Divining Putin’s Intentions: Why We Must Lose “Strategic Patience!”
“[…] we don’t have any reason to think it’s more than military exercises.” So opined a senior U.S. intelligence official on February 27, 2014. Only after Vladimir Putin’s “little green men” without insignia took over the airport and government buildings in Crimea did the light go on. We saw this movie before in 1968 Czechoslovakia. As the 1975 Pike Committee concluded, “U.S. agencies were not up to the difficult task of divining Soviet intentions…they only found them [the Soviet tanks] in the streets of Prague, but only by way of a Czech radio news broadcast.” Similar story in 1956 Hungary, 1979 Afghanistan, 1980–81 Poland, 2008 Georgia and 2014 eastern Ukraine.
This study discusses Russian interventions at her periphery, or what Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, Putin’s partner in their presidential game of Round Robbin, has called its “sphere of privileged interests.” Note, however, that after the 1991 geopolitical amputation of Russia, the periphery moved dramatically inward. Rather than much of Eastern Europe, it now includes Ukraine, the Baltic States, Moldova, Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Comparing the post-Soviet invasions of Georgia and Ukraine to interventions past, our purpose here has been to discern key factors of Russian decision-making. What is still constant? What is new? How can we better divine Russian intentions and so enhance preemptive diplomacy?
Russian Decision-Making and Military Interventions
“We swear that we will never be slaves.” The common aim of all revolutionary challenges at Russia’s periphery that we studied, is echoed in this old Hungarian anthem. The revolutionaries have repeatedly sought to follow their own destinies free of Kremlin control. With the exception of tribal Afghanistan, the trend has also been towards Western-type democratic reform. Russia’s interventions have meanwhile manifested Kremlin’s fear of these reforms spilling over and infecting their neighbors—even Russia itself. Thus, all Russia’s interventions have aimed at regime change or retaliation for it, to reverse this trend.
Yet Russian interventions are not predetermined and inevitable. Kremlin decision-making is complex. Thus, grasping critical entry points for pre-emptive diplomacy is essential. As historian Richard Pipes noted in his memoir, Vixi, “Decisions are usually made ad hoc, on the basis of intellectual predisposition and the mood of moment. This held true not only of the Reagan administration, but all that I have studied, including the governments of Russia under the tsars and communists.”
“Each department defended its own interests,” wrote Russian general Alexander Lyakhovskiy, addressing the decision on Afghanistan, “yet there was an unwritten rule—send primarily the information which would suit the leadership.” As I postulated in Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia 1968, Anatomy of a Decision, the key players’ organizational interests and personal idiosyncrasies do affect their stands on various issues.
In 1956 Hungary, Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoian in charge of economic foreign relations consequently and repeatedly supported negotiation in lieu of invasion. Aware that the revolutionaries hated their Kremlin-appointed leaders, he urged recalling popular former Prime Minister Imre Nagy and reform-minded Janos Kadar. “Without Nagy, they [the Hungarian leaders] can’t get control of the movement, and it’s also cheaper for us,” he argued, urging “political measures.” Notice cheaper. A key Kremlin consideration— the cost of an intervention.
Mikoian’s course was moderately supported by ideology tsar Mikhail Suslov, whose International Department (I.D.) was in charge of Kremlin relations with foreign communist parties. His report: “3,000 wounded, 350 dead (Hungarians). Our losses are 600 dead…“ He was also shaken by reports of Western communist parties opposing invasion. “Our line is not to protest the inclusion of several democrats in the [Nagy] government.” Conversely, KGB Chief, General Ivan Serov, fuming about his Hungarian agents being hanged, never wavered. “Nagy was connected with the rebels,” he declared. “We must take decisive measures.” He meant an invasion combined with an anti-Nagy coup and Nagy’s replacement by more reliable Kadar. To Serov, Nagy, a KGB collaborator in his youth, was a traitor, betraying both Russia and his organization.
