Understanding Provocation

One of the most powerful tools the Kremlin has in its secret arsenal of Special War is provocation, what they call provokatsiya. While Moscow cannot claim to have invented this technique, which has existed as long as there have been secret services, there’s no doubt that Russians have perfected the art and taken it to a whole new level of sophistication and deviousness. At times, it can become a strategy all on its own (not always, mind you, with edifying results).

Provokatsiya simply means taking control of your enemies in secret and encouraging them to do things that discredit them and help you. You plant your own agents provocateurs and flip legitimate activists, turning them to your side. When you’re dealing with extremists to start with, getting them to do crazy, self-defeating things isn’t often difficult. In some cases, you simply create extremists and terrorists where they don’t exist. This is causing problems in order to solve them, and since the Tsarist period, Russian intelligence has been known to do just that.

While this isn’t a particularly nice technique, it works surprisingly well, particularly if you don’t care about bloody and messy consequences. Credulous Westerners are a big help. Perhaps the most infamous Kremlin case of provokatsiya was the TRUST operation of the 1920s. In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Bolshevik control was incomplete and Moscow faced the problem that a large number of Whites, their recent enemies, had gotten sanctuary in Europe, where they plotted the reconquest of Holy Russia.

Soon the White emigration klatched in the cafes of Paris and Berlin was invigorated by tantalizing rumors that there existed a secret anti-Bolshevik movement underground in the USSR, calling itself the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. Before long, prominent Whites gave this shadowy group their political and financial support, as did several Western intelligence services who desired the end – or at least the harassment – of Bolshevism. Intelligence from inside the Soviet Union was a scarce commodity at the time. Some emigres were even prompted to clandestinely return to Russia in the hope of aiding the resistance. Among them was the famous revolutionary Boris Savinkov, who had broken with the Bolsheviks and was one of Moscow’s top public enemies.

But word of Savinkov dried up once he reached Russia, as it did for all the emigres and spies who tried to enter the Soviet Union to establish contact with the underground resistance. They were dead. The TRUST operation was all a mirage; there in fact was no Monarchist Union of Central Russia, it was a front for Soviet intelligence. By 1926, Western intelligence began to suspect the truth, but by that point the Soviet secret police had been running their false-flag operation for five years, during which time it had eliminated or neutralized several of its top enemies while causing them, and several Western spy services, to waste time, money, and energy on a mirage that was actually Soviet-run.

Russians have employed this crafty model countless times since, as have the many intelligence services that have received training in the dark arts from Moscow. Cuban intelligence is notorious for this – it can be reliably assumed that many of the most hard-line anti-Castro exiles are actually on their payroll – while in the 1990s the Algerian military intelligence service, the feared DRS, executed an enormous version of the TRUST operation against its Islamist foes, defeating them in detail, but at the cost of thousands of innocent lives.

This model must be kept in mind during current discussions of Ukraine, where the Kremlin assures us that the government in Kyiv are “fascists” planning a “Nazi” takeover. While there are right-wingers in Ukraine who have troubling views, their numbers are inflated for effect by Moscow, something which too many Westerners accept uncritically. Moreover, some of the most hardline Ukrainian nationalists are secretly under Moscow’s control, and there’s nothing new about this.

The Soviet secret police infiltrated far-right Ukrainian emigre groups in the 1920s and 1930s, provoking them into self-defeating acts and killing off their leaders. Similar provocation was employed after the Second World War by Stalin’s secret police to crush resistance in Western Ukraine, which lasted into the early 1950s, while throughout the Cold War, Ukrainian rightists abroad were targets for surveillance, harassment, and sometimes assassination by the KGB.

Since the Soviet collapse, similar Russian provocations in Ukraine are broadly understood by security circles in Kyiv, which is part of why the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, is now attempting to reign in far-right groups like the Right Sector (Pravyy Sektor): not only are they potentially dangerous to democracy, they may be on Moscow’s payroll too. This has come to a head due to the death this week of the notorious far-right activist Oleksandr Muzychko, AKA Sashko Billy, a vocal hater of Russians and Jews, who fell in a murky shootout with police in the Western Ukrainian city of Rivne. Muzychko was so extreme that he actually fought in Chechnya in the 1990s with the local resistance – Moscow accused him of war crimes there – and his funeral turned into a far-right rally against the government in Kyiv. Predictably, all this got huge coverage in Russian media, which is eager to demonstrate the “fascist” nature of all Ukrainians who do not wish to be ruled by the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, we can expect more provocations as this crisis continues. A directly relevant example of what may happen is a series of events in Croatia in 1991, another country where the position of Jews is politically sensitive due to the Second World War and the Holocaust. As Yugoslavia was collapsing, Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian allies constantly parroted the line that the government in newly independent Croatia was really “fascist” and they planned to resurrect Nazi-era war crimes against minorities, including Jews, and intervention was required from outside the country to prevent “genocide” (if this all sounds to you remarkably like Kremlin propaganda now against Ukraine, it should). As in Ukraine today, there were neo-fascists in Croatia in 1991, but they were politically marginal and considered a threat by the government.

Just like the Soviet Union, Communist Yugoslavia had manipulated, harassed, and killed off Croatian nationalists for decades. In a Balkan version of the TRUST, in the late 1940s, Tito’s secret police lured would-be guerrilla fighters into the country – you knew this was coming – to support a shadowy resistance army: of course it didn’t exist, and it served to get the infiltrators killed. For decades, Yugoslav secret police kept close tabs on Croatian emigres involved in anti-regime activities, employing provocation to discredit them very effectively. Several dozen Croatian exiles in the West were also murdered by Yugoslav assassins. Croatians understood that many of their most radical nationalists were actually under Yugoslav control.

Fears that newly independent Croatia was under threat by “fascists” – just as Belgrade was telling everyone loudly – reached a fever pitch in the summer of 1991 with a series of attacks on Jewish targets in Zagreb. That August, bombs went off at a Jewish community center and the main Jewish cemetery; although there were no casualties, the explosions caused a panic in Croatia’s tiny Jewish community, particularly because there were other bombings at the same time on rail lines in several locations, leading to a sense of anarchy. Soon unverified reports emerged placing blame for the attacks on the government, explicitly fingering President Franjo Tudjman as the figure behind the bombings.

This was all strenuously denied by Tudjman and his government, which moved quickly to reassure Jews they were in no danger. This was all a significant distraction while Croatia was fighting for its life as Yugoslav troops and Serbian irregulars took over one-third of the country that summer and fall. The bombings and accompanying propaganda earned Croatia a black eye internationally when it least needed it, and before long Jewish groups were pondering a mass evacuation from the country, just in case.

It turned out it was all one big provocation engineered by the Yugoslav military’s Counterintelligence Service (KOS), which boasted a substantial agent network in Croatia, including several prominent right-wingers. The Zagreb bombings and accompanying anti-Croatia propaganda were termed Operation LABRADOR by KOS, which considered it to be highly successful. On the heels of the attacks, Zagreb security services worked hard to roll up the KOS networks in the country, but by that point the damage had been done. The false-flag bombings were a reminder to the world that Zagreb was “really” under the control of “fascists,” a lie that the Tudjman government never fully overcame in certain quarters.

