beauties and baccarat—but not the real-life kind, which bears no resemblance to the film version. Espionage in the real world is messy and difficult. Knowing who in Washington is in bed with foreign intelligence services can be unsettling. Counterintelligence is not a job for the faint-hearted, or anyone who likes justice dispensed quickly.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Steele Dossier Is the Gift That Keeps on Giving—For Both Trump and the Kremlin

Ever since BuzzFeed published it 10 days before Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the notorious Steele dossier has never been out of the news. The 35-pager was always of dubious intelligence value, so why anybody is still discussing that controversial document is a question that needs to be answered.

It’s not difficult to determine why the dossier, compiled in the second half of 2016 by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, created a sensation, given its lurid allegations of sexual shenanigans by our 45th president, accusations of clandestine meetings between Trump emissaries and Russian spies, and a general portrayal of Trump as a highly unsavory character. This was tabloid-worthy stuff, coming from a one-time senior British spy.

From the outset, however, there were solid reasons to question the accuracy of much of its contents. While its portrayals of Kremlin atmospherics mostly rang true, many of the dossier’s specific allegations of shady activities involving Trump and the Kremlin were not just unproven but well-nigh unprovable. To take a classic example, see the late summer 2016 meeting in Prague between Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney and Russian officials, alleged by the dossier, which may—or may not—have happened: we simply don’t know.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Ghosts of the Balkan wars are returning in unlikely places

Why is the Christchurch far-right terrorist obsessed with the crazy-haired Serb that the UN just sentenced to life in prison? How Balkan war criminals became idols to Western extremists is a bizarre story that shouldn’t be real, but is.

Twenty years ago this week, NATO decided to take Kosovo away from Serbia. The Rambouillet Agreement of March 18, 1999, named for the château outside Paris where negotiations failed to resolve that Balkan crisis without wider war, set the stage for an independent Kosovo under NATO administration and protection.

Five days after US, British, and Albanian delegations signed the Rambouillet Agreement – Serbian and Russian delegations refused to sign – NATO bombs started to fall on Serbia, and they kept falling for 78 days. The Kosovo War was a nearly bloodless affair for the Atlantic Alliance but not for the Serbs and Albanians.

NATO’s victory over Belgrade, achieved by airpower alone, made the Pentagon and associated think-tanks giddy. At last the age of truly high-technology war had arrived, rendering slogging it out in the mud with ground troops unnecessary. They forgot that NATO’s infantry in Kosovo was supplied by the tenacious Kosovo Liberation Army, determined to liberate their homeland from Serbian misrule. As a result, the US military invaded Iraq in 2003 carrying rucksacks filled with Balkan illusions about the magical power of technology in war and how easy foreign occupation can be when the locals sincerely greet you as liberators.

Read the rest at Spectator USA …

The fall of Paul John Manafort Jr.

Today was supposed to be the big, final day in court for Paul John Manafort Jr., the once-flamboyant political maven and ostrich jacket-wearer turned convicted felon. For decades a controversial character in our nation’s capital, Manafort capped his career in politics as campaign manager for Donald J. Trump from March to August of 2016, the pivotal period when MAGA exploded and Trump seized the GOP’s nomination against the hopes and expectations of Republican elites. The rest, we know.

That capstone would prove to be Manafort’s downfall. It’s not like there weren’t portents of a grim ending ahead. Nobody had recently considered Manafort to be any sort of Republican A-lister. His last major campaign before Trump’s was Sen. Bob Dole’s doomed 1996 effort against President Bill Clinton. In Washington, DC, Manafort the lobbyist was known for his unsavory client list, which included various Third World strongmen, Pakistan’s sinister Inter-Service Intelligence, and several Eastern oligarchs. You went to Manafort not because you needed a lobbyist, but because nobody else in DC would take your call.

It all came crashing down in mid-August 2016, when the media noticed that Manafort’s Eastern factotum, Konstantin Kilimnik, who played a multipurpose role as translator, buddy, and all-around fixer, was formerly an officer of Russian military intelligence – that is, GRU. Robert S. Mueller, III, and his investigation of the Trump campaign later indicated that there was nothing ‘former’ about Kilimnik’s GRU affiliation.

Read the rest at The Spectator USA …