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Russia, NATO, Trump: The Shadow World

1.

NATO and Russia are close to war, according to General Sir Richard Shirreff, recently NATO’s second-in-command. In 2017: War with Russia, he writes that Russia could invade the Baltic states, which are NATO members, while NATO does nothing. When crisis strikes, the British prime minister is at the pub, the Germans are paralyzed by anxiety, and the Greeks and Hungarians are in Russia’s pocket. The Americans are raring to go, but three countries have to fall before they can persuade their European partners to share their sense of urgency.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin; drawing by James Ferguson

And one could almost now say that Shirreff’s alarmism has been overtaken by events, which are conspiring to demolish even the outward show of solidarity on which NATO relies for its deterrence. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Turkey’s post-coup crackdown call into question the strategic direction of two of NATO’s major military powers. As for Donald Trump’s argument during the presidential campaign that America’s richer allies should pay adequately for their protection, it was a fair point in principle, but a fatal thing to say in public. It made clear that America’s commitment to NATO would not be unconditional under President Trump; and if America’s commitment is not unconditional, then fairly obviously it will not extend to nuclear war. The cat is out of the bag. Seen from Moscow, the West has not been in such inviting disarray since the Suez crisis of 1956. Whatever constraints Putin may now feel upon his land-grabbing instincts, they must be entirely domestic in nature. NATO is no longer one of them.

Shirreff was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO’s second-ranking military officer, from 2011 to 2014. Before that he was commander of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. He should know of what he speaks. He writes his book in the manner of a popular thriller, full of stock characters and military jargon. But he insists upon its truth to life. He says in his preface: “This is not fiction as such. This is fact-based prediction, very closely modelled on what I know, based on my position as a very senior military insider at the highest and best-informed level.”

2017 begins with a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian army sweeps westward from the pro-Russian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of Ukraine to the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea coast, already annexed by Russia in 2014. This easy conquest is three days’ work for Russia, brings it half of Ukraine, and, since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, sets off no NATO response.

Hours later, while NATO is still arguing about who lost Ukraine, Russia is moving against the Baltics. A demonstration by Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority in the capital, Riga, is infiltrated by Russian special forces who engineer chaos. Concealed Russian snipers shoot dead three protesters, creating the pretext for a Russian invasion that is over almost as soon as it has begun. Russian airborne troops arrive from Pskov, less than an hour’s flying time away, to seize Riga. A tank army follows four hours later. Similar events are underway in Latvia’s Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania.

As all this happens overnight, NATO ambassadors meeting in Belgium are unable to agree on any action save to order two minesweepers exercising in the Baltics to anchor in Riga as a show of support. One is German; the other is British. Both are sunk by Russian planes hunting for Latvian ships. This attack finally compels a reluctant Germany to accept that Russia and NATO are at war, clearing the way for NATO to fight. But by this time the Baltics have been lost, and Russia is making clear that any attempt to win them back will be met with nuclear weapons.

Shirreff tries to graft a happy ending onto his tragic tale. The last of three parts of 2017 tells how a lone British soldier and a band of Latvian partisans escape through Russian lines to penetrate the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, seize tactical nuclear weapons there, and turn them upon Russia, forcing a Russian retreat. But these chapters are merely ridiculous, and belong in a different book.

My principal home is in Latvia, so Shirreff’s “fact-based prediction” of war next year has some concern for me personally. I wish I could say that 2017 is sensationalist claptrap. But I find the first half of it, up to and including the successful Russian invasion, entirely realistic—and I am sure the Russians think so too. This realism certainly extends to Shirreff’s account of Russia’s motivation for attacking the Baltics, which sticks generally to known facts and which also serves to explain Russia’s recent interventions in Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea.

First, Russia’s economy is wilting under the weight of low oil prices, bad policies, and corrupt government. Rather than trying to address these problems, President Vladimir Putin is promoting military adventures designed to increase his personal support, unify his country, and distract attention from the plummeting ruble.

Second, as with Ukraine, Russians tend to think of the Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—as “belonging” to Russia. They were part of the tsarist Russian empire, and later incorporated by force into the Soviet Union. Latvia and Estonia, again like Ukraine, have large Russian-speaking minorities, with regard to which Russia can pose as a protector.