Provocation combined with propaganda can be powerfully effective in transmitting Big Lies about people, places, and even whole countries, especially in times of crisis. The Kremlin has been honing this unpleasant skill for more than a century. The next time you hear about violence in Ukraine – and, sadly, you certainly will – it’s good to remember that provokatsiya is real.

The Coming War for Ukraine

As I write, Russian forces, reportedly close to 100,000 troops, are massing on the eastern borders of Ukraine for a possible invasion. The Kremlin is either about to start a major war, or wants the world to think it is: there is no third choice now. Given the scheduled referendum in the Crimea this Sunday, smart money has it that Putin, if he really launches an all-out push for Ukraine – which, as I’ve already explained, could be a disastrous move on his part – it will come early next week. Needless to add, this scenario brings chills to me and to anyone who understands the stakes in what would immediately be the biggest European war since 1945.

Yet that invasion, with its terrible consequences, is what many in Ukraine now expect. That mood of resignation, and what a Russian invasion might look like, are elaborated well in a new piece in Novoye Vremya (The New Times), a Moscow newsmagazine that is a rare outlet for anti-Kremlin views in Russia. The article by Maksim Shveyts, titled “Kyiv: Expecting War,” follows in toto, with my analysis following.

Kyiv: Expecting War – Ukraine is forming a National Guard and preparing in earnest for the defense of the capital against the aggressor

In Kyiv, Russia’s possible plans to invade mainland Ukraine do not appear to anyone simply to be a fantasy. Many recall how during his latest “appearance to the people” in Rostov-na-Donu, ex-President Viktor Yanukovych once again said that he considers himself the legitimate head of state and also promised to return to Kyiv “soon”. The fugitive president could only do this accompanied by the Russian military, local experts are convinced. And, indeed, they do not rule out scenarios in which Russian tanks enter the city.

Vice Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, ex-deputy chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Staff, said that Russia is preparing an air and ground offensive frontal operation against the country. Testifying to this, Kabanenko says, will be the next steps of the Russian authorities: first, “the training of airborne forces of the Russian Federation led by General Shamanov with the involvement of strategic aviation. Second, completion of the formation of an echelon, massing of air defense, and the formation of an air defense force grouping. And, finally, continuation of a deep special operation on the territory of Ukraine and the buildup of a battle group in Crimea and the East.”

Kabanenko called on the country’s political leadership to immediately mobilize reserves and to arm the citizenry. This retired military officer is certain that it is necessary to declare a patriotic war against the occupiers, form a supreme command staff, and began armed resistance to Russia’s plans to invade mainland Ukraine.

Stanislav Shum, director of Ekonomika publishers, says, “the next city where Russian troops are to be expected is Kyiv”: “Because if the Ukrainian Army is as weak as the defense minister maintains, there’s no point from the military perspective in attacking the regions if the capital can be taken. Again, without a single shot being fired, to the cannonade of protests and profound concern of the West,” this expert believes. “Events subsequently will unfold as rapidly as in the final days of February, only in reverse order,” he explains.

Escalation of Tension

Kyiv really does have grounds for fears. On 13 March, the Russian Federation (RF) Defense Ministry announced exercises to be conducted on the eastern border with Ukraine. The same day in Inkerman [in Crimea], the Russian military sealed off a weapons depot. Two explosive ordnance storage units – of the Ukrainian Navy and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – are stationed there. It was then learned that RF service personnel had sealed off the Ukrainian Ai-Petri Battalion. They posted thirty men with assault rifles around the perimeter and said that any transport traveling in the direction of the Ukrainian battalion was “subject to neutralization.” Meanwhile, the Crimean “self-defense force” prepared for an assault on the Ukrainian military unit in Simferopol, with the demand that the fuel depot be handed over to it. The new authorities of Crimea, led by the unrecognized Crimean Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, have taken control of the Feodosiya oil transshipment terminal.

On the whole, the mood of the military on the Crimean peninsula has over the past week changed considerably. New Times’ sources in the Ukrainian Navy report that while in the first days of the conflict the Russian military often behaved politely and proposed patrolling together with Ukrainian soldiers, in recent days they have been calling themselves the “bosses” and have been talking to Ukrainians exclusively in superior tones, ordering them around.

Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, commander of the 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade stationed at the Bel’bek airfield, became known to the whole country after he defended his right to that airfield. On Thursday, he called the national leadership, the Defense Ministry, and the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff. Mamchur claims in this call that ultimatums from Russian servicemen are becoming increasingly serious, and he asked the command, therefore, to make a decision as quickly as possible about guidance for his personnel in the event of a direct threat.

“The Russian Federation has in the Luhansk and Chernihiv regions massed an assault force, heavy equipment, and military helicopters. Simultaneously, pro-Russian forces in Kharkiv are preparing an ‘assembly rally’ for the 16th, at which they plan to make a decision on a referendum based on the Crimean model,” independent political analyst Alexey Blyuminov points out. “Considering that the Kharkiv Region Council has refused to conduct any referendums for such purposes, I do not rule out attempts at a strong-arm seizure of the regional council by pro-Russian assault units and their adoption of an appeal to the Russian regime for the commitment of troops. The same provocation is possible in Luhansk region also,” he warns. This expert says the FSB continues to operate in the country’s eastern regions.

American CIA Director John Brennan said on 12 March that a full-scale invasion of Russian troops onto the territory of Ukraine will begin after the referendum in Crimea. The Ukrainian political analyst Pavlo Nuss shares this viewpoint: “On 17-18 March, regular troops of the Russian Federation will begin an invasion of Ukraine,” he says. This expert believes the invasion will begin simultaneously from the south and east of the country. “They will begin the occupation of Kherson and Mykolaiv from Crimea, attempting to take control of the shoreline of the Dnieper. They will attempt simultaneously to enter the territory of Mariupol and Berdyansk to establish control over the Azov region plus the Sea of Azov. This will happen, if we consider the invader’s ‘maritime interest’ scenario. The mobilization of the RF army at the borders of our motherland testifies that Russia is prepared for any scenario of military operations,” Nuss explains.

Guard to the Rescue

On 13 March, the Rada (Parliament) of Ukraine voted to form a National Guard. According to the document, this will be a large military unit with law-enforcement functions as part of the Interior Ministry. The strength level of the Guard, according to the document, could be up to 60,000 men. It will be formed by detachments of troops of the Interior Ministry and representatives of the Maydan Self-Defense Force, and also by some ordinary citizens of Ukraine who have experience of actual military operations and who have already registered at enlistment offices as volunteers in the event of aggression. The Defense Ministry says that there are about 40,000 Ukrainians in the latter group.

Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the National Security Council, said that the National Guard is seventy percent manned by volunteers.

As far as the armed forces of Ukraine are concerned, they are in a frankly deplorable condition. Ihor Tenyukh, Ukraine’s defense minister, rated the capacity of the nation’s armed forces for switching to the highest readiness status as “unsatisfactorily low.” This official noted the “dispiriting state of training of the personnel of the Armed Forces, the insufficient manning of units with specialists, and the absence of equipment and arms in good working order.” In the ground forces, whose total strength is 41,000 men, “only 6,000 servicemen are really combat-ready,” Tenyukh emphasized. “More than seventy percent of the armored equipment is composed of obsolescent and worn-out Soviet-made T-64 tanks with a time in service of thirty years and more,” Tenyukh provided as an example.

