Is It Possible to Predict How Far Putin Would Go Based on His Inspiration? | Latest Updates!

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At the end of last week’s press conference, US President Joe Biden stated that he was “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine. When asked why, he simply stated, “We have significant intelligence capability.”

Understanding the intentions of a foreign autocratic leader, especially one who is isolated from the outside world and relies on a small group of trusted advisors, is the Holy Grail for any intelligence service. America’s spies, along with their British counterparts, appear to have succeeded in their mission. We won’t know how until the relevant documents are declassified, which could take decades. However, history can provide some insight into how Biden knows what he knows and why he has chosen to make some of this information public.

According to Cold War archives, accurate predictions about an adversary’s intentions and capabilities were rarely, if ever, the result of a single type of intelligence. Rather, they were invariably achieved through the combination of human and technical intelligence. Today, open-source intelligence is also becoming more important. What information a government publicly shares can be influenced by the specific mix of intelligence sources. Presidents can best deploy intelligence in their diplomacy when the risk of burning sources is low, as demonstrated during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

 

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Human Factors

Human intelligence provides unique insights into the thoughts of a foreign leader. This is especially true for Putin, who, given his KGB background, is acutely aware of foreign intelligence capabilities and would resist risking interception by writing down his intentions at the last possible moment. Thus, even in this day and age of ubiquitous data, a human agent (or, more colloquially, a spy) with access to a foreign leader’s whispered secrets can provide unique insights into their mindset and motivations.

During the Cold War, it does not appear that any Western intelligence agency was able to recruit a spy with access to the Kremlin’s innermost decision-making. During the conflict, the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellite states served as graveyards for Western spy services. Ubiquitous surveillance in countries behind the Iron Curtain, severe restrictions on the movements of Western intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover there (“your papers, please”), frequent intimidation (pictures rearranged in apartments indicating a visitor), and physical harassment hampered their ability to recruit and meet agents. Under constant pressure in Moscow, Western intelligence officers burned out even after only a few months on the job. During the Cold War, the CIA would invent ingenious and elaborate disguises for its officers just to get out of US embassies behind the Iron Curtain to meet sources.

In contrast, the Soviet Union’s intelligence services were able to exploit Western countries’ relative freedoms to devastating effect, recruiting agents at the heart of their decision-making at critical stages of the Cold War. Thanks to Joseph Stalin’s agents, the British and U.S. governments were effectively practising open diplomacy towards the Soviet Union as the Cold War set in. Stalin knew more information about the Western powers than they did about his intentions or capabilities. This is amply demonstrated by recently released British intelligence dossiers on members of the Cambridge Five network and their Soviet handlers.

Given the colossal difficulties of human intelligence within the Soviet bloc, it is incredible that Western agencies achieved what they did. They were never allowed to enter the Kremlin’s inner sanctum, but they did gain access to it through windows. Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, MI6 and the CIA had an important agent inside the Soviets’ Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Oleg Penkovsky. His storey was recently portrayed in the film The Courier, which was brilliantly acted but not entirely accurate. Penkovsky provided intelligence from deep within the Main Intelligence Directorate to his British and American handlers in safe houses in the UK and Paris, as well as nerve-racking meetings in Moscow. Penkovsky’s espionage revealed that the Soviet Union’s claims of possessing a massive nuclear arsenal were a ruse. Nikita Khrushchev knew he was outgunned by the United States, and thanks to Penkovsky, President John F. Kennedy did as well.

Penkovsky’s intelligence (codenamed IRONBARK) aided Kennedy’s brinkmanship during the crisis’ 13-day nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. The intelligence received by Kennedy and his advisers was a combination of human intelligence and technical intelligence gathered from CIA U-2 spy planes, as well as signals intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency about Soviet vessels en route to Cuba and its missiles on the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis exemplifies how different sources of intelligence can be combined to provide decision-makers in the Oval Office with timely, relevant, and accurate insights into an adversary on the verge of war.

Twelve years later, MI6 recruited a significant agent inside the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky. Again, his access to the Kremlin had far-reaching consequences for the West. To MI6’s delight, Gordievsky rose through the ranks of the KGB’s station (“residency”) in London, providing his British handlers with a trove of real-time stolen Soviet secrets. Gordievsky revealed secrets about the Kremlin and KGB’s attitude toward the West from his position in London until his terrifying exfiltration by MI6 from Moscow in 1985. Gordievsky’s intelligence was “as scarce as hen’s teeth,” according to Robert Gates, the United States’ director of central intelligence and later secretary of defence. It demonstrated that, despite the Kremlin’s public bravado, Moscow was deeply concerned about the United States’ overwhelming military superiority. Gordievsky warned that what Washington saw as defence and security appeared to Moscow as offence and aggression. His intelligence played a significant role in President Ronald Reagan’s strategic thinking about the Soviet Union. He backtracked on his previous bellicose public remarks about the Soviet Union being a “Evil Empire,” which, Gordievsky revealed, had only heightened the Politburo’s concern. Reagan realised he could reach an agreement with the Soviet Union after Gordievsky revealed that Moscow’s intentions were motivated by fear.

