Ex- CIA Chief: Why We Keep Getting Putin Wrong

Blame a myopic mindset—and an intelligence corps focused on terrorism, not Moscow.

Greg E. Mathieson Sr./MAI /Landov

Thelast time Russian troops invaded one of its neighbors, the U.S. intelligencecommunity was also caught off guard.

The year was 2008 and the country was Georgia instead of the Ukraine. And just as in 2014, back then there were early signs that Moscow was serious—it was issuing visas to ethnic Russian speakers in Georgia, like it's doing now in Ukraine. U.S. analysts just didn’t believe Russia would go as far as it did.

Today, as in 2008, American policy makers have found themselves burnedafter trying to make Vladimir Putin a partner when Putin himself seesAmerica as a rival. This has often led Republican and Democratic ledadministrations to find themselves flat footed in the face of Russianaggression and U.S. intelligence analysts racing to explain how they misreadPutin’s motivations.

“This is less a question of how many collection resources wethrow at Russia and more broadly about the analytic challenge of understandingPutin’s mind set,” said Michael Hayden, a former CIA director and NSA directorunder President George W. Bush. “Here our Secretary of State is saying this isnot the Cold War, it’s win-win and it’s not zero sum. But for Vladimir Putin itis zero sum. That’s what we need to understand.”

Of course, U.S.-Russian relations have overlapped in someareas of mutual interest. The two countries have worked to maintain the InternationalSpace Station, with Russian Soyuz capsules bringing American astronauts intoorbit. Both countries have cooperated, at times, on sanctioning Iran for itsnuclear program. And both sides agreed to an ambitious plan in Syria todismantle the regime's chemical weapons arsenal.

But when it comes to the status of the newly independent nationsthat used to comprise the Soviet empire, the United States and Russia have beenat odds.

Late last week, for example, U.S. intelligence analysts andlawmakers estimated that the Russian forces massing near Ukraine's borderwouldn't openly invade. Sen.Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said onThursday that he didn't knowPutin's motivations, but was sure Russia wouldn't invade Ukraine: "I can’tbelieve they are foolish enough to do that."

There wasn't an open pouring of troops over the border. ButRussian mercenaries and othertroops wound up seizing power in the Ukrainian province of Crimea anyway. On Sunday,Secretary of State John Kerry called the move an “invasion.”

Hayden compared the problem with understanding Putin to theproblem of the Arab Spring, the democratic upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Libyaand other countries in the Arab world that was also entirely missed by the U.S.intelligence community. “That was not a secret to be stolen,” Hayden said.“That was something that required a broader understanding of the problem. Thisis the challenge to understanding Putin’s mindset.”

Damon Wilson, who in 2008 was the National Security Council’ssenior director for Europe and the lead manager at the George W. Bush White Housefor the Georgia crisis, was blunt in his assessment of the warnings before Russia’sinvasion that summer. “Our analysts missed it on Georgia,” he said.

Wilson, who is now the executive vice president of theAtlantic Council, also said an important reason was that the U.S. governmenthas failed to understand that Putin does not see America as a friend or apartner.

“We get used to outrageous Russian behavior and we come to acceptthat as normal and we end up tolerating it,” Wilson said. “We had plenty ofwarnings in 2008 that Russia would provoke a confrontation with Georgia and endup invading, but we still didn’t think he’d actually do it.” Those warningsincluded many of the same kinds of things the world was seeing in the run up toRussia’s invasion of Ukraine, such as the distribution of passports to ethnicRussians and statements about Moscow’s interests within its “near abroad” orthose former Soviet Republics that largely gained independence in 1991 afterthe break up of the communist empire.

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Wilson said there were three reasons why the U.S. government wasunprepared for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. To start, he said, much ofthe hardware the U.S. government uses to spy—the satellites, sensors, blimps andsophisticated intercept technology—were focused in 2008 (as they are in 2014)on counter-terrorism and proliferation targets like Pakistan, Afghanistan andIran. “We have enormous assets that for a long time were focused much more onAfghanistan and Iraq and not really on the Caucuses or Russia’s near abroad,” Wilsonsaid.

For the last 13 years, the way you got ahead in America's intelligence services was to specialize in stopping terrorists. Compared to al-Qaeda, the Russians were seen as has-beena – albeit nuclear-armed has-beens. Spying on Moscow was considered a second-tier priority. Sure, the Russian intelligence agencies were (and are) one of the world's most sophisticated; competing against the sons of the KGB was one of the toughest challenges for an American operative or analyst. But the stakes just weren't that high. It was like having a chess match against your grandfather, while everyone else played Call of Duty for money.