What are Ukrainian politicians to do in this situation? Political analyst Taras Berezovets, president of Berta Communications, believes that local authorities need to “be more decisive in their appeals to the EU and the United States for the imposition of stiff economic and visa sanctions by the EU and the United States against Russian officials and the Russian president’s closest associates.”

“I believe that the probability of war is very high,” political analyst Alexey Blyuminov sums up, in turn. And he adds: “Locally in Crimea this is an almost 100 percent probability, outside of Crimea, over seventy percent. The events of 16 March (the Crimean referendum) could be the kickoff. Hearing one round go off would be sufficient – from either side.”

The notion of a coup de main by Russian forces against Kyiv, led by airborne (VDV) troops, with groundwork paved by intelligence operatives, that was elaborated by VADM Kabanenko, is entirely consistent with Moscow’s longstanding doctrine – think Czechoslovakia 1968 or Afghanistan 1979, among many possible examples – of how to execute quick, decisive operations for political effect. It is also consistent with reports this week of VDV forces marshaling near the Ukrainian border and of Russian military intelligence (GRU) operatives caught in Ukraine spying and prepping local ethnic Russians for action.

The real question, then, is would Ukrainians prove to be more like Czechs in 1968 – passive and accepting of aggression – or more like Afghans in 1979 – full of fight to the bitter end against the invader? While I sense few Pashtun-like tendencies among any Ukrainians, I have little doubt that there are plenty of them who are willing to resist if Russian forces really move on Kyiv, the capital. That would be a real war quickly, no matter the dilapidated condition of Ukraine’s military. As the U.S. military learned to its great chagrin over the last decade, relatively small numbers of determined insurgents with small arms, RPGs, and IEDs can cause enormous pain to even the most powerful occupying army.

The Kremlin would be wise to recall that resistance to Soviet occupation in Western Ukraine lasted into the 1950s and cost many thousands of lives; it took brutal Stalinist methods of mass repression that even Putin would not dare attempt in the 21st century to bring Ukraine fully under Kremlin rule after World War II. Clearer heads in Moscow know this and I can only hope they are being listened to now. I suspect we will know the answer quite soon.

Understanding the Crimea Crisis

As I write, the Ukrainian region of Crimea is being absorbed by Russia, more or less openly. This represents a blatant challenge to the post-1991 European order, make no mistake, and so far Vladimir Putin is winning. After a sudden increase in Russian military personnel on the sensitive peninsula, more than 6,000 troops, mostly Special Operations Forces (SOF), Moscow has pulled out all the stops in waging what I have termed Special War: provocations, espionage, black and white propaganda, and the use of deniable SOF, often under false flag. None of this is new to the Russians, indeed it’s second-nature to the Kremlin, and Crimea today can best be viewed as one huge operation by Moscow’s powerful military intelligence, the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), which controls not just defense espionage matters but SOF too, what the Russians term SPETSNAZ.

The outcome in Crimea is no longer in doubt. The referendum on its status, whose vote tally is preordained, is scheduled for March 16; that President Obama and many Western leaders have noted this is illegal is all the more reason Moscow will do it. Western powers are spending much time and effort trying to undo the fait accompli in Crimea, to no effect now save posturing. What needs to be done is deterring the Kremlin’s next move, which is sure to come.

It is widely assumed that Putin’s next aggression will arrive in Eastern Ukraine, where there are large pockets of ethnic Russians, and where Moscow’s intelligence services have been playing their customary provocative games, laying the groundwork for full-scale Special War. Regrettably, I suspect the chances of a more-or-less overt Russian military move into Eastern Ukraine, to “protect” ethnic kin from “fascists,” are rising as Putin smells Western dithering in the face of his Crimean coup. Such an act will mean a full-scale war for Ukraine, which will soon involve NATO indirectly at least. Putin has the ability to seize much of Eastern Ukraine without much chance of defeat, but he may win himself a protracted conflict for which Russia is unready.

That said, there is no room for confident pleasantries yet of the sort we are seeing in the Western media: that the Kremlin is really losing, that Russia is on the ropes, that Putin is sowing the seeds of his eventual defeat. There is no doubt that Putin is lashing out in part due to Russia’s many weaknesses: economic, social, demographic, and political. Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union – really, a deep longing for again having unquestioned Great Power status – is well known, but it needs to be recognized that over Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is acting simply in the manner of traditional Russian leaders: touchy about borders, at turns nakedly aggressive, desiring to have weak neighbors it can manipulate, worried about defending his land and people against myriad aggressors (some of them quite imaginary). Russia’s neighbors all know this pattern of conduct well, and are planning accordingly. Poland announced major defense reforms emphasizing territorial defense (i.e. defense against resurgent Russia) last fall, and now Sweden is following suit: there will be others.

To the surprise of no one actually acquainted with post-Cold War Europe, the collective response of European powers to the Crimean crisis has been underwhelming, to be kind. There has been no united front against Kremlin aggression as there is no common vision of what needs defending among members of the European Union (EU). While Eastern members properly feel an urgency about Russian moves, members further West seem less inclined to inconvenience themselves and their comfortable lives. The response in Germany, the most powerful EU country economically and politically, has been particularly repulsive where, thanks to underfunding and a lack of seriousness about defense matters, the Bundeswehr is incapable of offering much in terms of deterrence anyway, and the Kremlin’s buying off of much of Germany’s political elite has done the rest. Given German misdeeds in Poland and other Eastern European countries between 1939 and 1945, that are now threatened by Moscow, Berlin’s lackadaiscal response reveals moral, not just political, failings.

As the EU has been revealed to be a dilettante’s talk-shop outside economics, better suited to debates about cheese regulations than serious matters of statecraft, the burden must fall on NATO which, thanks to gross underinvestment in defense by nearly all European members, means that falls on the United States. There is no doubt that, in extremis, the United States would honor its Article 5 obligations and go to war to defend any NATO country directly threatened by Russian invasion. But what of countries threatened more indirectly by Special War à la russe – by subversion, terrorism, and violence by “self-defense militias” that the Kremlin swears it has nothing to do with? And what happens in a few years when the American military, already tired by a dozen years of failed wars  in the Middle East and increasingly hollowed out by massive defense spending cuts, lacks sufficient power to deter Russia quickly and convincingly? These are the stuff of Eastern European NATO nightmares, and properly so.

Perhaps most unsettling is the manner in which Western observers fail to note what actually motivates Putin and his country. Let there be no mistake, Moscow’s nakedly nationalist chest-beating is widely popular among average Russians; its opponents represent a distinctly minority view that natives will cheerfully explain is foreign-controlled anyway. We hear much happy-talk about the “irrationality” of Kremlin conduct, that such aggression has no place in our current, advanced age, and that it all makes no economic sense anyway. Historians are aware that remarkably similar language was employed by Western pundits and statesmen in the late 1930s to explain away the increasingly aggressive behavior, including cheerful disregard for international norms, by another leader of a resurgent yet recently defeated power.