During the 1968 Czech crisis, an unprecedented exchange took place between Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, with duties similar to Mikoian’s, and Serov’s successor, Yury Andropov, concerned that Czech glasnost was destroying secret networks. “You are attacking me!” accused Andropov. “No, you are attacking me!” retorted Kosygin. Trying to forestall invasion, he was again supported by Suslov, Boris Ponomarev and other senior officials of the International Department with its Western European communist clients.
Meanwhile, Andropov’s KGB and allied Eastern European services even fabricated “evidence” in support of an invasion, code-named Dunaj. Simon Wiesenthal let me examine his forged letter to leaders of the Czech Jewish community, proving a Zionist “conspiracy.” Another case in point—the “discovery” of a U.S. arms cache, planted on the West German borders.
But 1979 Afghanistan, its communist government then facing a Muslim rebellion, was a different matter. Discussing a military intervention requested by Afghan President Nur Taraki, Andropov this time agreed with Kosygin. No invasion. Cost prohibitive. But he reversed himself when events (the killing of Taraki, under KGB protection) conspired to threaten his job. Appeasing his grief-stricken leader, Leonid Brezhnev, Andropov found “evidence” that Taraki’s killer and successor, Haffizolah Amin, was a “CIA agent!” Then Andropov’s KGB took the management of Afghanistan from Ponomarev’s I.D., and Andropov became a pivotal actor promoting an invasion plan. A military invasion, Storm 333, would cover an anti-Amin coup, Agat. Murdered Amin would be replaced by long-term KGB asset, Babrak Karmal.
Then came Kosygin’s last hurrah—largely unknown. The day before the fateful decision, and knowing that Chief of the General Staff, Marshall Nikolai Ogarkov, had warned against the invasion, the premier enjoined him to reverse the decision. Meeting with the core Politburo, Ogarkov prophesied: “We will pit all of eastern Islam against us.” And later, “[…] our action could be seen all over the world as expansionism.” But the professional military was overruled by the former-defense-industries- overlord–turned-Minister-of-Defense, Dmitri Ustinov. To him, Afghanistan was a cake walk. Persistent Kosygin was soon retired; Ogarkov eventually demoted.
In 1980–81 the cost factor reared its head again in Poland. The Kremlin faced a new revolutionary challenge from a democratic-minded free trade union, “Solidarity.” Polish leaders warned that Poles, unlike the Czechs, would fight. Then the America factor! Unlike in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Carter White House engaged in preemptive diplomacy, disclosing the military buildup at the Polish borders, and thus denying Russia strategic surprise. It also sent repeated warnings to Moscow about the cost of invasion, with Carter adding: “Best wishes.” Also helping was the Polish Pope, almost assassinated by a Muslim Turk, whom some believed to be sponsored by Bulgaria’s secret service. “I don’t know how things will turn out in Poland,” said Andropov “[…] but even if Poland falls under the control of Solidarity, that’s the way it will be…“
2003 Rose and 2004 Orange Revolutions of Georgia and Ukraine
Enter Georgia’s and Ukraine’s color revolutions and the rise to power of independent and reform-minded leaders in two important energy transfer states. Both Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili, and his Ukrainian ally, Viktor Yushchenko, strove for eventual membership in the EU and NATO. Thus, to Putin, both leaders had to go.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko came to office in 2004 after the Putin-supported candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, had to flee Kyiv on corruption charges. Yanukovych was a former governor of Donbas—an east Ukrainian region linked religiously, linguistically, culturally and economically with Russia. Yushchenko won, despite a failed assassination attempt with dioxin poison that left his face permanently disfigured. Someone surely wasn’t happy. Was it because his newly appointed advisor became Boris Nemtsov, Yeltsin’s former deputy prime minister and a rival of Putin? The late Nemtsov believed democratic reforms in Ukraine would echo in Russia.
