Why U.S. Spies Get Putin Wrong

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By Eli Lake March 2, 2014 4:40 PM The Daily Beast
The last time Russian troops invaded one of its neighbors, the U.S. intelligence community was also caught off guard.


The year was 2008 and the country was Georgia instead of the Ukraine. And just as in 2014, back then there were early signs that Moscow was serious—it was issuing visas  to ethnic Russian speakers inGeorgia, like it’s doing now in Ukraine.  U.S. analysts just didn’t believe Russia would go as far as it did.

Today, as in 2008, American policy makers have found themselves burned after trying to make Vladimir Putin a partner when Putin himself sees America as a rival. This has often led Republican and Democratic led administrations to find themselves flat footed in the face of Russian aggression and U.S. intelligence analysts racing to explain how they misread Putin’s motivations.

“This is less a question of how many collection resources we throw at Russia and more broadly about the analytic challenge of understanding Putin’s mind set,” said Michael Hayden, a former CIA director and NSA director under President George W. Bush. “Here our Secretary of State is saying this is not the Cold War, it’s win-win and it’s not zero sum. But for Vladimir Putin it is zero sum. That’s what we need to understand.”

Of course, U.S.-Russian relations have overlapped in some areas of mutual interest. The two countries have worked to maintain the International Space Station, with Russian Soyuz capsules bringing American astronauts into orbit. Both countries have cooperated, at times, on sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program. And both sides agreed to an ambitious plan in Syria to dismantle the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal.

But when it comes to the status of the newly independent nations that used to comprise the Soviet empire, the United States and Russia have been at odds.

Late last week, for example, U.S. intelligence analysts and lawmakers estimated that the Russian forces massing near Ukraine’s border wouldn’t openly invade. Sen. Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Thursday that he didn’t know Putin’s motivations, but was sure Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine: “I can’t believe they are foolish enough to do that.”

There wasn’t an open pouring of troops over the border. But Russian mercenaries and other troops wound up seizing power in the Ukrainian province of Crimea anyway. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry called the move an “invasion.”

Hayden compared the problem with understanding Putin to the problem of the Arab Spring, the democratic upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other countries in the Arab world that was also entirely missed by the U.S. intelligence community. “That was not a secret to be stolen,” Hayden said. “That was something that required a broader understanding of the problem. This is the challenge to understanding Putin’s mindset.”

Damon Wilson, who in 2008 was the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe and the lead manager at the George W. Bush White House for the Georgia crisis, was blunt in his assessment of the warnings before Russia’s invasion that summer. “Our analysts missed it on Georgia,” he said.

Wilson, who is now the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, also said an important reason was that the U.S. government has failed to understand that Putin does not see America as a friend or a partner.

“We get used to outrageous Russian behavior and we come to accept that as normal and we end up tolerating it,” Wilson said. “We had plenty of warnings in 2008 that Russia would provoke a confrontation with Georgia and end up invading, but we still didn’t think he’d actually do it.” Those warnings included many of the same kinds of things the world was seeing in the run up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such as the distribution of passports to ethnic Russians and statements about Moscow’s interests within its “near abroad” or those former Soviet Republics that largely gained independence in 1991 after the break up of the communist empire.

Wilson said there were three reasons why the U.S. government was unprepared for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. To start, he said, much of the hardware the U.S. government uses to spy—the satellites, sensors, blimps and sophisticated intercept technology—were focused in 2008 (as they are in 2014) on counter-terrorism and proliferation targets like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. “We have enormous assets that for a long time were focused much more on Afghanistan and Iraq and not really on the Caucuses or Russia’s near abroad,” Wilson said.

For the last 13 years, the way you got ahead in America’s intelligence services was to specialize in stopping terrorists. Compared to al-Qaeda, the Russians were seen as has-beensalbeit nuclear-armed has-beens. Spying on Moscow was considered a second-tier priority. Sure, the Russian intelligence agencies were (and are) one of the world’s most sophisticated; competing against the sons of the KGB was one of the toughest challenges for an American operative or analyst. But the stakes just weren’t that high. It was like having a chess match against your grandfather, while everyone else played Call of Duty for money.