Russia was indeed a defeated power after 1991, and it nurses a deep sense of humiliation at the hands of the West and especially the United States. I have more than a little sympathy for this viewpoint, and there can no doubt that, in the 1990s, Washington, DC, paid far too little attention to Moscow’s views on much of anything, and we are now paying the price for that, repaid with onerous interest to the Kremlin. U.S. and NATO actions in the Balkans, at the expense of Russia’s troublesome old friend Serbia, have come back to haunt, and Moscow’s representatives now cannot contain their glee  pointing out that, if NATO could unilaterally redraw the internationally recognized borders of Serbia in 1999, why cannot Russia to the same to Ukraine now? If the brief Georgia war of 2008 was payback for Kosovo – and it certainly was – what is playing out now over Ukraine is merely the next stage of Moscow’s revenge, for much higher stakes.

Revenge is a category not much discussed in college International Relations classes, but it is a prime motivator for Putin and his country now. Humiliating the United States and NATO is a major strategic aim for the Kremlin, and from their viewpoint an entirely rational – not to mention entirely delicious – one. While the Kremlin will not risk a major war with the West, which they know would be a disaster of vast proportions, they are quite happy to come close enough to show NATO and America to be the decadent weaklings that Putin and millions of Russians are quite confident that we are. To state the obvious, the risk of serious miscalculation, another historic Russian speciality in foreign affairs, is grave now.

But do not expect the Kremlin to back off yet, Putin and his retinue are enjoying this too much to stop now. Moscow has wanted to redraw the internal borders of the USSR, which do not reflect ethnic realities well, ever since 1991, and in this revanchist game Ukraine is the biggest prize of all. Simply put, Barack Obama is the first American president Moscow has felt they could pull this off against. This is painful to say, not least because this author – like many foreign policy watchers – was optimistic at the start that President Obama could undo the massive harm done to America’s international reputation by George W. Bush. Yet Moscow has taken a different view of all this from the outset, seeing weakness where others saw lawyerly consideration and American-style optimism.

This has been plain to see for some time. While Western Europe was celebrating Obama as something vaguely divine – his pre-victory speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing save not being President Bush, are fated to go down as two of the strangest happenings in modern foreign affairs – Russia was much less impressed. When Obama was first elected, Moscow pundits, including respected, level-headed ones, spoke as if America had lost its collective mind. Putin’s contempt for Obama has never been well disguised, and has only become more obvious with time, and many average Russians feel the same. Russian, like many Slavic languages, revels in countless put-downs implying weakness and effeminacy, and if you spend any time among Russians, even highly educated ones, you will hear the full range of them of them used to describe President Obama – lately, often with a laugh.

This was probably inevitable: how else did anyone expect the “former” KGB officer and judo master to look at the law professor and community organizer? Yet policies matter more, and over the last five years, Obama’s policies have gradually opened the door to a stronger, more assertive Russia in the world, above all the disaster over Syria which, as my colleague Tom Nichols and I noted several times last yearrepresented an opening beyond the Middle East that Putin was sure to take advantage of, and so he has.

All is far from lost. In his last year in office, President Jimmy Carter, shaken by Kremlin aggression, above all in Afghanistan, woke up to reality and took decisive action, raising defense spending and getting tough with the USSR in something like Special War, thereby setting the stage for victory in the Cold War a decade later, something which too few pundits have been willing to credit President Carter. Something similar can be done now, and ought to be. Deterrence, particularly in the realm of Special War, is the language that Putin speaks and understands well. This, plus bolstering NATO’s conventional defenses in the East, is entirely within our power and needs to be done urgently to forestall more Russian bad behavior.

Yet there are reasons to doubt this will happen soon enough, not least due to the basic dysfunction of this White House in foreign policy. This is not news, yet matters greatly now. Simply put, President Obama has surrounded himself with people who are not up to the challenge presented by the Kremlin over Ukraine and beyond. I’ve named some of them before, and don’t need to do so again. Most seriously, the consolidation of foreign policy decision-making in a few hands in this White House is without modern precedent and cancerous. It’s hardly a secret inside the Beltway that both the Departments of State and Defense, the former not exactly being a right-wing bastion, have been marginalized under Obama to a dangerous extent. In the recent scandal of Obama appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships when they seemed not to even know where the country in question was, I could not help but note that this really makes no difference, since all important foreign policy decisions are being made by a few, often young, staffers in the White House, outside the normal State Department chain.

A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds.

In the present-day West, it’s commonplace to have a laugh at Vladimir Putin’s weirdly macho (and more than a little homoerotic) posturings, and I’ve done it too – how not, among the panoply of martial arts, bears, and countless shirtless adventures before the cameras? Yet in Russia they love this stuff, without a laugh-track. They are not yet as post-modern as we are, and they find reassurance in an old-school leader who talks about – and more importantly demonstrates – strength in a dangerous world. The first decade of the post-Soviet era was an economic, political, and social catastrophe for Russia, and Putin, whatever his faults, has been a pleasant change in the eyes of most Russians, which is why they back him through thick and thin. The Putin era will end someday, probably with Russia more isolated from the world than ever, but that coda may be some difficult decades off.

In the meantime, Western leaders must find the strength to resist Russian aggression through deterrence. Credibility must come first, as without it all our nuclear warheads, conventional forces, and economic leverage mean little and will not impress. NATO can deter Putin’s misdeeds, far beyond Ukraine, but that will require reinvestment in collective defense, not just cheap talk and expensive conferences. European NATO members have become accustomed to American leadership and gap-filling at all times, but they need to confront the reality that they must do more, and soon. Across the West, we need leaders who understand the stakes now and how to prevent war through strength and cunning. As is always the case in war, cold or hot, we need to become a little bit like our enemy to deter him. If our leaders cannot do that, get new leaders – and soon, as this game is real and the stakes are high.

[The author’s comments are his alone and certainly not representative of any of his employers, past or present.]

“Moscow understands only force and willingness to sacrifice human lives”

As I write, the Kremlin has won a seemingly bloodless victory by seizing Crimea without real resistance. As Europe panics and U.S. leadership seems to have no idea what to do about Vladimir Putin’s single-handed shredding of Europe’s post-Cold War rulebook, the next step is unclear. To be sure, if Putin moves forces into ethnically Russian areas of eastern Ukraine – as the Duma has “approved” and he told President Obama he reserves the right to – Europe will have a real war on its hands; it is already in its biggest crisis since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. But a wider war cannot be ruled out. At a minimum, the post-1991 assurances that Europe would be forever at peace, that “soft power” could conquer all, or nearly so, that the continent’s biggest problems would be arguments over EU agricultural subsidies, have been shattered for good.

It is time to face some unpleasant facts. History – and force – is back with a vengeance, thanks to Kremlin belligerence, as I predicted last fall. Unless Europe wants to confront endless intimidation and worse at the hands of a resurgent Russia, it must dispense with pleasing nonsense and address the pressing need to defend itself and its values. I am posting below, in toto, the most forthright explanation of the situation I have yet found, an op-ed by Mart Helme, the former Estonian ambassador to Russia (thanks to Estonian relatives who saw this and alerted me). Entitled, “Moscow only understands force and willingness to sacrifice human lives,” this is a bracing, no-holds-barred must-read for anyone who cherishes European values, as I do, and wants to see them survive, as old threats reappear with a vengeance.