In 2008 Georgia, as in Czechoslovakia earlier, the Kremlin imposed an economic embargo. Then Putin explored the old game of divide et impera. As Saakashvili was determined to integrate two rebellious Russian-speaking ethnic provinces— South Ossetia and Abkhazia—into Georgia, Putin fully encouraged the ethnic divide. In Abkhazia, he built a new railroad for contingency troop movements. Meanwhile, South Ossetians were trained at Russia’s nearby Vladikavkaz military academy. Russian passports were distributed in both provinces.
On February 17, 2008, a NATO military intervention that saved Kosovo from ethnic cleansing also resulted in its gaining independence from Orthodox Serbia. Putin, a professed Christian autocrat and believer, used this as a precedent for his supporting the independence of the two rebellious Georgian provinces. On April 21, 2008, Saakashvili called Putin. Demanding that Putin rescind any recognition plans, he cited supportive NATO leaders’ statements. Using highly colloquial Russian, Putin told Saakashvili where he could put them.
Operation Caucasus; Maskirovka and Strategic Surprise
Kremlin interventionism is rooted in the Sun Szu principle, “All warfare is based on deception.” The Russian term “maskirovka,” however, has a broad meaning; camouflage and deception, but also disinformation, traps, and diplomatic cunning. Maskirovka enables strategic surprise, or what Marshal Zhukov posited as what will stun the enemy, thus ensuring the success of the mission.
On November 1–3, 1956, Zhukov demonstrated his mastery of maskirovka while preparing Operation Whirlwind for Hungary. “And whirlwind it was,” explained General Bela Kiraly 40 years later in Budapest. The former C–in-C of Hungary’s National Guards, he recalled Russian troops both leaving and entering Hungary, confusing the Hungarians and the U.S. Meanwhile, Serov, having invited the Hungarian generals to discuss “negotiations,” promptly arrested them.
In 2008 Georgia, maskirovka began with the usual large-scale nonstop military maneuvers at the borders, code-named Caucasus. Then, after several weeks, Putin set a trap and on August 7th Saakashvili walked right into it. Riots in the South Ossetia capital Tskhinvali, the bait, invoked Georgia’s artillery shelling and foray. The Russian army was ready. Pouring into South Ossetia through a mountain tunnel, they overwhelmed the astonished Georgians, and swarmed towards Tbilisi. Simultaneously, Russian units, deployed from C-in-C Admiral Vysotsky’s Black Sea fleet, descended on Abkhazia.
Again, U.S. intelligence detected Russian troop movements, but could not divine Kremlin intentions. Wasn’t the key Russian decision-maker, President Medvedev, visiting the Volga region? Wasn’t his “Prime Minister” Putin, meeting President George W. Bush at China’s Olympics in Beijing? Would the Kremlin initiate a large-scale military invasion during the Games—a traditional time of peace between countries?
Lunching in Beijing with “W”, Putin confided, “[…] lots of volunteers are being gathered in the region and it’s very hard to withhold them from taking part. A real war is going on.” Did “W”, as he looked into Putin’s blue eyes, understand his soul? But within 24 hours, Vlad materialized back in Vladikavkaz. Allegedly presiding over “humanitarian operations,” he personally oversaw the invasion.
And America? Recalling the weak reaction, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was reminded of a similar one after the 1968 Czech invasion. Former Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin remembered it too, shocked to find LBJ “utterly oblivious to what was happening in Prague.” As bodies piled up before Czech radio, he smilingly said he, “attached great importance to his forthcoming trip to the Soviet Union” to continue SALT and negotiations over Vietnam.
After attacking NATO-certified assets, Putin’s forces finally halted—24 miles from Georgia’s capital. Did the Bush administration hint that America might prevent a full occupation? Or did the high cost of one in a non-Russian speaking country deter Putin? No need for another 19th century protectorate. Taking just pieces, he made his point.