 

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Decisions on Delicate Disclosure

During the current Ukraine crisis, the US government has been releasing declassified intelligence almost in real time in order to deter Putin by anticipating his plans, tactics, and strategy. This is, once again, not unprecedented. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy made public US imagery intelligence from U-2 spy planes depicting Soviet missiles in Cuba. During a highly charged emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin slammed “the falsified evidence of the US Intelligence Agency.” While watching the debate on television, Kennedy directed Adlai Stevenson, the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations, to “stick it to him” by displaying U.S. photographs of Soviet missiles on large easels. Stevenson humiliated Zorin in front of the world press, and Zorin could only respond lamely, “Mr. Stevenson, we will not look at your photographs.”

Kennedy was willing to reveal the intelligence he had on Soviet missiles in Cuba because it did not jeopardise revealing sources or methods not already known in the Kremlin. The previously top-secret U-2 spy plane programme had already been revealed to the Soviet government when one of its pilots, Gary Powers, was shot down over the Soviet Union and survived two years earlier in May 1960.

We don’t know whether the Kremlin currently knows or can guess the nature of the US government’s “significant intelligence capability.” Prior to Russia’s election meddling in 2016, the CIA reportedly had a human source close to Putin who gave it the confidence to conclude that Putin had personally ordered the intelligence operation against the US. Following in the footsteps of Gordievsky, the CIA appears to have smuggled that source out of Russia. Who knows if the CIA has done it again. If the United States’ intelligence capability is unknown in Moscow, Biden may be going further than Kennedy by risking a still-secret source or method to “stick it” to Putin and reveal details about his ambitions.

There is some evidence that US intelligence was obtained through signals intelligence (SIGINT): intercepted communications of Russian-allied forces discussing Ukraine invasion plans. If the capability is derived from signals intelligence or technical cyber collection, it may have a shorter lifespan, lowering the cost of revealing it. However, if it is derived from a human source, the bar for releasing its details rises because a life is literally at stake. Spies in Russia’s intelligence services have a long history of being executed. Penkovsky was identified as a Western spy by the KGB, arrested, and executed: most likely with a ritual bullet to the back of his neck in the basement of KGB headquarters, though rumours circulated that he was tied up with chicken wire and cremated alive in a furnace as a warning to other officers. When it became clear that Gordievsky’s life was in danger in Moscow, MI6 decided to expel him.

New and Open Source Software

Despite widespread speculation about a new Cold War, the world has changed in the 30 years since the last one. It would be like playing a loop of the best intelligence hits from the first Cold War. The most significant difference between now and then is the importance of open-source intelligence in our new digitally interconnected world. Ukraine is already the site of the first TikTok war, a conflict that we can all witness online. We didn’t need covert intelligence to spot Russia’s massive military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.

During the Cold War, secret sources provided 80 percent of intelligence on the Soviet Union, with open sources providing the remaining 20 percent. Those proportions are thought to be exactly reversed in today’s age of ubiquitous data. Take, for example, satellite imagery. Until recently, it was the sole domain of governments, who used highly classified and expensive satellite collection platforms. It is now both freely and commercially available. This isn’t the only field. Open-source intelligence outfits like Bellingcat are demonstrating how open-source intelligence can be used to reveal Russia’s malign activities in ways that would have previously been laborious operations for a foreign intelligence service.

However, open-source intelligence is not without flaws. Its advantages can also be its disadvantages. With so many people reporting from their phones, it is arguably easier than ever to spread misinformation. Knowing how many eyes are on him, it is easy to imagine Putin ordering Russian troops to do things like move in the wrong direction. TikTok videos of those troops would then be picked up by Western media, spreading the deception. They’d be the modern equivalent of the inflatable tanks and balsawood guns used by British and American intelligence to fool the Luftwaffe before D-Day. Another possible ruse: Knowing that Russian downstream military orders are being intercepted by every intelligence service worth its salt, Russian commanders could purposefully disseminate illogical orders. The surest way to confuse foreign spy chiefs is to do something illogical.

Of course, the most useful intelligence is not always the most obvious. It is uncommon for dictators to broadcast their intentions to the world, though this does happen in some cases. If Western intelligence services had spent more time reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf before 1939, they would have had a better understanding of his intentions and capabilities. It turns out that when Putin publicly stated that the Soviet Union’s demise was the greatest disaster of the twentieth century, he meant it. He sincerely wishes to correct what he perceives to be the “injustices” that have resulted from it. Putin’s long history essay, published in July 2021, and his angry speech on Monday this week following a choreographed Russian national security council meeting are fanatical ramblings. The problem for the rest of the world is that, like Hitler, this fanatic is in charge of a country. This is why foreign intelligence services hire psychologists to better understand Putin’s mindset and how far he is likely to go in a war.

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How far is it?

How far will Putin go now that Russia’s military offensive against Ukraine has begun, and Putin has placed his nuclear forces on high alert? That is the information that foreign policymakers are desperately seeking.

As the Iron Curtain was being erected in Europe, the new US ambassador in Moscow, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, later US director of central intelligence, met with Stalin in the Kremlin in April 1946. The West was spying on him in the dark about his plans for postwar Europe. While the general spoke, the Soviet dictator doodled. “What does the Soviet Union want, and how far will Russia go?” he wondered. “We’re not going much further,” Stalin finally said. Nobody in the West knew how far that went.

The same can be said about Putin’s current intentions for Ukraine. Hopefully, the intelligence available to Washington today remains far superior to that available at the start of the first Cold War.

 

 

 

 

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