Was Hitler done with the Anschluss? No. Neither will Russia be satisfied just with Ukraine. And after Ukraine, Russia can only have one target – the Baltic states.

Russia has occupied Crimea. Western countries, including Estonia, are confused and able to utter only outdated and increasingly embarrassing platitudes. Russia will not wait for EU foreign ministers to eventually convene for a meeting, but is making hay while the sun shines – it is moving new military units and equipment to Crimea, expanding the conflict to eastern and southern Ukraine, and using Victor Yanukovych, who has sought refuge in Russia, to question the legitimacy of the people who seized power in Kyiv, and to create a cover for its criminal activities.

At the same time, the West is prattling in the United Nations where Russia holds veto rights at the Security Council, and making noise in the OSCE where all decisions need a consensus, which Russia (or any of its vassals) will naturally not allow to happen, while letting the leaders of big countries issue comically toothless statements instead. And with each passing day, Moscow is adding to the hard facts which the so-called international community must face.

In a nutshell, Russia is fighting ruthlessly and brutally, and proving to all that the post-Cold War world has been replaced by the post-post-Cold War world in which Moscow no longer considers the current international order, law, and organizations competent to solve problems.

What is applicable then? From Moscow’s point of view, only force and the willingness to sacrifice human lives when force is applied.

Is the West willing to do that? That is extremely unlikely. It is one thing to mount military operations against Afghan poppy growers and quite another to accept the challenge of a nuclear power with the world’s largest territory and the richest deposits of natural resources, which feels cornered in a deepening confrontation with the West and is not going to surrender its habitats without a fight.

Moscow knows – and so does the West but it is not willing to admit it even to itself – that Western civilization in its decadence has reached the final stage of its degradation where only money and comfort count. Careerists and anglers, who are able to navigate the ship only in good weather, have risen to the top during decades of inert existence. They will lose their heads in a storm, and can only utter banalities and behave accordingly.

Oswald Spengler in his “The Decline of the West” predicted more than correctly that money will bring down  Western democracy (that is exactly what has already happened), and then the power of money will be conquered by force. Europe, fighting for the rainbow flag and gender quotas, is a complete impotent in that respect; the United States, on the other hand, when considering intervening, is thinking about moves of a broader global game and must inevitably take into account that average Americans do not have a clue where someplace called Crimea is located. Moreover, the United States is tired of the problems of the rest of the world and wants to take a rest. And we do not know whether it intends to wake up and do something if a small country like Estonia screams for help at some point.

This is the essence of an existential question for a wider audience: Is the West (especially the United States) willing to start what would likely be a truly uncompromising fight in order to win Crimea, as well as the eastern and southern Ukraine back from Moscow? That is not likely. It is much more likely that the West will behave exactly the way it did in 1938 when Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler demanded that they have Czechoslovakia, the independence and territorial integrity of which had been guaranteed by the Soviet Union and France in the League of Nations.

At the time, the issue was left for Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to mediate, which resulted in Czechoslovakia being left to Hitler to tear apart. Was Hitler satisfied with that? No. Neither will Russia be satisfied with this. After Ukraine, Russia will only have one target – the Baltic states.

It is naive to maintain that the West can influence Russia by imposing sanctions and freezing funds of the ruling kleptocratic clique. Putin & Co. have transferred their assets to a safe place by now, and Russia can withstand a long economic blockade stoically because the average Russian, unlike Europeans and Americans, is able to survive on vodka and potatoes alone. But it is Germany which will be unable to stay in business without Russian raw materials.

In 2008, Russia tested the West by launching a military attack against Georgia. The West failed the test. According to the peace treaty, negotiated with the French president as a mediator, Russia should have withdrawn troops from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but we all know very well that Moscow has so far not done that. It is highly unlikely that Russia will leave Crimea now that it has been conquered; even moreso, considering that historically it has never been an organic part of Ukraine.

In fact, Ukraine has only one – bloody – option to regain control over Crimea (and other potentially separatist regions). That means mobilizing the armed forces and going against the aggressor with arms. Just like Yanukovych was brought down at a price of victims’ blood, Russia will retreat when it meets decisive armed resistance. Because Russia is not nearly as strong as it makes itself out to be.

The authorities currently in power in Kyiv with all their economic problems are probably too much Western puppets to do what they are obliged to do under the Ukrainian Constitution. Sacrificing a Crimea or a Donetsk means nothing for Western countries which are sprawling in their own comfort zone.

After all, Western leaders, brought up in the spirit of the 1960′s hippie ideology, are familiar with only one motto – “Make love, not war”. Russia is familiar with the lyrics of a different song: “A yesly zavtra voyna … ” – if there is war tomorrow.

Meet Moscow’s New “Ukrainian Front”

Today Ukraine’s beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych returned to work after four days of “sick leave.” His country is spiraling into chaos. Kyiv’s writ no long carries in much of the West of country, which is something like open revolt against the Yanukovych government. While that government has promised some concessions to the diverse opposition, little has been achieved yet, while beatings and abductions of journalists and anti-regime activists continue. It is becoming increasingly difficult to see how this crisis can be resolved peacefully.

Some of this dirty work may be attributable to Moscow, as I’ve previously reported. What’s not in doubt is that Russian media over the last week has ramped up its anti-opposition rhetoric, with regular castigations of Ukrainians who dislike Yanukovych as “fascists” and worse. Some of this borders on hysteria. Kremlin-linked outlets in particular have been fanning the flames, resurrecting memories of the Second World War – of course with regular reminders that some Ukrainians, especially in the West, resisted Soviet rule mightily, indeed into the 1950s. Perhaps most alarming is the current of discussion in Moscow media that openly mentions civil war and the fragmentation of Ukraine into as many as five countries, a process that could not be achieved without major bloodshed.

What Russia’s enhanced political meddling in Ukraine looks like was revealed today in an article in the Moscow daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta which, to be clear, is the Kremlin’s official outlet. Maksim Makarychev’s report, titled “Divided. Who will conquer? A front is created in Ukraine to fight against EuroMaidan,” details the establishment of a new political grouping in Eastern Ukraine to back the Yanukovych government against the opposition, which the article slyly hints is in the pay of – unnamed, presumably Western – foreigners.

This new organization, called the Ukrainian Front (Украинский фронт), aims to “save” Ukraine from foreign meddling and revolution, and has just been established in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, under the “grassroots” auspices of Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions. Harking back to the Second World War and the Stalinist era, the article cites the stirring words of Mykhaylo Dobkin, one of Yanukovych’s top functionaries in Kharkiv and a prime mover behind the front’s establishment: “After seventy years a new Ukrainian Front is starting to operate in Ukraine, the members of which will follow the example of our fathers and grandfathers and free our land, like in the 1940’s.”

According to Makarychev, “representatives from twenty Ukrainian regions gathered in Kharkiv: They all spoke about the need to put an end to the seizure of state buildings and to violence across the country.  The new organization’s main priority is to free the state institutions that have already been seized.” Additionally, the Ukrainian Front seeks to crush the opposition with a “push for a referendum on completely abolishing deputies’ immunity and on cutting the number of parliamentary deputies by one-third.”

It seems Moscow is not pleased with its protege Yanukovych and his inability to crush the opposition, so it is forming a new grouping to “assist” the hardliners. Given that the appearance of the Ukrainian Front has been heralded with a birth announcement in the Kremlin’s official newspaper, Russian approval and support can be assumed.