As for Shirreff’s account of the ease and speed with which a Russian invasion of the Baltics could be completed, the RAND Corporation reached the same conclusion earlier this year after extensively wargaming a Russian attack:

As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours.

Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad: a bloody counteroffensive, fraught with escalatory risk, to liberate the Baltics; to escalate itself, as it threatened to do to avert defeat during the Cold War; or to concede at least temporary defeat, with uncertain but predictably disastrous consequences for the Alliance and, not incidentally, the people of the Baltics.

RAND’s specific conclusion is that NATO should reinforce the Baltic countries to deter a Russian invasion. NATO seems to agree: at its summit in Warsaw in July it decided to station a multinational battalion permanently in the Baltics. According to James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme allied commander: “While not enough to actually blunt a full-on Russian invasion, the additional forces will increase deterrence significantly.” Shirreff’s implied argument is a more general one: that NATO countries have cut their military spending to dangerously low levels and have not been preparing for war, leaving them exposed to all and any threats, including those from Russia.

Shirreff’s book is meant as a “warning,” according to the subtitle. A Russian publisher might prefer the word “invitation.” If this nightmare comes true, Shirreff will be able to say to NATO, “I told you so,” and to President Putin, “I told you how.”

How strange it is now to think that there was a time not long ago when Russia was generally considered to pose no threat to anybody except perhaps itself. The Russian military doctrine adopted in 1993 declared that “the Russian Federation does not regard any country as an enemy.” Louis Sell, who was an American diplomat in Moscow in the early 1990s, has written From Washington to Moscow, a modest and sensible account of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, in which he recalls that sense of hope:

In the early 1990s Russia seemed poised to rejoin the world community…. The new Russia also appeared to have chosen for itself a future path towards democracy and a liberal market-based economy.

Cured of its Soviet sickness, Russia would join the peace-minded world. Such was the clumsy optimism of 1991. Why on earth did it collapse into the terrifying pessimism of 2016?

One answer to that question is just two words long: Vladimir Putin. Russia went through an embarrassment of prime ministers in the 1990s—ranging from heavyweights such as ex-Gazprom boss Viktor Chernomyrdin and former foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov to others who were little more than names, such as Sergey Kiriyenko and Sergei Stepashin—so we have a pretty good idea of who else was in contention to run the country, and there was not another figure comparable to Putin among them. Without Putin, therefore, Russia would probably be very different today.

As Sell notes, Putin seemed to start well. He “brought a certain surface stability and prosperity to at least part of Russian society,” helped by the rising revenues from oil exports. But he also allowed corrupt cronies to capture great wealth (Putin’s personal wealth and probity remain a matter of mystery and speculation). He poured billions of rubles into vanity projects culminating in the Sochi Olympics of 2014, and neglected or flouted the rule of law, creating a climate of permanent uncertainty about property rights that deterred investment and encouraged capital flight. As economic growth inevitably slowed—crashing horribly in 2009—Putin had much less cash on hand to buy popularity. He became the darker figure whom we meet in Shirreff’s 2017. Nationalism and revanchism were the new Russian currencies, and war was never far away.

Sell argues that there are things the West could have done much earlier, setting Russia on a better course before Putin had the chance to hijack it: “Failure to support Yeltsin effectively was the key Western mistake of the immediate post-Soviet era.”

Perhaps so. But we have to remember that it was Yeltsin who appointed Putin. And my own impression from living in Moscow in the 1990s and writing for The Economist was that Western countries supported Yeltsin almost to the exclusion of supporting anybody else in Russia at the time. Any ineffectiveness in the Western relationship with Yeltsin was entirely the fault of Yeltsin himself. You could hardly “support effectively” a blustering semi-invalid who was never there when needed owing to the fact that he was frequently drinking with his chief bodyguard or in the sauna with his tennis coach or under the heart surgeon’s knife or enjoying a holiday paid for by a passing oligarch.