“Clearly Russia is not the collection priority that the Soviet Union used to be. Lots of resources are pulled off into terrorism and proliferation,” said Hayden, who has said for years that America’s spy corps was over-focused on the terrorist threat.

Moscow has always been a notoriously difficult target for espionage and intelligence collection—while American policy makers have a number of channels for talking to the leadership of Western-friendly regimes in Russia’s near abroad. In 2008, for example, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had regular conversations with U.S. political elites in the run up to the Russian invasion, the United States had far less visibility into Russian decision making. If anything, the problem has gotten worse since then. The rise of biometrically-enabled passports and the growth of digital data trails has made it harder for American operatives and analysts, whose cover is often blown after a single trip to Russia.

But the biggest problem, according to Wilson, was a failure to absorb that Putin does not assess his own interests in the way Americans believe that he should.

A veteran intelligence analyst with the United States military, noted that younger colleagues had been confident that “Putin wouldn’t do anything” in the current crisis. Then came the stealth invasion of Crimea. “How extraordinary it is that the conventional wisdom and self-licking ice-cream cone is alive and well,” this analyst said. “Why anyone should be surprised is what is surprising. We are believing our own spin that the world has changed. Not in the Russia”n government, it hasn’t.

An American intelligence operative with long experience in the Ukraine added, “Most likely, force is the only thing that will resolve this matter, even if some people think an angry [U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] Samantha Power is enough to make Putin rethink his desire to secure Russian interests.”

John Schindler, a former counter-intelligence officer at the NSA and an analyst of Russian statecraft, said that many in the intelligence community favor a “rational actor/social science” model of analysis that winds up confirming a lot of American biases about how leaders ought to behave. But real life is messier. And there’s more than one way to be rational.

“It was not rational, so to speak, for Putin to go in this heavy handed into Crimea,” Schindler said. “The Kremlin could have gotten control of Crimea with much less direct and less risky methods, but they went for the most politically risky model possible.”

Schindler said this has been a puzzle for the U.S. intelligence community since the days of the cold war. In the 1950s, the spooks swore that the Russians were building many more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the U.S.; it just wasn’t so. In the mid-80s, top Kremlinologist (and future CIA director and Defense Secretary) Robert Gates famously argued that Mikhail Gorbachev was just another leader “cut from the old Soviet mold.” Instead, he wound up being the midwife for the Soviet Union’s demise.

In 1962 for example, President Kennedy’s director of central intelligence, John McCone, asked the CIA’s analysts to conduct a special national intelligence estimate on whether the USSR was placing missiles in Cuba. The analysts concluded that there was a body of evidence that suggested this was indeed what was happening, but concluded “the Kremlin was a rational actor and this would be a profoundly irrational act and there is no way the Soviets would do such a thing,” Schindler said. “Fortunately McCone called bullshit and asked for another assessment and that was the famous assessment that concluded yes the Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba.”

In 2008, the United States ending up sending Georgia humanitarian aid on military aircraft as its territory was invaded. Russian troops remain on Georgian territory to this day and Moscow faced no real consequences.

Hayden observed that Putin “did not spend much time in the penalty box for invading Georgia. That happens in August, then there is an election, then there is a new administration and in a few months you have the reset.” That reset in relations began in 2009 when Obama came into power. The two sides explored ways of cooperating instead of focusing on their divisions when it came to Georgia.

And in some ways it worked for a while. Russia and the United States signed a treaty in 2010 to reduce the strategic nuclear arsenals for both sides. Russia backed off threats to kick the United States out of important airbases in Kyrgyzstan the U.S. military needed to resupply forces in Afghanistan. But Russia continued to flex its muscles nonetheless in Syria and now in Ukraine.

Not all senior officials underestimated Putin. In 2010, then Defense Secretary Gates was quoted in one diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks as saying Russia was an “oligarchy run by the security services.” But Gates was largely an exception.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry promised that the United States was considering a swath of options to punish Putin’s behavior in Ukraine beyond simply boycotting the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi. When he was asked on NBC’s Meet the Press about the “reset,” Kerry said that policy was from long ago. “We’ve entered into a different phase with Russia,” Kerry said. From Putin’s perspective however we’ve been in this different phase for years.

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