Moreover, the embrace of Stalinist-era rhetoric by the Ukrainian Front indicates a great deal, and will serve as a needless irritant towards Ukrainians who detest Stalin and his murderous legacy. In a similar vein, Communist activists have unveiled a bust of Stalin in Western Ukraine, a provocation that is about as offensive to most locals there as a statue of Hitler would be in the rest of Europe. Of course, hailing Stalin’s victories in the 1940’s is of a piece with the current Kremlin vilification campaign against all Ukrainians who do not want their country to be subjugated by Russia, a nasty agitprop line that regrettably has Western supporters, not all of them unwitting dupes.

Now that the Ukrainian Front has entered the picture, with Moscow’s imprimatur, expect the situation in Ukraine to only get worse. It would be difficult to overstate the danger Ukraine and Europe are in at the moment thanks to intimidation, meddling and provocation by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. European governments would be well advised to not permit naked Russian interference of a violent and coercive sort in Ukrainian politics: this cannot end well.

The End of the Snowden Operation

For over half a year now, the world has been astounded by waves of leaked revelations of National Security Agency electronic espionage, provided by the former NSA IT contractor Edward Snowden, who stole something like 1.7 million classified documents before fleeing to Russia via Hong Kong. There’s never been anything quite like this in the annals of America’s – or really anybody’s – intelligence system. Snowden’s act and its global media reverberations have been one of a kind.

From nearly the outset, I have drawn attention to the obvious foreign intelligence connections to the Snowden case – and obvious they are to anyone familiar with counterintelligence, particularly Russian – and for some time I have termed this sorry spectacle the Snowden Operation, since we don’t know the covername actually given it by Russian intelligence. But, at its core, this is simply an updated version of the operational game played in the 1970s by Cuban and Soviet intelligence with the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), who authored, with KGB “help,” several books exposing U.S. intelligence operations, particularly in Latin America. While Agee didn’t tell the Cubans and Soviets much classified that they didn’t really know already, at least generally, for Washington, DC, and particularly for CIA, it was a huge embarrassment that hampered activities in many countries for many years.

The Snowden Operation has been really no more than the Agee show brought into the 21st century and the Internet age. Who needs whole books of leaks when there are websites and “journalists” happy to disseminate it all, usually with deeply flawed “analysis” to boot? Over the last seven months the world has become accustomed to regular leaks of NSA programs that, before last May, individually would have been jaw-dropping in many capitals. Now, well, it’s just Tuesday.

Additionally, the Snowden Operation has engendered not merely complications for U.S. foreign policy, but a blistering domestic debate to boot, just as its architects intended. There is now a considerable cadre of Americans, an odd alliance of leftist bitter-enders, libertarian Randians, and battalions of dudebros who thrive on snark and hating their parents, that is convinced that NSA is the source of all their problems. That this is demonstrably untrue has made little difference, and will not.

However, yesterday President Obama ended the political debate about the Snowden Operation with his much-anticipated speech about NSA and reform, based on the recommendations of his own panel. As my colleague Tom Nichols and I have long predicted, the reform package Obama has delivered is a stinging defeat for the NSA haters. Yes, it will be more difficult for NSA analysts to access metadata, but access it they will. Yes, NSA collection against top foreign leaders will be restricted, somewhat, but Agency support to U.S. and Allied diplomacy will continue. The bottom line is that President Obama’s reforms contain no significant changes to how NSA does business as the leading foreign intelligence agency in the United States and the free world.

These reforms go some distance to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens better, which I’ve wanted for a long time anyway, but even the changes to metadata holdings have been kicked by Obama to Congress for resolution, which will be difficult, since telecom companies understandably have little interest in involving themselves further in what’s become a touchy mess. In all, Obama – many of whose national security policies of late I’ve been critical of – performed masterfully yesterday, delivering a near pitch-perfect speech and resetting the agenda on intelligence matters.

Predictably, the NSA haters have gone bonkers. Somehow, in a fest of self-delusion that must rival anything done by the Reverend Jim Jones to his ill-fated followers, many convinced themselves that Obama might shut down NSA and have its leaders frog-walked into Federal custody, if not simply shot without trial. Alas, nothing of the sort was ever going to happen. In part because no White House will ever shut down its top source of foreign intelligence, or can afford to. But mostly because the hysterical charges we’ve seen thrown at NSA – that it violates the privacy of “hundreds of millions,” many American – for months were essentially false.

Haters will hate, as is their wont, and I’ve frankly enjoyed the bouts of online hysteria from Snowden fanboys since yesterday, involving a gnashing of teeth of epic proportions (for a so-perfect-it-cannot-be-parodied combination of ignorance and sanctimony, Conor Friedersdorf is impossible to top). But the game’s over, Obama just blew the whistle.

There’s much work to be done, naturally, and Congress will spend the rest of 2014 hashing out just what the President’s reforms should actually look like in application (expect a long, needlessly drawn out catfight on The Hill, like everything there), but the White House has shut the door on the ridiculous, overheated spectacle that the Snowden Operation dumped on our Intelligence Community.

None have any expectation that the leaks will stop, given the unimaginably huge amount of Top Secret documents from NSA and Allied agencies that Snowden stole, but the humdrum effect has already set in. The world has become accustomed to such a regular barrage of revelations about NSA that, unless the Iranians are correct that aliens really are running things at Fort Meade (they’re not, I checked), few of these will be front page stories any longer.

The Snowden Operation has guaranteed that NSA has become a global stand-in for unmitigated evil for certain people, a Keyser Söze who reads your email,and there’s not much that Washington, DC, and its friends can do about that. But the real intent of Ed, Glenn, and their coterie was never intelligence reform, rather the destruction of NSA and the Western intelligence alliance. As of yesterday, we know that will not happen. Henceforth, you’ll occasionally encounter people who are obsessed with “NSA” and think the Agency reads their texts of cat pictures, but these are the same sort of people who, in a previous age, were obsessed with Knights Templar, Jews, and Masons, and can be ignored when adults are talking.

I say “NSA” because the global meme fostered online by the Snowden Operation bears so little resemblance to what the Agency actually is and does. Planet Greenwald has done a weirdly masterful job of placing “NSA” in the same category as “UFOs”, “Kennedy Assassination,” “Bigfoot,” and “Area 51”: there actually is something deep down there that might possibly be true, but it’s so buried under hyperbole and fantasy as to be unfathomable as any reality.

I say this with regret, as someone who was calling for reforms of the Intelligence Community, especially NSA, before anybody heard of Edward Snowden. Real reform is impossible now, for at least a generation, because the Snowden Operation has so soiled the cause of real IC reform with treachery, narcissism, crankery, and Putin’s Russia. I worry that today’s modest reforms may not be able to keep up with rapid changes in IT. Privacy concerns about NSA are entirely valid, and had the Snowden Operation confined its leaks to issues of purely domestic surveillance, that healthy and necessary debate about post-9/11 intelligence might have happened, at last. But Ed went to Russia, where he remains. The real drivers of the Snowden Operation never sought a domestic debate about NSA, that was never their agenda, so here we are. Winston Churchill famously termed the Allied victory at El Alamein in late 1942 as not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Now we’re a bit further along than that in the Snowden Operation.

