Being in the intelligence business is not easy. To the extent that American national security officials are tasked with sifting through mountains of conflicting scraps of information and predicting the future, it is a thankless and nigh impossible job. More frustrating for the intelligence community, surely, is that the public is rarely aware of their successes and acutely conscious of their failures. It’s a tough gig. There comes a point, however, at which sympathy subsides. When it comes to American intelligence officials’ understanding of Russian national security objectives and the methods to which they appeal in order to secure them, quite a bit is left to be desired. Moreover, efforts by some to seek public exculpation for repeated intelligence failures don’t help the intelligence community’s cause.
The most recent example of a ranking official’s efforts to excuse the intelligence community’s failures when it comes to Russia comes courtesy of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. He recently sat down with CNN reporter Jim Sciutto, and spent much of his interview issuing appeals for sympathy and contending that none can know the mind of Vladimir Putin.
“We’re expected to know that a decision has been made by a foreign head of state before he makes it,” Clapper lamented. “Putin’s a case in point. I think he is very impulsive, very opportunistic. It’s a debate, but I personally question whether he has some long-term strategy or whether he is being very opportunistic on a day-to-day basis. And I think his intervention into Syria is another manifestation of that.”
“He’s very much in, sort of, a decisional bubble,” Clapper said of Putin’s “cloistered” inner circle of advisors who have a tendency to shield him from bad news. “What his long term plan is, I’m not sure he has one. I think he is kind of winging this day to day.”
Remarkable. Leave aside for the moment that you are supposed to take assurances from the assertion that an expansionist great power with the world’s largest supply of deployed nuclear weapons is erratic and unpredictable. If that doesn’t help you sleep at night, there’s always Nyquil. Clapper’s claim that Putin has no grand strategy and is making it all up as he goes along is perfectly self-serving, embarrassingly naïve, and falsifiable.
To observe how Vladimir Putin has conducted foreign affairs since became the Russian Federation president in 2000 and conclude he is simply “winging it” is inexplicable. Putin’s approach to foreign policy has been to ignite or exacerbate the so-called “frozen” conflicts in the former Soviet space, providing him with ready-made impetus for covert or even overt intervention in border states. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 rendered the obstinately anti-Moscow government of Mikheil Saakashvili a spent force and scuttled both Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO ascensions. If there were any doubts about Putin’s regional objectives, they should have been erased in 2008.
President Barack Obama entered office clinging to the academic notion that his predecessor’s aggressive approach to foreign affairs had precipitated Moscow’s interventionism. The president sacrificed Bush-era proposals to provide Poland and the Czech Republic with radar installation and interceptor missiles, all for the sake of a peace that never materialized. Moscow followed up its Georgian adventure six years later with a Ukrainian adventure, which resulted in the first annexation of sovereign European territory since in 1945.
Despite this provocation, the West steadfastly declined to engage Russia. Emboldened by Barack Obama’s deference in Ukraine, Russia’s centrality to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, and the 2013 deal in which Bashar al-Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons in exchange for a reprieve from Western retribution, Putin took another gamble. This time, conducting a multifaceted military intervention in the Syrian conflict where NATO assets were already operating. In the process, Russia violated Turkish airspace, painted Turkish fighter planes with missile radar, harassed U.S. drones, and conducted near-miss passes by U.S. fighters in the region. Just this week, Russian “bear bombers” flew low over the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier off the coast of South Korea, prompting four F-18 Super Hornets to launch and kindly escort the provocative aircraft out of the theater. And these are just examples of the military dimension of Russia’s expansionist project, to say nothing of its diplomatic component.
Forcing the Western hegemon out of what Russia perceives to be its sphere of influence has been a Kremlin policy objective since at least the 18th Century. Creating a buffer zone designed to absorb invading armies and forestall their advance into the Russian heartland has been central Russian grand strategy since Tsar Alexander I. It would be the height of Western hubris to dismiss these objectives as antiquated; Moscow clearly does not agree. To look at a select sample of Russia’s grossly provocative acts over the course of the last several years and throw up ones hands in a dramatic display of confusion is just not convincing.
Clapper’s pursuit of absolution for the intelligence community is a project of increasing urgency. Intelligence officials have a bad habit of being hopelessly wrong about Putin’s aspirations or the means by which he would secure them. Following the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian military buildup along the border under cover of exercises became cause for alarm in the West. “From an intelligence perspective we don’t have any reason to think it’s more than military exercises,” one senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast in an article published February 27. Less than 48 hours later, Russian paratroopers seized Crimea’s airport and paved the way for an invasion force.
“Russia has been very candid,” CIA Director John Brennan told a meeting of intelligence and security professionals in early September. “There is some additional people and stuff that is on its way to Syria.” He noted that Russia’s influx of military support to Syria had a “dual purpose” — to secure the position of the faltering Assad regime and to combat ISIS. “We share one of those objectives,” Brennan said. Except that Russia’s full-scale intervention in Syria has almost exclusively targeted U.S.-backed militants and CIA weapons depots, not ISIS. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted as much when he revealed in early October that Russian forces were targeting “other extremist groups” as well as Islamists “identified in coordination with the Syrian armed forces.”
While it might be asking too much of the intelligence community to predict Russia’s actions, it is a bridge too far to suggest they have been entirely unpredictable. It is unreasonable for Clapper to suggest that there is no strategy associated with Putin’s approach. Clapper isn’t providing candid insight into the thinking of the intelligence community with regard to Russia; he’s performing damage control.
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