EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — I hope CIA has an agent like Dmitry Polyakov operating in Moscow right now. A Major General in Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU), Polyakov was the highest ranking – and arguably the most valuable – spy run by US intelligence during the Cold War. Known to the Agency as ROAM and to the FBI as TOPHAT, Polyakov was described by former CIA officer Sandy Grimes as the Agency’s “crown jewel”. Highly disciplined and deeply respected by his handlers, he utilized the first two-way encrypted covert communications device ever issued by CIA. Polyakov’s broad access to information on his own service and its ‘neighbors’ in the KGB, allowed him to pass on a huge volume of material to include counterintelligence investigative leads that were used to identify Soviet spies in the West. As a decorated Second World War veteran and member of the Soviet elite with commensurate contacts and influence, Polyakov was also able to provide invaluable intelligence on the plans and intentions of the Soviet General Staff and Communist Party Central Committee.
We need an agent with similar access today, as the US moves toward a denouement with its peer competitor adversaries in Moscow and Beijing. That we have reached such a critical juncture is evident by the recent actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpeng; two men united by a common enemy. Ongoing US domestic turmoil and the disastrous US exit from Afghanistan have engendered an impression in Beijing and Moscow of American weakness and a corresponding lessening of Washington’s ability and willingness to counter actions they might undertake. To paraphrase Victor Davis Hanson, ‘re-establishing deterrence’ that was lost with the Afghan debacle will not be easy, as the US struggles to shift its national security apparatus away from a focus on our two decades-long war against jihadi terror to countering peer competitors. In this environment, ambiguity and a lack of clarity as to US capabilities, policies and intent can easily lead to a disastrous miscalculation by those who are trying to capitalize on the disarray they sense in their chief adversary’s camp. The repercussions of this moment of danger are most immediately evident in Ukraine.
With its public demands that the US and NATO remove military infrastructure that was installed in Eastern Europe after 1997; provide assurances that the alliance will not expand further eastward; eschew the deployment to Ukraine of what Moscow calls “offensive” weapons; and end military ties with Soviet successor states, Russia has seized the initiative in advance of planned January talks between Moscow and Washington and NATO respectively. We should expect Putin will use every diplomatic, military and intelligence lever he has to maintain pressure on the West as the crisis he has fomented roils. As such, perhaps a bit of conjecture (informed by experience) about some of the insights into the Russian leader’s thinking a Polyakov-like spy might be able to provide would be of interest.
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First, Putin has now been told – as he undoubtedly anticipated – that some of the demands he made (particularly the roll-back of the NATO alliance to its late-1990’s state) are unacceptable to the West. Putin will, nevertheless, seek to portray himself as reasonable by making ‘concessions’ on such extreme demands at the negotiating table. The most important audience for such theater is not Russia’s US and NATO interlocutors. It is the Russian leader’s own people whose support he will need if he does initiate military operations.
Second, a precipitous announcement that the US will not dispatch troops to Ukraine means that Washington will enter the talks with little real leverage apart from threatened sanctions. The latter alone will not suffice to deter Putin. Although he would prefer to avoid sanctions if possible, Putin is likely not overly bothered by them as he knows his country has existed for some time under sanction regimes. He is likely willing to exchange increased short-term pain engendered by additional sanctions for a re-assertion of Moscow’s primacy in former Soviet space. Putin has, in any case, certainly already priced their possible imposition into his calculations.
Third, Putin does not fear those who will sit across any negotiating table from his side for the simple reason that some of those same people were in office in 2014, when Russia seized the Crimea and launched a war in the Donbas without discernible consequence. The mastery of (his version of) the facts and the confidence displayed by the Russian leader in his recent video meeting with President Biden and at his annual year-end marathon press conference wherein he blamed the US and NATO for the crisis, were performances meant to stand in direct contrast to an American national security decision-making team Putin wants to depict to his countrymen and the world, as enfeebled and inept. Alarmingly, he appears to believe that narrative.
Fourth, a series of recent military exercises conducted by its armed forces within striking distance of the Ukrainian frontier has allowed Moscow to pre-position the materiel needed for an invasion. It has also established the logistical infrastructure needed to support military operations thereafter. This preparation would allow the Russians to move relatively quickly in surging personnel to staging areas to man prepositioned vehicles and equipment immediately prior to an attack, thereby reducing warning time for both Ukrainian forces and NATO.
Fifth, if Putin attacks Ukraine he will, (largely to ensure domestic support for the war) seek a quick and relatively low cost (in terms of lives lost) triumph. By driving directly on Kyiv, he could seek a comprehensive defeat of Ukrainian forces that brings the entirety of the country under his control in one fell swoop. While undoubtedly attractive to Moscow as its successful completion would signify a total victory, such an operation would also take time, could result in significant casualties and would risk a protracted guerilla conflict as Russian forces move into largely ethnically Ukrainian territory. A more militarily reasonable and likely goal would be an operation – or series of operations – aimed at capturing swaths of Eastern Ukraine with significant ethnic Russian populations coupled with the establishment of a land-bridge to Crimea. If successful, Putin would have re-established a security buffer with a weakened rump Ukrainian state on his new western border.