Discussions of NSA and especially “NSA” will be prominent online and in the real world for years to come. The Agency has lost its cover, for better or worse. As I’ve said before, I hope the Agency uses this opportunity to rebrand itself in a spirit of openness to the American people about its essential mission, which the public has a right to know more about. Regardless, the Agency will survive and its personnel – military, civilian, and contractor – will keep protecting our country and our allies. Before long people will be asking, “What ever happened to that ‘strange guy‘ who defected to Russia?” Once the Snowden Operation kicked off – when exactly that was remains an open question of high interest to counterintelligence investigators in dozens of countries – there was never going to be any other outcome.

Russian Intelligence is Behind the Snowden Show: German Intelligence

As I’ve noted at length already, the drama surrounding the continuing leaks of classified information from the U.S. National Security Agency, care of the defector Edward Snowden, has now taken center stage in Germany. Which is not altogether surprising because Germany is such a close partner with the United States in security and other matters, and also because a significant component of the Wikileaks apparat lives in Berlin.

To anyone versed in counterintelligence, specifically the modus operandi of Russian security services, the Snowden Operation* is a classic case of Active Measures, in other words a secret propaganda job. That its ultimate objective is fracturing the Western security and intelligence alliance is made increasing clear in the tone of the reporting coming from the Operation, especially its German mouthpiece, the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. Relying on fronts, cut-outs, “independent” journalists, plus platoons of what Lenin memorably termed Useful Idiots, is just what the Kremlin’s intelligence services do when they want to engage in Active Measures. We’ve been down this road before – in many ways what’s going on now is merely a replay of the operational game from the 1970s based on the CIA defector Phil Agee (KGB covername: PONT), but with broadband access – yet the Snowden Operation is unusually successful and brazen, even by Moscow’s high standards in this regard.

This is also the conclusion of the German security services, based on a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. The recent Moscow visit of the leftist Green Party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele with Snowden caused a global sensation. It was also transparently the work of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Noting the stage-managed aspect of the photo op, ”There is no doubt that this was a room that was prepared by the intelligence service,” concluded a German senior intelligence official, adding that this was ”a typical FSB room ” – meaning fully wired. To expand on Die Welt‘s reportage:

The three-hour conversation had been recorded in this room with microphones and video cameras. After analyzing the course of the visit, German security experts came to the conclusion that the FSB completely organized and monitored Ströbele’s visit to Moscow, and effectively used it for its purposes. The goal of the visit had been to rekindle the debate about the NSA spying affair, thus burdening relations between Germany and the United States even more. “This is playing into the hands of Russia,” said the intelligence official, criticizing Ströbele’s action. That the Green Party official allowed himself to be used by Russia for that country’s interests was to be regarded as “borderline,” he explained.

The Snowden Operation is far from over, and more German-related Active Measures are to be expected. That said, it’s somewhat reassuring that, no matter what politicians may say, German intelligence is at least aware of the real game that’s afoot here.

*Until some future Vasili Mitrokhin tells us what Edward Snowden’s actual FSB covername is, I’ll be terming what’s going on the Snowden Operation (Операция Сноудена).

Update: Merkel’s “real” cellphone is secure

As Germany’s “Handygate” has become a mass phenomenon bordering on hysteria, one of the strangest aspects has been the fact, which I’ve noted previously, that Chancellor Angela Merkel was using a quite insecure cellphone to conduct government business. According to numerous media reports, the cellphone in question, said to have been intercepted by NSA for years, was used by Merkel for political party affairs, and was supposed to be used only to the classification level of VS-NfD, which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. category of For Official Use Only (FOUO), in other words, not actually classified at all.

Except the actual story is coming into focus now and it’s a rather different one than what Berlin’s been complaining so loudly about. While Merkel has indeed had a quite vulnerable cellphone, her “real” Chancellor-Phone, as the Germans call it, is quite secure from interception.

As reported in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the manufacturer of Merkel’s “real” phone, a Düsseldorf firm called Secusmart, is the provider of choice to the German government as well as some private firms who worry about data security (at a cost of 2,500 Euros per handset, there aren’t many private buyers). Secusmart supplied Merkel  with a voice encryption solution four years ago, based on software and a cryptographic chip, which was updated this year and works on all new BlackBerry handsets. Secusmart’s CEO, Hans-Christoph Quelle, maintains that Merkel’s calls using his firm’s phone are quite secure, even against NSA.

As explained by Secusmart, their phone’s AES encryption with 128 bits makes it possible to generate 340 sextillion different keys, that is to say 340 followed by 36 zeros.  “Even with supercomputers, according to today’s technical standards it would theoretically take 149 billion years to crack this code” — in other words, 10,000 times longer than the age of the universe.  As CEO Quelle put it, “that should keep even the United States going for a while.”

And indeed it would. So what, again, is all this fuss about … ?

NSA, Germany and Handygate: A Reality Check

Right now Germany is in the midst of a full-fledged political storm, dubbed Handygate in the media, over alleged espionage by the National Security Agency against the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose cellphone is said to have been intercepted by NSA for years. Given German sensitivities about privacy that linger from both the Nazi and Communist periods, as well as the well known national proclivity towards introspection – Nabelschau (navel-gazing) being a core German competency – the resulting scandal is verging on the obsessional among some Germans.

All this is of course being fanned by the media, especially the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has a long-standing reputation for sensationalism about espionage, particularly American; it has also been a regular conduit for stolen NSA materials from the defector Edward Snowden. What makes this interesting is that one need not be a seasoned counterintelligence hand to note that some of the newest materials could not have come from Snowden; a bigger game is now afoot, and it’s centered on Germany (where, let it be noted, key members of the Wikileaks apparat Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras reside).

There are oddities abounding in this case. In the first place, due to the laws drawn up by the Federal Republic of Germany at its late 1940s founding, the alleged NSA activities that have caused this firestorm may actually be legal. Moreover, a great deal of what’s going on now is political theater which Chancellor Merkel has to be witting of at some level. If she’s not, one must question her basic fitness for dealing with any international affairs, though her longtime use of a fundamentally insecure cellphone to conduct government business boggles the mind of any intelligence veteran.

The heads of Germany’s intelligence services are now headed to Washington, DC, for meetings with the White House and NSA to smooth over the scandal. At bottom, Germany (like France), seeks not to shut down NSA espionage, rather to get closer to it. Berlin has long been jealous of London and the other Anglosphere members of the so-called Five Eyes community, the SIGINT alliance born in the Second World War which, to this day, constitutes the most successful international intelligence partnership in world history. Perhaps because they were on the wrong side when that alliance was created in the days of the ULTRA secret, German intelligence agencies have always wanted into the club and its privileged inner circle. Although Germany enjoys a tight spy relationship with the United States (and Britain too), Berlin knows its place, and it would like an upgrade.

Abandoning the US-German intelligence partnership is simply not an option, no matter what politicians may say, and regardless of how much hysteria is created by the media. The reasons for this are well known to intelligence insiders, and are elaborated in a new report in the Berlin daily Die Welt. Its title, “Technically Backward and Helpless,” is painfully accurate. There can be no doubt that Germany’s intelligence and security services, preeminently the Federal Intelligence Service (BND, Germany’s CIA plus NSA equivalent) and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, equivalent to Britain’s Security Service), are indeed deeply dependent on American partners, and have been since the day of their creation.