"Clearly Russia is not the collection priority that the SovietUnion used to be. Lots of resources are pulled off into terrorism and proliferation,"said Hayden, who has said for years that America's spy corps was over-focused onthe terrorist threat.

Moscow has always been a notoriously difficult target forespionage and intelligence collection—whileAmerican policy makers have a number of channels for talking to the leadershipof Western-friendlyregimes inRussia’s near abroad. In 2008, for example, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvilihad regular conversations with U.S. political elites in the run up to theRussian invasion, the United States had far less visibility into Russiandecision making. If anything, the problem has gotten worse since then. Therise of biometrically-enabled passports and thegrowth of digital data trails has made it harder for American operatives and analysts,whose cover is often blown after a single trip to Russia.

But the biggest problem, according to Wilson, was a failureto absorb that Putin does not assess his own interests in the way Americansbelieve that he should.

A veteran intelligence analyst with the United States military,noted that younger colleagues had been confident that "Putin wouldn't do anything"in the current crisis. Then came the stealth invasion of Crimea. “How extraordinaryit is that the conventional wisdom and self-licking ice-cream cone is alive andwell,” this analyst said. "Why anyone should be surprised is what issurprising. We are believing our own spin that the world has changed. Not inthe Russia”n government, it hasn't.

An American intelligence operative with long experience in theUkraine added, "Most likely, force is the only thing that will resolve thismatter, even if some people think an angry [U.S. ambassador to the United Nations]Samantha Power is enough to make Putin rethink his desire to secure Russian interests."

John Schindler, a former counter-intelligence officer at theNSA and an analyst of Russian statecraft, said that manyin theintelligence community favor a “rational actor/socialscience” model of analysis that winds up confirming a lot of American biasesabout how leaders ought to behave. But real life is messier. And there's more thanone way to be rational.

The problem historically has been U.S. intelligence analysts have lunged between alternating models to predict Russian statecraft. Either Moscow was implacably belligerent or shared the same rational interests as the United States.

“It was not rational, so to speak, for Putin to go in thisheavy handed into Crimea,” Schindler said. “The Kremlin could have gottencontrol of Crimea with much less direct and less risky methods, but they wentfor the most politically risky model possible.”

Schindler said this has been a puzzle for the U.S.intelligence community since the days of the cold war. In the1950s, the spooks swore that the Russians were building many more intercontinentalballistic missiles than the U.S.; it just wasn't so. In the mid-80s, top Kremlinologist(and future CIA director and Defense Secretary) Robert Gates famously arguedthat Mikhail Gorbachev was just another leader “cut from the old Sovietmold.” Instead,he wound up being the midwife for the Soviet Union's demise.

In 1962 for example, President Kennedy’s director of central intelligence,John McCone, asked the CIA’s analysts to conduct a special nationalintelligence estimate on whether the USSR was placing missiles in Cuba. Theanalysts concluded that there was a body of evidence that suggested this wasindeed what was happening, but concluded “the Kremlin was a rational actor andthis would be a profoundly irrational act and there is no way the Soviets woulddo such a thing,” Schindler said. “Fortunately McCone called bullshit and askedfor another assessment and that was the famous assessment that concluded yesthe Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba.”

In 2008, the United States ending up sending Georgia humanitarian aid on military aircraft as its territory was invaded. Russian troops remain on Georgian territory to this day and Moscow faced no real consequences.

Hayden observed that Putin “did not spend much time in thepenalty box for invading Georgia. That happens in August, then there is anelection, then there is a new administration and in a few months you have thereset.” That reset in relations began in 2009 when Obama came into power. Thetwo sides explored ways of cooperating instead of focusing on their divisionswhen it came to Georgia.

And in some ways it worked for a while. Russia and the UnitedStates signed a treaty in 2010 to reduce the strategic nuclear arsenals forboth sides. Russia backed off threats to kick the United States out ofimportant airbases in Kyrgyzstan the U.S. military needed to resupply forces inAfghanistan. But Russia continued to flex its muscles nonetheless in Syria andnow in Ukraine.

Not all senior officials underestimated Putin. In 2010, thenDefense Secretary Gates was quoted in one diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaksas saying Russia was an "oligarchy run by the security services." ButGates was largely an exception.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerrypromised that the United States was considering a swath of options to punishPutin’s behavior in Ukraine beyond simply boycotting the upcoming G8 summit inSochi. When he was asked on NBC’s Meet the Press about the “reset,” Kerry saidthat policy was from long ago. “We’veentered into a different phase with Russia,” Kerry said. From Putin’sperspective however we’ve been in this different phase for years.