I was fond enough of Yeltsin at the time. He had all the right enemies, which seemed important. But I suspect now that the “key Western mistake of the post-Soviet era,” to borrow Sell’s phrase, was to support Yeltsin as much as it did. Bill Clinton let slip some years later that the American Secret Service had found Yeltsin, during an official visit to Washington in 1995, wandering drunk in his underpants down Pennsylvania Avenue looking for a pizza. Who knows what Russia might be like now if Yeltsin had been left to stagger on into the night, rather than returned to his bedroom in Blair House? At that point in Russia’s transition everything was still possible. In the four remaining years of Yeltsin’s miserable reign the possibilities drained away, until only Putin was left.

2.

Vladimir Putin is invariably tagged in the Western media as a former KGB officer, the implication being that he can best be understood as a product of that culture. But he was not a typical product in one respect at least. When the Soviet Union fell apart, most of the other demobbed KGB officers chased money. Putin chased power in the old public sector, accepting a job as a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg under Anatoly Sobchak, perfecting there the stealthy and ruthless political style that carried him to the Kremlin within a decade.* He believed in power when power seemed to have lost its value; and he judged, brilliantly, that power could always be converted into money later, at a much improved exchange rate.

That aside, the “KGB” tag seems to fit well, as long as you remember that Putin mainly worked in counterintelligence, not foreign intelligence. He was a secret policeman. Look at Putin, and “policeman” is indeed a word that comes easily to mind. But how much do we really know about the KGB and its “culture,” if that is not too strong a term? If we accept the proposition that the KGB was among the most mendacious institutions in human history, then the historian confronts a Cretan paradox: all the best sources are liars.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden; drawing by James Ferguson

Undaunted, Jonathan Haslam has inspected the workings of the Soviet Union’s entire spying machinery from the October Revolution to the end of the cold war, and produced, in Near and Distant Neighbors, an account of the KGB and its military counterpart, the GRU, that is, he says, “about as comprehensive as can be contained within one volume, given prevailing restrictions.” Certainly, one would not ask for more. Haslam’s book is full of colorful characters who excel in stealing secrets and killing people, including their own colleagues. Haslam writes that in 1938 Pavel Sudoplatov, arguably the most talented of the KGB’s assassins, murdered a Ukrainian nationalist in Rotterdam with an exploding cake. These accounts of early Russian derring-do could spawn a shelf of noir paperback thrillers.

Rare is the agent whose heroism is not rewarded by his own murder or imprisonment. Thus Fyodor Parparov, a Soviet illegal in 1930s Berlin, recruited the embittered wife of a German diplomat by means of a lonely hearts advertisement. “Marta” passed him Foreign Ministry documents—until, in 1938, Parparov was ordered back to the Lubyanka for interrogation, in the course of which his torturers smashed his writing hand. He sent typewritten letters to Marta in Berlin, and Marta resumed sending him secrets.

You didn’t have to be mad to work for the KGB, but presumably it helped, especially under Stalin, when on any given night you might have to torture or shoot a colleague, or, indeed, get tortured or shot yourself, knowing that loyal service and brilliant achievement were no defense. Here is Haslam’s account of the retirement in 1937 of Artur Artuzov, then head of Soviet foreign intelligence, and his protégé Ignatii Reiss, who had been involved in the recruitment of the KGB’s most valuable foreign agents:

Artuzov was taken at night on May 12–13…. On July 17, Reiss wrote an angry and foolhardy letter of resignation to the Politburo…. On August 21, Artuzov was tried in absentia and shot the same day. Reiss’s bullet-ridden corpse was found late at night on September 4, along the road to Lausanne.

Haslam blames Stalin’s paranoia for “the destruction of half the intelligence services in the spy frenzy of 1937–1939.” By the end of March 1939, “275 of the 450 operatives that made up what was once the INO [the foreign intelligence service] had been shot or sent to a camp.” The half that survived presumably assisted in denouncing or arresting or shooting the half that did not.

The cumulative effect of spending three hundred pages with the KGB and its friends is not the acquisition of some more unified or logical account of Soviet history, explained from within, but rather bewilderment that one of the most powerful institutions in one of the world’s most powerful countries could apparently consist almost entirely of vicious people doing stupid things. Of course, this picture is skewed by the information that survives. It is the extreme stuff that gets rehearsed and repolished in legends and memoirs, and the quiet routine that is neglected. Even so, there is a single wonderful paragraph of Haslam’s that puts the routine stuff in its place:

Back in the autumn of 1932, faced with more intelligence information than he could assimilate, a disastrous famine in sight, and a wife driven to suicide by his cruel indifference, Stalin had reached a peak of intolerance and ordered a halt to “quarterly surveys of foreign countries.”