The depths of that dependency are laid bare in Die Welt‘s account. Germany’s “helpless dependence” on the U.S. Intelligence Community is not new but it entered a complicated phase after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States which, lest we forget, were staged mostly out of Hamburg, a fact which the Die Welt piece notes: “The Americans did not want to rely exclusively on us after September 11th. That is understandable,” explained a German intelligence official.  Thus was born increased attention to Germany among U.S. spy agencies.

Additionally, Germany’s intelligence agencies are underfunded and lack the technical capabilities of other leading Western countries; in espionage, Germany has chosen to punch below its economic and political weight, and now bears the consequences, namely deep dependency on foreign partners such as NSA and CIA. As I recently reported, the BND head Gerhard Schindler recently called for more reliance on foreign partners, not less, and here he was simply reflecting budgetary and political realities in Germany, where there is scant appetite for more investment in security.

Even in domestic intelligence matters Germany is heavily dependent on American help, especially from NSA, whose SIGINT has been provided to the Germans in many cases, leading to the disruption of a number of planned terrorist attacks in Germany since 2001.  “Without information from the Americans, there would have been successful terrorist attacks in Germany in the past years,” explained a BfV official, truthfully.

For these reasons it’s unlikely that any big changes to German intelligence or its relationship to NSA and CIA will happen soon. Although the current political brouhaha is serious, even though some of the hand-wringing is obviously staged by politicos who know better, this, too, shall pass, unless Germany wants to spend significantly more money on its own security and intelligence. And, as yet, there is no sign of that.

Germany’s condition reflects the reality that too many European countries have underinvested in their own defense and security since the end of the Cold War, and are therefore deeply dependent on the United States for assistance. I would like the Germans and other European countries to take more responsibility for their own security and fund their militaries and intelligence agencies at higher levels.  They would be better partners then too. But I’m not optimistic on that front. Protesting, after all, is easier than reforming bureaucracies or finding more money in lean budgetary times.

It’s called the Second Oldest Profession for a reason

We’ve started the new week with more “shocking” revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency, a foreign intelligence agency, is actually conducting foreign intelligence operations.  And pretty effectively at that. Thanks to Edward Snowden and his motley ring of collaborators, the world is getting an idea of what NSA does as its main job. Which is seeing and listening to foreign communications.

Last week Snowden’s stolen information revealed that NSA spies on Mexico. This week it’s France. Which is “shocking” only to those who know nothing about the real world of intelligence, or those who have a preexisting hatred for the United States and its close allies (there is considerable overlap between those categories, as we’ve learned in recent months). Since France is famed in spy circles worldwide for its aggressive HUMINT and SIGINT operations against even close allies, the latest Snowden revelations have been met with the biggest of all Gallic shrugs behind closed doors, no matter what Paris may say publicly.

Countries spy on each other. Everybody with the mental functioning of an adult knows this. Or at least used to. Thanks to Snowden, the global media has grown accustomed to a drumbeat of vague assertions about what NSA is said to be doing abroad. Seasoned spy-watchers will notice that what’s appearing in the media is long on sensation and rather short on technological details, and derive their own conclusions.

There’s an old wag in SpookWorld about there being no friendly intelligence services, but that’s not entirely true. I get asked regularly by neophytes to explain how this works in the real world, but I’m not about to divulge secrets, so what I’ll say is this. Outside the Anglosphere SIGINT “Five Eyes” alliance, which dates to the Second World War, everybody really does spy on everybody, at least to some degree. Which is why counterintelligence is so important. On Planet Five Eyes, it’s different, and has been for a long time.

But even this most enduring of intelligence partnerships has not been around forever, and until its establishment in the dark days of 1940-41, when Britain was on the ropes and a German invasion seemed possible, even the Anglosphere spied on each other. It needs to be said that the British spied a lot more on the Americans than vice versa, since British capabilities in HUMINT and SIGINT were superior to what Washington, DC, then had in its espionage arsenal.

As during World War I, British intelligence in the early 1940s was spying on the United States and running covert action programs to get America into the war on Britain’s side, sensibly enough from London’s viewpoint. Indeed, British intelligence had a pretty significant role in securing U.S. entry into the Great War in April 1917, though the real story is even more cunning than Washington, DC, knew or even suspected at the time. It’s a great spy yarn with world-historical impacts.

Anyone even passingly familiar with intelligence history has heard of the Zimmermann Telegram, the infamous German own-goal that played a big role in pushing a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson into the war on the Allied side. Knowing that Germany was at serious and rising risk of losing the war, Berlin’s top diplomat, Arthur Zimmermann, wanted to try to get Mexico into the war on the side of the Central Powers; as Berlin at the beginning of 1917 had decided to recommence unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany’s military and political leadership accepted that the U.S. was eventually going to enter the war anyway, so why not make it as painful for the Americans as possible?

The secret, encrypted telegram from Berlin, with its explosive offer of giving Mexico large chunks of the United States – basically what the Mexicans lost in 1848 –  in exchange for entering the war on Germany’s side, pretty much guaranteed that America would enter the war, as it went to more than its intended recipients.

The course of the war shifted dramatically in Britain’s favor on January 17, 1917, when British codebreakers intercepted the soon-to-be-infamous telegram. From the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy’s SIGINT operation in London, known as Room 40, had done an excellent job, first breaking German naval codes and then moving into diplomatic decryption; by the midpoint of the war, Room 40 was able to read a high percentage of Berlin’s encrypted communications.

It soon became apparent to Admiral Reginald “Blinker” Hall, director of Naval intelligence, that he had a true bombshell on his hands. But what to do with it? He immediately ordered the decrypted and translated telegram compartmented and shared on a very limited, need-to-know basis only; few even in Room 40 knew of its existence. The few officials in London who were briefed about the telegram realized that the message had to be shared with the Americans, who were wavering on joining the Allied cause.

But there was a problem. A big problem. At the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy literally cut all the undersea telegraph cables that allowed Germany to communicate with the outside world. Berlin complained that this made it impossible for Germany to take part in any peace discussions that might end the war. President Woodrow Wilson – remember, he was a college professor by trade – kindly offered to let Berlin send its diplomatic messages via U.S. State Department’s encrypted systems.

In other words, Room 40 got a hold of the Zimmermann Telegram because the British were reading U.S. diplomatic traffic. This was something that London sensibly had no interest in letting the Americans in on. So Admiral Hall devised a cunning deception plan that included sending an intelligence agent in Mexico City to steal a copy of the Zimmermann message from the telegraph office. It worked perfectly as the operation was clever and tightly compartmented, and while Washington, DC, including President Wilson, reacted to the German offer to Mexico with appropriate outrage, the Americans never suspected the message’s true origins. (For the full story check out this NSA version of the saga.)

Indeed, the British kept on intercepting and decrypting U.S. diplomatic traffic for many years thereafter. It wasn’t until the eve of the Second World War that William Friedman, the father of modern American SIGINT, realized what the British had pulled off with the Zimmermann Telegram. By then, it was about two decades too late to matter.