KGB or Keystone Cops?
Why is Putin's intelligence so bad?
There’s a simple explanation, and nothing new about it—neither in the Russian nor American contexts (think 9/11, Iraq War, Libya, the Afghan debacle); but we’ll focus on Russia here, especially in light of the security state, the secret police-heavy cult of personality, an echo chamber that should resound with raw data and mission-critical intelligence but somehow rings way off key, that Putin has built around himself.
How could he have invaded Ukraine thinking he had it in the bag—lock, stock, and barrel—only to watch it all go sideways on so many fronts? Not just the war itself, but the international condemnation, NATO unity, sanctions, isolation, and loss of Russian power and prestige (the very thing he was trying to protect, project and amplify) that came in aftershock. And not just because of military inadequacies—including today’s possible sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship missile cruiser, the Moskva, which reportedly was sailing on a reckless repeat-offender pattern within range of the Ukrainian weapons systems that allegedly destroyed it—but a total ignorance that those inadequacies existed, or of the Ukraine’s own military and asymmetric warfare capabilities, or the reaction and determined resistance of its people, or the response from NATO and the Western world. How could so many strategic blunders occur within a security state run by one of the most, by reputation at least, professional spook houses in the world—the so-called masters of fourth-dimensional chess in the ancestral successor agencies to the KGB?
Because that’s been their M.O. all along. Since back in the Soviet days. The thing people get wrong about the KGB is that while they are quite proficient in their spycraft—the complex, Le Carré-like, “Karla”-esque subterfuge, the dark art of deception, the smoke and mirrors of espionage—where they fall short is in the actual handling of the product: the precious wealth of information about their adversaries. Somewhere along the way, as it travels through the intelligence flow pipeline, that information ends up bastardized; due to either political, cultural, or personal biases that corrupt the analysis itself and severely impacts the decision-making of senior leadership. We saw this in 1968, when the then-KGB Chairman and future General Secretary Yuri Andropov suppressed hard intelligence from his own people in the United States that countered the Soviet conspiracy theory narrative—that the Prague Spring was a product of CIA-inspired NATO aggression—in order to put the Czech reform movement on permanent ice. We saw it in 1979, when, in the lead-up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Andropov once again had his deputies, including the then-KGB station chief (rezident) in Kabul and future KGB Chairman and so-called “coup-plotter” against Gorbachev, Vladimir Kryuchkov, play up any information favoring Soviet military intervention while ignoring all else, no matter how convincing and irrefutable, that didn’t fit the prevailing view, already set in stone. This is what happens when intelligence goes from being a tool of formulating policy to a means of legitimizing it—in other words, powerful propaganda that can put under its spell even the decision-makers themselves, especially when it reinforces their own self-delusion, and is often a product of it. (Cue echoes of the Iraq War and Vice-President Cheney’s pressure on the CIA to build a “slam-dunk case” on WMD, or the scratchy broken record of 2016: “Seventeen US intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia hacked the election…” Uh-huh, so the DEA and the Coast Guard, among those seventeen, also weigh in on Russian cyber-warfare operations? See where I’m going with this?)
Gathering intelligence is one thing. Understanding it and making decisions free of adulterated political agendas and myopic worldviews is a whole other can of caviar—one the KGB never digested well in the first place. Hence Ukraine. And why this recent moment, when Vladimir Putin publicly chastised his own SVR chief, Sergei Naryshkin, says it all.
“Speak plainly, Sergei,” Putin scolds.
(Yeah, right. As long as it’s exactly what he wants to hear.)
Alex Holstein is the co-author of Warfighter: The Story of an American Fighting Man, due out May 15, 2022, from Lyons Press. He holds an MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies from the London School of Economics, where he wrote his thesis on the Soviet KGB.