Sixth, unlike Washington and NATO, Moscow does not have to negotiate with numerous allies to formulate policy and initiate military action. And the leader of the one country with which Putin must concern himself, Xi Jinpeng, has reportedly already expressed Chinese support for Russia on Ukraine. This is, however, not to say that the broader strategic goals of Moscow and Beijing vis-a-vis Washington are in complete alignment. The PRC seeks to supplant the US as the world’s pre-eminent power. For his part, as a child of the Soviet Union and man of the KGB, Putin wants to sufficiently diminish US power and influence to allow him to revise the post-Cold War world order to Russia’s benefit. He does not, however, aspire to push the US – which he needs as a counter to the challenge an emerging Chinese superpower will pose for his own country in the future – off the world stage. He must, however, be astounded at the rapidity with which the US is doing this to itself.
Seventh, Putin’s goals in threatening Ukraine probably extend far beyond a favorable – from his perspective – resolution of the present crisis. The Russian leader probably seeks to engender division between the US and NATO and within NATO over the degree to which its member-states are willing to militarily intervene in a “quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing”. He is betting that they, like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he made that statement at the height of the 1938 Sudetenland crisis, will be willing to negotiate away Ukrainian sovereignty rather than risk conflict with a revisionist power determined to assert its influence along its own frontier. Should such a scenario play out, Ukraine could effectively find itself ‘Finlandized’; subject thereafter to increased Russian meddling in its internal affairs with the aim, as is the case with Belarus, of gradually re-incorporating it into Moscow’s orbit.
Eighth, Putin will task Russian intelligence with markedly increasing the pace and intensity of ‘dezinformatia’ (intended to influence both an adversary’s thinking and public opinion) and ‘maskirovka’ (intended to deceive an adversary about one’s own military activities) operations directed at Ukraine and the West over the coming weeks as Moscow moves toward a decision on whether to attack. A principal theme of the already ongoing disinformation campaign is the portrayal of Ukraine, the US and NATO as the instigators of the current crisis as exemplified by Putin’s dismissal of Western fears over an imminent invasion of Ukraine and his assertion that Moscow needs assurances it will not be attacked. Specious claims such as that by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, that U.S. mercenaries provided Ukrainian forces with a chemical component and were readying them for “active hostilities” and to “commit provocations” are reminiscent of Nazi warnings of Polish provocations culminating in the so-called ‘Gleiwitz Incident’. Undertaken on 31 August 1939, that false-flag operation mounted by the Reichssicherheitsdienst (Reich Security Service) involved a staged attack by SS men in Polish uniforms on a German radio station. It was cited as a casus belli for the German attack on Poland the following day. Should Putin decide to attack Ukraine, we can expect to see a similarly contrived justification for invasion.
Finally, while we must discount some of Putin’s rough language (e.g. ‘NATO can go to Hell’) as posturing, the evident asymmetry in the way the crisis is viewed in Washington and Moscow reflects the risk calculi of each. There is every indication the Russian leader considers the Ukrainian state as illegitimate and rightfully subject to Moscow’s suzerainty. He views the extension of western influence into former Soviet space up to Russia’s borders as an existential threat against which Moscow ‘can do anything at any cost’ to protect itself. Putin sees that threat not only in military terms. Also of great concern to him is the possibility that an economically vibrant, democratic Ukraine could encourage greater domestic opposition to his own regime. We must, therefore, take seriously Putin’s assertion that Russia has “nowhere to retreat” and the possibility he will move militarily against Ukraine should negotiations not result in “agreements that would ensure the security of Russia and its citizens now and in the long-term”.
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Should Putin decide to move on Ukraine, we will witness scenes not seen in Europe since the Soviet Army was unleashed on Hungary in 1956 with the significant difference being that the resulting savagery will be captured on cell phones for all the world to see. Confronted with such a horrendous possibility and having signaled that they are unwilling to commit military forces to assist Ukraine, there will be inevitable consideration by the US and NATO of making concessions to Moscow at Ukraine’s expense. Possible discussion of formal NATO membership for Ukraine aside, the US and NATO must resist that temptation. As underscored by Moscow’s frequent citing of its interpretation of the Minsk accords (wherein it fails to mention the requirement that Russian forces leave occupied Ukraine as a pre-condition for talks and preposterously characterizes possible military action by Kyiv to retake its own land as aggression), any acceptance by the US and NATO of Russia’s stated demands as a starting point for discussion in effect, acknowledges Moscow’s 2014 seizures of Ukrainian territory. This would not only reward aggression. It would also, in a manner akin to Germany’s pre-war “Heim ins Reich” campaign, advance Russia’s depiction of itself as the protector of those of Russian heritage living beyond its borders, thereby setting the stage for claims that other territories on which ethnic Russians live – e.g. the Baltic states – should also be brought under Moscow’s ‘protective’ control.