“Misha Saakashvili has to go!” said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Secretary of State Condi Rice after the war. But Putin ended up satisfied with only weakening Saakashvili—as Dubček had been weakened by the Soviet invasion in 1968 Czechoslovakia. Saved from being hanged like Nagy, Dubček attributed his salvation to “large passive Czech resistance.” Eventually he was forced to resign. Saakashvili, humiliated by the defeat, lost the next election to a pro-Russia candidate.
In 2009, some in Tbilisi showed us a sad photo of Saakashvili during the Russian bombings, nervously chewing his tie. Then a joke: Buying a new tie, Saakashvili is asked, “Would you rather take it with you or eat it now?”
2009: Russian Navy’s Growing Involvement in Crimean Politics
“Russia is back and the Crimea is next!” So wrote Za Za Gachechiladze, editor-in-chief of Tbilisi’s, The Messenger in 2009. “[…] Western countries are hesitating about creating a clear-cut strategy to stop Russia, whose appetite is increasing.”
Interviewing retired Russian navy personnel in the Crimea, we witnessed their ire at Ukraine’s demands that the Russian fleet get out when the Sevastopol naval base’s lease expired in 2017. Many had earlier demonstrated against planned NATO maneuvers. They applauded Putin’s decision to buy two French helicopter carriers. As now a highly acclaimed hero, Vysotsky boasted, “such a ship would have allowed the Black Sea Fleet to implement its task [in Abkhazia] within 40 minutes, while it took us 26 hours to do so.”
Other ominous signs: passports were being issued to Russian speakers and visiting Moscow politicians were making irredentist remarks. Most overlooked, however, was the Duma’s amending of Russia’s constitution. Now Putin could take military actions abroad to protect Russian speakers and Russian military anywhere. During the Yeltsin era, they could only do so to combat terrorism or participate in international operations.
In September, when I lectured at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko University, students and faculty laughed at my “absurd” subject, “Is Crimea Next?” Their laughs resonated with those of a prominent Czech journalist in 1968 Czechoslovakia, when I asked, “Is Prague next?” upon my return from Russia amidst a hostile anti-Czech press campaign.
2010: With Putin’s Aid, Yanukovych Takes Power in Kyiv
Yanukovych won the close 2010 election, fulfilling Putin’s boast that “Yushchenko might chew Saakashvili’s tie.” Putin also put the Crimea on a back burner as Yanukovych complied with his key demands. The lease on Sevastopol’s naval base was extended to 2043. Rewritten history was rewritten again. Russia enhanced economic ties with eastern Ukraine; gas was discounted.
By 2013, however, the foul stench of corruption arose again. Ill-begotten luxuries, like the private zoo in Yanukovych’s opulent palace, fueled a winter of discontent. When he gave in to Putin’s pressure not to accept an association agreement with the EU, many Ukrainians gathered in Kyiv’s Maidan Square to protest.
“Yanukovych must go!”—Kyiv’s popular slogan became the title of Alexander Motyl’s seminal Foreign Affairs essay. Not everyone agreed. In early February, Putin’s eminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, was reportedly behind a virtual replay of the 1956 Hungarian scenario. Snipers in the Kremlin’s service killed 100 demonstrators. Like their 1956 Budapest brethren, the demonstrators armed themselves and fought back.
The Coming of the “Little Green Men”
On February 22, the Ukrainian parliament— even Yanukovych’s own party—unanimously voted to remove him. A turning point! Meeting with his security council, Putin’s first order was to “save the life of the Ukrainian president.” Then, ”We will have to start work to return the Crimea to Russia.”
Like discredited Hungarian leaders Gero and Hegadus in 1956, Yanukovych was rescued and fled to Russia. Then came the decision-making on an invasion. What about the costs! The Ukrainian lease agreement with Russia permitted his keeping 20,000 men on the peninsula—sufficient for a quick strategic surprise conquest with an aura of legality. Sixty percent of the Crimean population were native Russians; the Ukrainian army was rag-tag.
