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.

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.

Abstract

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.

References

[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.

 

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 …

North Korea humiliates Trump before the world

No diplomats anywhere enjoy dealing with North Korea. Pyongyang is difficult, indeed obstreperous at the best of times, while the Kim dynasty and its emissaries are notorious worldwide for their aggressive and undiplomatic trash-talking when they are displeased. Which they frequently are.

Donald Trump’s quixotic effort to make nice with the world’s strangest regime was therefore always a long shot, while his desire to denuclearize North Korea in exchange for diplomatic normalization and economic development was based in what can be kindly called fantasy thinking.

That has just been made painfully evident in Hanoi, where the much-ballyhooed second summit between President Trump and the North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un fell apart with no deal of any kind. After investing a considerable amount of his personal prestige, and that of the United States, in building a relationship with Kim, Trump is flying back to Washington, DC, with nothing. His reality-TV-based notion of how to solve intractable diplomatic problems has been revealed as just another Trumpian sham, alongside Don’s vodka, his steaks, and his ‘university’.

Read the rest at Spectator USA …

Bibi blows up Israel’s Central European alliance

Nationalism is a supremely powerful force in politics, but it’s perennially difficult to forge lasting alliances between competing nationalisms – as this week’s news demonstrates yet again.

No country has benefited more from the growing split between Brussels and the European Union’s formerly Communist member states than Israel. In Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and Bratislava, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found receptive European audiences, which Israel needed as the EU has soured on Israel’s occupation policies towards the Palestinians and increasingly aggressive rhetoric towards Iran. Netanyahu invested in these new relationships, which were based in more than mere convenience.

The Visegrád Four, as they call themselves, made natural allies for Likud-run Israel. Poland, Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia all have right-wing governments which value ethno-nationalism and the preservation of the nation, while disdaining liberal multiculturalism and fearing Islam and migration – all the while not caring one whit what Brussels thinks. In other words, they’re a lot like Netanyahu’s Israel.

Read the rest at Spectator USA …

Trust me I’m a Russia hawk – the Democrats are going too far

If only President Richard Nixon could go to China, per the hoary Beltway cliché, perhaps only yours truly could write this column. Longer than just about anybody, I’ve warned the public about the threat to Western democracy posed by Vladimir Putin’s aggressive spies and weaponized lies.

As a counterintelligence officer for the National Security Agency, I was combating Russian propaganda, what they call Active Measures, two decades ago. When the NSA contractor Edward Snowden defected to Moscow in June 2013, I called him out as the Kremlin agent he is – as the Kremlin subsequently admitted – which won me few friends among the great and the good. Over the past six years, I’ve explained how Russian intelligence operations work in the real world, based on my professional experience, to any audience that will listen.

Now, however, it’s time to apply the brakes. While I will never cease denouncing Russian spy games that threaten the West, it’s past due to differentiate serious counterintelligence work from politically motivated hackery. Simply put, Russian clandestine support to Donald Trump in the 2016 election, the subject which Robert Mueller’s investigators are unraveling, has become nothing short of an obsession for many of President Trump’s political opponents.

Read the rest at Spectator USA…

In Moscow, There’s No Longer Any Line Between Spies, Lies & Terrorists

These days there’s no term more likely to attract the nut fringe than “false flag.” Citing it is a surefire way to rally online monomaniacs who believe that nothing in the world is as it seems to be. The belief that nefarious secret forces pull the strings behind events is for some as addictive as opioids.

This is unfortunate, since false flag is a perfectly legitimate term in the espionage world, and it’s far from new. Spies have masqueraded as someone else during their secret operations for as long as there have been spies. In extreme cases, intelligence services have undertaken terrorist attacks under a false flag to smear opponents and fool the public. Such cases, while rare, do occur.

They still happen today. A fair amount of the time, these incidents involve Russians, since the Kremlin perfected this dark art over a century ago, when professional provocateurs ran the tsar’s terrorism problem bloodily into the ground. A recent case of false flag terrorism illustrates that not much has changed in the last 120 years.

On February 4, 2018, unidentified assailants fire-bombed a Hungarian cultural center in Uzhhorod, the capital of Ukraine’s westernmost region. There were no casualties, but the attack raised worries among the 100,000 Hungarians who live around Uzhhorod, on the border with Hungary, their ancestral homeland. The status of Ukraine’s Hungarian minority has become a hot-button issue between Kiev and Budapest, and the terrorist incident made the touchy situation worse.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Trump’s sudden Syria pullout reveals his administration’s chaos – and misguided priorities

President Donald J. Trump’s surprise announcement on Wednesday that he is withdrawing the US military from Syria has shaken the Washington, DC, foreign policy establishment like a thunderclap. While there have been nods of approval from skeptics about American interventionism in the Middle East, that’s a rare breed inside the Beltway.

Instead, DC foreign policy mavens, most of whom espouse neo-flavored beliefs (whether neoliberal or neoconservative) reacted with derision and horror to Trump’s proposed withdrawal from Syria’s terrible fratricide, ongoing for almost eight years. These media and think-tank denizens, once derided as ‘the Blob’ by Obama’s White House, have spoken with one voice, and it’s sharply critical of the president.

Prominent Republicans are among the harshest Trump critics, with Sen. Lindsey Graham leading the charge against the president’s Syria decision, which Graham claims ‘rattled the world.’ Most Democratic critiques of Trump’s announcement sound similar, when not identical. Here’s another reminder of the broad and deep Washington consensus that the only thing wrong with American military interventions, especially in the Middle East, is that there aren’t enough of them.

Read the rest at Spectator USA…

Putin turns up the heat on Ukraine – again

Although seldom noticed by anyone west of Warsaw, there has been a war going on in Europe for almost five years now. It began in early 2014 with a Russian secret operation in mid-February that annexed Crimea and soon spread to overt Kremlin military intervention in eastern Ukraine as well. Serious fighting followed, and that conflict remains unfrozen and deadly.

While there has been no sustained combat in eastern Ukraine in years, neither is that front quiet. Kyiv has never accepted the Russian theft of Crimea and the “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, Kremlin-run pseudo-states that serve as bases for Russian military units on Ukrainian soil. Those units regularly shell Ukrainian positions, because they can. Casualties are commonplace – a few at a time, on a sufficiently low-boil that the West makes little fuss – but hundreds of Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded since 2015. Twelve were lost to Russian shelling, with five of them dead, on one bad day this August.

As is his wont, Russian President Vladimir Putin occasionally turns up the heat on Ukraine, because he can. The latest aggressive Kremlin provocation came on Sunday, when Russian Coast Guard vessels in the Black Sea attacked Ukrainian navy boats in the strategically vital Kerch Strait, which divides Crimea from Russia. For months, tensions have been rising around the narrow waterway, particularly since Moscow opened a bridge across it in May. This is the sole land connection between Russia and its Crimean reconquest and is therefore of preeminent importance to the Kremlin.

Read the rest at Spectator USA …