What a surprise! Vladimir Putin is employing the tried-and-true methods of political covert action to recreate the old Soviet Union.
Here’s how it works. First he targets a neighboring region, say Crimea, and seeds it with political operatives who in turn recruit, organize, and fund resistance elements to demonstrate in favor of reunification with Russia.
Then, in anticipation of civil unrest in the country (inevitable, because he fuels it) he moves Russian troops up to the borders to further intimidate and increase pressure on the country.
And when the country caves, as Crimea inevitably did, he welcomes it into the Russian fold and rewards it with economic largesse.
But then he needs a road between Russia and Crimea to properly perform commerce and commune with the region. So he uses the momentum gained from the Crimea annexation and, just like the judo sensei he is, he steps aside and yanks Eastern Ukraine over his hip toward Russia as well.
Will Putin stop there? I don’t think so. Who’s going to stop him?
In 2008, both Ukraine and Georgia were on track to become NATO allies. Since this would not be in Russia’s best interests, Putin acted swiftly and invaded Georgia. The U.S. response to the invasion was weak, Georgia spun out of the Western sphere and, after we installed a new administration in the White House, all further efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO were scrapped.
You see where I’m going with this.
Putin is a skilled intelligence officer. He recognizes the importance of political covert action and willingly employs these tactics to achieve his goals. Only when absolutely necessary does he resort to the use of force. But when it is necessary he doesn’t hesitate to use it. And he knows that just the treat to use force is a powerful weapon; if repeat if, it is believed.
We could learn a lot from Vladimir Putin.
Political covert action is a weapon used to influence a political outcome in a country when normal diplomacy won’t work and military force is deemed too costly. If Putin can lure certain former Soviet republics back into the fold without having to resort to military action, he will. It’s much neater that way.
Granted, virtually all of the former Soviet nations have, to one extent or another, vocal populations of ethnic Russians who would support reunification with Russia. This is great fodder for political covert action activities. It makes sense that Putin would take advantage of the opportunities presented by these Russian supporters.
Covert action was used extensively by both the KGB and the CIA during the Cold War, and it was highly effective for both the Soviet Union and the United States.
But while the Russian intelligence services are still hard at it under Putin, the United States appears to have completely abandoned this tool, at least the political covert action variety. (Drone strikes and other forms of CIA-backed paramilitary activity fall into the broad category of covert action as well.)
The CIA is specifically charged with performing three main tasks: collection, analysis, and to conduct certain covert action activities when authorized by the president. It’s a three-legged stool, but one leg is missing.
These days U.S. priorities lie in the Middle East where Islamic terrorists threaten our existence and dependence on oil and treaties with Israel require our presence in the region.
Diplomacy isn’t working, we are war-weary from our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and when opportunities for political covert action do present themselves, like during the anti-government demonstrations in Iran at the start of the Arab Spring, we are totally unprepared to take advantage of them.
If we had had an active political covert action program in Iraq we might have been able to oust Saddam Hussein without invading the country. In Afghanistan, we might have been able to avoid the lengthy occupation.
In Egypt, Syria, and Libya, we rushed into supporting resistance groups to topple leaders who were not our best friends, but ended up with something much worse. If we had laid the groundwork and positioned our own people to take over once the dust settled, the Middle East might be a much safer place today.
It’s dangerous work, meddling in the affairs of foreign governments, but it should be done when it’s in America’s best interests. When it works, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and more effective than sending in the troops.
Vladimir Putin gets it. Why doesn’t Washington?
Fred Rustmann spent more than 24 years in the Central Intelligence Agency, serving as senior CIA officer (chief of station) in country for two assignments. Rustmann founded the CTC International Group, Inc. He is the author of three books: "CIA, Inc.: Espionage and the Craft of Business Intelligence," "The Case Officer," and "Plausible Denial." For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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