And America? Just as the weak U.S. response to Czechoslovakia had conditioned the invasion of Afghanistan, the weak response of Bush and Obama to Georgia, conditioned the invasion of Crimea. Moreover, while Putin had some respect for “W,” he had little for Obama. Hillary’s silly reset gimmick! Obama’s back step from his own red line in Syria! Divided Congress! Nation wearied of large, costly invasions as Russia had been during its own Afghanistan war.
The final key was strategic surprise. Once again, new Olympic Games turned into perfect maskirovka. But while cheering his athletes and hosting U.S. security, furnished in the wake of Chechen terrorism, Putin’s mind was on Kyiv and Crimea.
Detected by a U.S. satellite, new, large and nonstop maneuvers should have rung all the warning bells. But U.S. intelligence simply could not envision a Crimean invasion. Thus February 27 replayed August 20, 1968, Prague. Then, it was “fit young men” disguised as tourists, who flew to Prague, accessed weapons from the Russian embassy, took over Prague airport, and called in the invasion forces. Now it was the “little green men” without insignia who did likewise after taking over government buildings and Simferopol airport.
Why no insignia? To plausibly deny that these were Russian soldiers. After all, Putin, still cautious at this point, couldn’t be wholly positive that the paper tiger in the White House wouldn’t suddenly grow claws like Jimmy Carter after the 1979 Afghan invasion.
2014–2015: Proxy Intervention in Eastern Ukraine
But he need not have worried. Insignificant sanctions amidst divisions in NATO came within a few weeks. Surkov reflected the Kremlin’s contempt: “I have no property in the U.S. besides the socks I left in a Chicago hotel.”
Putin now borrowed from the December 13, 1981 Operation X in Poland. Back then the Russians had pressured a proxy, Polish General Wojcziech Jaruzelski, into staging a surprise anti-Solidarity coup via martial law. Putin’s 2014 small scale variation, however, was not a large army and security service, but a relatively small proxy coalition of Russian separatists, “volunteers,” Cossacks, “vacationing soldiers” and even paid criminals. Occupying government buildings, they declared two people’s republics; Donetsk and Lugansk.
In the April 21, 2014, Kyiv Post we proposed arms for Kyiv and tough energy sanctions. A firm U.S. response was mandatory. Arming the Ukrainians, as Carter and Reagan had armed the Afghan resistance after the Russian invasion, and instituting large sanctions, as they had after martial law in Poland, would have been the best way to prevent still hesitant Putin from further foray into the eastern Ukraine. But Obama’s weak sanctions only added to a new assertive move, a small direct Russian military intervention of 10,000 regular Russian troops in Ukraine augmented by 40,000 rotating at the borders.
Meanwhile, Obama continued to deny arms to Ukraine, because of his perceived need to have Russia’s support in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. Then came Vlad’s miscalculation. Let me here return to 1968 Prague, when Dubček decided against resistance. “No bloodbath,” he told me, also rejecting the proposed preemptive strategy of a Ukrainian general-turned-dissident Petro Grigorenko.
“It would be fairly easy to defend Czechoslovakia,” wrote Grigorenko to Dubček “[…] less than a dozen roads would have to be blocked [and routes to halt tank armadas]” and by ”[…] adding a small number of airports, there could be no surprise invasion. And without surprise, the entire invasion would fail [… and could] end with a total collapse of the invaders—Brezhnev might be a fool, but he’s not going to risk war. His only hope is in retaining the element of surprise.”
As if they were following Grigorenko’s dictum, the Ukrainian army fought like the Poles, vigorously defending important routes, strategic railroad hubs and airports. They sustained high losses and often retreated. Yet their brave resistance, with the aid of some Western intelligence, helped to deny the Kremlin its strategic surprise.
In the fall of 2014, tougher energy sanctions, such as we had proposed in April, were finally applied. Providence merged them with the sharp decline of oil prices, which, as in the mid 1980’s, halved the revenues of the oil and gas dependent Russia.