On a practical note that may sound trivial but makes reading Near and Distant Neighbors more taxing than it might have been, everybody in the secret world seems to have at least two or three names, and the main Russian spying organizations, civilian and military, change their names at least fifteen times in the course of Haslam’s book, with further shape-shifting among the agencies they encompass and that encompass them. The index makes an attempt at freezing this flux but does not quite succeed, leaving rather too much work largely to the reader, which is a pity. When you read that “Opperput, Zakharchenko, and Voznesenskii (‘Georgii Peters’) were trained for terrorist operations” on page 36, you just have to remember that “Opperput” is “Eduard Ottovich Upelin’sh, otherwise know as Opperput,” previously encountered on page 21. “Voznesenskii” is indexed by this single reference. And “Georgii Peters,” as he doubtless would have wished, is not indexed at all.

3.

Haslam argues that a fascination with human intelligence—spying, basically—caused the Soviet establishment to undervalue and neglect cryptography and cryptanalysis, at least until just before Stalin’s death, and that this was a foolish bias. He contrasts the faltering Soviet approach with the far more developed intelligence services of Britain and America.

But as Stephen Budiansky recounts in Code Warriors, America also came relatively late to the breaking of codes on a grand scale, shocked into action by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Until then, codebreaking had been left to the Army Signal Corps and the Naval Communications department, neither of which had any defined intelligence responsibilities or much in the way of resources.

The conviction that the Pearl Harbor catastrophe could have been avoided if only the right Japanese signal had been intercepted and decoded beforehand produced in the American government and military something close to an obsession with eavesdropping. The new policy was that no scrap of information should ever be neglected again. “Get everything” was the rule. And get everyone, too. As Budiansky explains:

Every country was a legitimate target, friend and foe alike; intelligence on everything from industry to agriculture, from its politics to internal social forces, might provide the one crucial detail that would make the difference between triumph and catastrophe for American policy.

The downside of getting everything was that you ended up with far more than you could digest. In June 1944 American codebreakers intercepted a Russian cable identifying the British diplomat Donald MacLean as a Russian agent. The cable was not read until April 1951, by which time MacLean had completed assignments in Washington and Cairo, and been appointed head of the American department of the British Foreign Office.

By 1955, the NSA was receiving thirty-seven tons of printouts and paper tapes each month from two thousand intercept stations, most of it shipped by air. More urgent traffic was forwarded by radio teleprinter at the rate of thirty million words a month. Codebreakers and analysts were overwhelmed. The answer was obvious then and has remained obvious on each subsequent occasion: expand the NSA.

Budiansky’s account of that expansion is interesting throughout. America and the Soviet Union conducted an arms race in computing technology and mathematical ingenuity not only against each other but also against the laws of physics. As early as 1958, an American expert panel concluded that the most secure Soviet computers were invulnerable to a “brute force” attack—one that would try all possible keys and passwords until a winner was found. There was “not nearly enough energy in the universe to power the computer” needed for such an attack, the panel said. Recovering a single message enciphered on such a Soviet machine “would involve testing about 1016 possibilities” at a cost of “$2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 per message for the electricity required to power any known or projected computing devices.”

The wonks found a way around that one, no doubt. But even so, perhaps Stalin was right in his early view on cryptography: you could get better results by recruiting the other side’s codebreakers than by trying to break their codes. The Stalinist system never produced someone like Alan Turing, who led the British teams breaking Nazi codes at Bletchley during World War II. But the Soviets did not need a counterpart to Turing so long as they had John Cairncross—the Russian spy in Bletchley who stole the British decryptions and sent them to the KGB.