More generally, for the US to be party to any agreement impacting Ukraine without Kyiv’s agreement would evoke echoes of the fait accompli presented to the Czechoslovaks at Munich and feed into already existing doubts about American reliability as a security partner. As was the case with rump Czechoslovakia post-Munich, forcing Ukrainians to accept provisions that compromise their ability to defend themselves from the depredations of a belligerent neighbor would de facto make the US and NATO responsible for that nation’s fate. Beyond that, as the world’s leading democracy, the US ought not, as a matter of principal, be party to any compromise of the sovereignty of a free nation without that country being present at the table. It is simply a question of national honor, however archaic that concept may seem to some.
The most immediately impactful step the US can now take is to significantly increase military assistance to Kyiv including delivery of anti-armor and anti-air systems sufficient to dissuade the Russians from attacking Ukraine or to make them pay as heavy a price as possible should they do so. Russian claims that they are worried that the deployment of anti-air systems could be cover for the deployment of offensive missiles are not to be taken seriously. Their real worry is that such systems could degrade Russia advantages in the air during any operations against Ukraine. That is the point of giving Ukraine such a capability.
The Greatest Threat
Events in the Ukraine are being watched with intense interest in Beijing. And it is there that the greatest threat to the US lies. In contrast with its Russian ally; the ambitions of which are bounded by economic, demographic and military limitations; China’s aspirations are seemingly unbounded and its ability to actualize them is growing. The lengths to which the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will go to attain its goals are also seemingly without limit. By his violation of assurances that the PRC would not militarize the islands of the South China Sea and would rein in cyberattacks on US government and industry targets; and having snuffed out the flame of democracy in Hong Kong in violation of an agreement with Great Britain; CCP leader Xi has demonstrated time and again that for him and his increasingly rogue regime treaties and promises – like pie crusts and fortune cookies – are made to be broken.
This reckless disregard for international norms has both practical and moral effects. Having witnessed the chaos unleashed by a pandemic for which he knows his country is explicitly or implicitly responsible and having seen therein only potential advantage, Xi seems to look with contempt on the unwillingness of the world to hold China accountable for acts of omission or commission resulting in the deaths of at least five million people (to include some 800,000 Americans). The manifest greed of Americans wedded to making money in China, irrespective of the resulting damage to US national security, must only serve to deepen his scorn. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a regime that has imprisoned at least a million Uighurs in concentration camps under the most brutal conditions reportedly has its scientists working away in labs like so many Dr. Mengeles on biological weapons designed to kill selectively based on ethnicity and to employ genetic engineering to develop ‘super soldiers’. Such ghoulish experiments are not the undertakings of a civilized state.
Using Putin’s orchestration of the Sochi games prior to seizing Crimea as a model and desirous of staging a Winter Olympics that will provide the propaganda backdrop for a latter-day version of ‘Olympiad’ (Leni Riefenstahl’s artistically brilliant but morally abhorrent cinematic ode to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin games), Xi will almost surely wait until after the closing ceremonies on 20 February 2022, before significantly ramping up pressure on Taiwan. Thereafter, he will be free to act. If Putin has not reached an ‘accommodation’ (as President Biden unfortunately termed it) with the US and NATO on Ukraine by then, a planned meeting between Xi and Putin on the margins of the games – wherein coordination of a range of actions against Ukraine and Taiwan intended to confront Washington with two simultaneous crises a world apart is sure to the chief topic of discussion – will be of critical intelligence interest. That spy had better be busy.
“A man who risks being hanged in our service”, Frederick the Great said, “merits being well paid”. Polyakov was certainly worthy of being paid a fortune for his services. Yet he “did not”, as Grimes’s dear friend and colleague on the team that identified CIA officer Aldrich Ames as a Soviet spy, Jeanne Vertefeuille, said “do this for money”. Polyakov acted out of a sense of patriotic duty, accepting only a nominal amount for expenses as well as fishing and hunting equipment. He asked only that his family be cared for in extremis. It was hoped when Polyakov retired in 1980, that he could put some of that sporting gear to use, quietly living out his life in his dacha outside Moscow. Fate dictated otherwise. Betrayed in 1985, by both Ames and FBI traitor Robert Hanssen, Polyakov was arrested and subjected to two years’ harsh interrogation followed by a drum-head trial for treason. The 15 March 1988, announcement of his execution marked a cruel end for a hero. “It was”, Vertefeuille lamented, “a bad day for (CIA) when we lost him.”
Espionage remains a perilous endeavor. However, as Napoleon said, “one spy in the right place is worth 20,000 men in the field”. The value of the real insights into Putin’s thinking on an agent akin to Polyakov spying for us in Moscow today could deliver, would be incalculably greater.
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