Putin came twice to Minsk, on September 2014 and January 2015, and tried to negotiate a truce with Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. Still, ambiguous wording—another maskirovka device— allowed him to break these agreements. And yet, unlike Carter and Reagan in Afghanistan, Obama foolishly continued to deny Kyiv defensive arms. The Iran nuclear deal’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was inked with Russia’s help on July 14, 2015. Obama thanked Putin for his help. Was he aware of Russia’s major interest in the deal—the sale of arms and nuclear technology to Iran?
Divine Putin’s Intentions!
Kremlin decision-making has changed since the Soviet era. Putin has centralized and dominates the presidential council, mirroring the role of the U.S. president with his NSC. Pre-intervention dialogue surely exists, and one can envisage that the Russian navy benefitted from the Georgian invasion and Vysotsky’s lobbying. Yet in contrast to a general secretary, in a collective leadership, Russia’s elected president is much more powerful. He is able to make the key decisions, i.e. without the fear of dismissal as in the cases of both Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
In 2000, former Gorbachev advisor Alexander Yakovlev explained to me that he could not “remember any decision which had not been accepted without the KGB.” Recall Andropov‘s growing dominance in the Kremlin decision-making from intervention to intervention. Much like Andropov, who rose to be a Soviet leader, Putin is a product of the KGB-turned-FSB milieu and retains those connections.
Do not, however, expect Russia to attempt a full occupation of Ukraine. The novelty under Putin is limited low-cost interventions aimed at carving only territories with sizable Russian speaking populations. Unfortunately, although taking small chunks of a country may produce fewer outcries, it is dangerous to the world order. The Chinese are already emulating Putin by building man-made islands in international waters. Nobody wants war. Not even the Russian leaders, as we repeatedly saw. Yet miscalculations can happen.
Clearly, we must redouble our efforts to divine Russian intentions by reviving creative Kremlinology and resurrecting serious study of Russia’s national security. This is indispensable to the making of pre-emptive diplomacy. U.S. failures at divining Putin’s intentions facilitated his surprise invasions of Georgia and the Crimea.
We must lose what Obama calls “strategic patience.” We must stop wielding a wet noodle instead of a big stick. We must dispense with exaggerated fears of antagonizing Russia. To prevent the U.S. from arming Kyiv, Putin has been using Khrushchevian nuclear bluff and blackmail, sending his obsolete planes with nukes over NATO and even neutral countries, while his tottering navy ships stalk America’s shores. Nevertheless, even if Putin goes on nuclear alert as he threatened with Crimea, he, like all his predecessors, will not risk a wider war and nuclear holocaust.
We must repeatedly reaffirm our firm commitment to NATO, backed up by deployments of small NATO units in countries like Estonia and Latvia with large Russian populations. The Baltics’ militaries should deny strategic surprise by guarding airports, railroad hubs and routes. Simultaneously, we must heed the proposal of former Estonian Premier Edgar Saavisar. Deny any justification for intervention or cyber-attacks by upholding the civic and language rights of sizable Russian minorities.
If Putin is not willing to seek a genuine diplomatic solution, then our statecraft must choose an Afghan one for him. Nothing moves the Kremlin leaders more than the vision of large numbers of bodies returning home. Remember 1956 Suslov’s body count. Even old warrior Zhukov was shaken by it in 1956, briefly contemplating Russia’s withdrawal from Hungary.
If Ukraine resistance continues, Putin will eventually not be able to hide the body count and his popularity will decline. Our backing the resistance in the Afghan war helped to produce what Grigorenko already believed in 1968—“the defeat of the invaders” and the eventual regime change in 1991 Moscow. The late Nemtsov also believed Afghanistan could be repeated in Ukraine.
As prominent Russian writer Stanislav Kondrashev wrote, “Whenever violence is done to history and the people’s will, it will sooner or later have to be paid for and the later this happens, the harsher the settlement.”
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