The mathematical limits to codebreaking encouraged the NSA and its rivals to develop other lines of business more extensively from the 1950s onward—bugging, tapping cables, intercepting unencoded signals, mapping the enemy’s radars. Later came the capturing of Internet and cellular telephone traffic and, with that, Edward Snowden, to whose case Budiansky devotes much of an angry preface that sets Code Warriors off on an unhappy note. For if Budiansky is going to rage against Snowden, who does not even fall within the historical period of his study, then why not against William Weisband, who leaked American secrets in the 1940s, or against John Walker, who leaked them from the 1960s to the 1980s? For a few pages Budiansky breaks character as a historian, and demands that we follow him as a writer of editorials.

4.

During the cold war the absolute priority for the intelligence agencies on both sides was to spot the signs of a surprise nuclear attack. The Soviet Union never launched a sudden nuclear attack on America because it always knew that America was not about to launch a sudden nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

Traitors were vital to the process since they had the best information. Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB colonel who was also working for MI6, passed word in 1983 that Russia was in a “state of alarm” over a “possible American attack” when tensions spiked over both the Soviet shooting-down of a Korean passenger airliner and the planned American deployment of cruise missiles in Western Europe. This was probably the closest the Soviets came to attacking the West. Gordievsky’s warning was followed by a prompt softening of American rhetoric and, perhaps not coincidentally, by Ronald Reagan’s shift toward what he called “peaceful competition and constructive cooperation” with Russia.

But most of the time business was much more mundane, according to Raymond Garthoff’s interviews with former Soviet intelligence officers and politicians, distilled in his marvelous short book Soviet Leaders and Intelligence. Garthoff, a former US ambassador and State Department adviser, tells us that the absence of anything to report about imminent nuclear attacks, combined with an obligation to report nonetheless, produced the results that any student of bureaucracy would expect:

When year after year in the 1980s Soviet intelligence could find no real signs of Western preparation to attack, their chiefs, rather than congratulating their staffs for reassuring Moscow, urged them to redouble efforts to find evidence that was not there.

In Yuri Andropov’s time as general secretary—1982 to 1984—roughly half of all diplomats in Soviet embassies around the world were intelligence officers, and few of them were involved in playing James Bond. They were collecting information about the politics and intentions of the host country. Thousands more KGB officers were busy on the home front monitoring what was said and done within the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, sniffing out and snuffing out threats to the regime. What use was made of their conclusions?

The evidence is, very little. Stalin was actively hostile to accurate information. George Kennan remarked in his long telegram of 1946 to the State Department on

the unsolved mystery as to who, if anyone, in the Soviet Union actually receives accurate and unbiased information about the outside world…. I for one am reluctant to believe that Stalin himself receives anything like an objective picture of the outside world.

Later leaders were not much better, Garthoff’s sources tell him. “Intelligence had little influence on Khrushchev’s basic views toward the United States.” Khrushchev precipitated the Berlin crisis of 1958, cutting off the city from West Germany “without seeking any intelligence advice on possible Western reactions.” He shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba “without seeking any intelligence assessment as to likely or possible American responses.”

Under Brezhnev, according to General Oleg Kalugin, “the opinion of Intelligence was usually ignored or not even seen by political leaders deciding most important foreign policy questions.” Finally, under Gorbachev, “intelligence played no role in promoting the new thinking that fundamentally recast Soviet policy.” That fact deserves emphasis. Gorbachev reversed his country’s strategic direction, declared the main enemy not to be an enemy at all, and instituted large and often unsuccessful changes in the economy as well as in the state apparatus—and he left his intelligence services out of the loop.

One can well imagine a KGB operative at the time—Vladimir Putin, say—watching all this with horror and deciding that he could do better himself. Amazingly enough, the conditions of post-Soviet Russia allowed Putin to test that belief. He demonstrated that the qualities essential in a secret policeman—mendacity, cynicism, amorality, a certain degree of overt thuggishness—also worked strikingly well in a Russian president. Whether those same qualities work equally well in an American president, we will soon discover. But in any event, Putin will be right to receive America’s imitation as flattery.

  1. *

    Putin’s formative years in St. Peterburg are well described in the first half of Putin’s Kleptocracy, by Karen Dawisha (Simon and Schuster, 2014). According to Dawisha, he built a formidable power base by using his office to allocate business monopolies to trusted friends, which could also mean suppressing competition and rubbing shoulders with organized crime where necessary.