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Putin’s Motives Pose a Problem for U.S. Intelligence Companies

By , in Politics , at February 15, 2022

Figuring out the intentions of any autocratic chief is troublesome, however President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who started his profession as a Ok.G.B. officer, poses a specific problem.

WASHINGTON — On the peak of the Russian effort in 2016 to control the U.S. presidential election, the C.I.A. had a secret weapon: a mole with some entry to the internal circle of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who was in a position to inform Washington about how the grasp tactician was enthusiastic about his subsequent transfer.

That agent was extracted from Russia in 2017, leaving america largely blind, for some time, to Mr. Putin’s pondering. Now, after 5 years of slowly rebuilding entry to the very best ranks of the Kremlin, America’s intelligence companies face an important take a look at: deciphering whether or not Mr. Putin will use the greater than 150,000 troops he has amassed close to the Ukrainian border to invade, or merely to offer him leverage as he dangles the prospect of a diplomatic settlement.

In interviews with officers from america and its closest allies, it’s clear america and Britain as soon as once more have home windows into Mr. Putin’s pondering. Some intelligence conclusions are reached by way of digital intercepts, others bolstered by his periodic conversations with President Biden, which officers say have confirmed useful in understanding Mr. Putin’s worldview — and his transactional nature.

Mr. Putin’s calculus, in response to a U.S. official, is probably going shifting as he weighs the altering prices of an invasion and he assesses what he might get from negotiations. A number of officers observe that Mr. Putin has a historical past of ready till the final doable second to decide, continuously re-evaluating his choices.

Not surprisingly, American officers won’t say how they know what Mr. Putin is pondering, anxious to protect their present sources.

Figuring out the intention of any autocratic chief is troublesome, however Mr. Putin, who started his profession as a Ok.G.B. officer, is a specific problem. As a result of he avoids digital gadgets, oftentimes bans note-takers, and tells his aides little, there’s a restrict to how a lot an intelligence company can study his intentions and pondering.

“We don’t perceive basically, none of us do, what’s inside President Putin’s head, and so we can’t make any guess about the place all of that is headed,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, informed reporters on Tuesday.

One senior official who has met with Russian counterparts in an effort to defuse the present disaster stated not too long ago that the U.S. delegation got here away with the sense that Mr. Putin’s representatives have been taking a tough line as a result of they didn’t know what their boss needed to do.

American officers are poring over intelligence — each analytic experiences and uncooked materials — attempting to reply a essential query: how Mr. Putin assesses his chance of success.

Each American and British officers say {that a} key factor of their analyses is a shared conclusion that one thing has modified in Mr. Putin’s evaluation of Russia’s relative standing on the earth. After spending closely on his army, he now believes Russia is within the strongest place to coerce Ukraine — and the remainder of Europe — because the fall of the Soviet Union. His monetary reserves have significantly improved Moscow’s skill to resist sanctions.

Extra not too long ago, he has benefited from excessive gasoline and oil costs — and found that the extra he threatens conflict, the upper these costs go.

And as Germany and different nations have regarded on the wildly excessive value of changing Russian vitality sources ought to they be lower off, it has made some European leaders extra keen to barter an answer that might keep away from needing to impose sanctions. It’s extortion, one European negotiator stated, whereas noting that Mr. Putin thinks like an extortionist.

Mr. Putin additionally has the good thing about time. He doesn’t face voters for an additional two and a half years, doubtlessly permitting him to get better from any home criticism that might come up from a punishing battle — or the sanctions which may comply with.

Whereas there may be broad settlement of that evaluation in intelligence circles, former intelligence officers warn that these attempting to foretell the strikes of a frontrunner like Mr. Putin must proceed with humility about how a lot they have no idea.

“Analysts perceive how Putin thinks, his grievances and his anger on the West and america,” stated John Sipher, a former Moscow station chief for the C.I.A. “Now, does that imply we all know what he’s going to do and when he’s going to do it? No, as a result of to try this you must get in his head.”

America has clearly developed intelligence on the Russian army’s conflict planning, predicting the buildup of troops weeks earlier than it occurred, exposing what officers stated have been Russian sabotage plots and operations meant to create a pretext for invasion.

However america has lengthy discovered itself caught without warning by Mr. Putin, from his choice to annex Crimea to his deployment of forces to Syria.

Curiously, one supply of perception to Mr. Putin has been conversations with the Russian president himself.

So, like a hostage negotiator, they’re decided to maintain him speaking. Not lengthy after William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, visited Moscow in November to warn towards an invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden’s aides got here up with a plan of fixed engagement, establishing a sequence of negotiations — in Brussels and Geneva, at many various ranges — on the idea that whereas Russia was speaking with the West, airing its grievances and making its calls for, it was unlikely to invade.

Paul Kolbe, who oversaw assortment of Russian intelligence for the C.I.A. for a few years, famous not too long ago that “you retain them speaking to attempt to determine what they really need, to seek out one other manner out.” However Mr. Kolbe, now the director of Harvard’s intelligence venture, added, “it made sense — until what the gunman actually needs is to shoot the hostages.”

Mr. Putin wields data as a weapon, retaining his personal counsel and withholding particulars of his planning from shut aides.

When Mr. Burns visited Moscow to warn towards an invasion of Ukraine, he supplied particulars of what america had discovered in regards to the army planning. The disclosures appeared to catch some Russian officers off guard, as in the event that they have been much less aware of Mr. Putin’s planning, in response to an American official briefed on the assembly.

Pool photograph by Alexei Nikolsky

“I wish to say, Putin’s not sharer, he didn’t cross that kindergarten class” stated Beth Sanner, a former high intelligence official who frequently briefed President Donald J. Trump. “He was a spy. So he’s skilled to not be a sharer, he’s skilled to elicit and manipulate.”

However former intelligence officers stated that the Russia bench throughout the C.I.A. remained robust, with quite a few analysts and case officers who’ve devoted their careers to learning Mr. Putin. The lengthy reign of an autocrat, stated former officers, has sure benefits.

There are limits to what a authorities ought to ask its intelligence to do, stated Marc E. Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia. Intelligence companies can present warning, which is what they’ve executed in latest months. Something extra could be fraught.

“Intelligence is just not essentially predictive of time and date. The intelligence group has executed a reasonably rattling good job of offering policymakers with wonderful situational consciousness for them to develop insurance policies if Russia goes by hook or by crook manner,” he stated. “That’s what intelligence does. Asking extra of that’s going to be very troublesome.”

Even situational consciousness could also be tougher to come back by at a second when the Russians declare to be de-escalating whereas army workout routines are nonetheless underway. The essential jobs of monitoring Russian strikes in Ukraine have been disrupted. On Tuesday, the C.I.A. closed, at the least briefly, its station in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a day after U.S. diplomatic personnel relocated to the western Ukrainian metropolis of Lviv.

Adam Goldman contributed reporting.


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