Winston Churchill stated in 1939 that Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Today, as then, Russian actions and intentions remain the subject of intense scrutiny in the West. To examine the state of American analysis of Russia, the Center for the National Interest convened a high-level panel of former veteran CIA officials on May 22. The speakers included George Beebe (Director for Intelligence and National Security at the Center for the National Interest, former director of the CIA’s Russia analysis and a former Special Advisor to Vice President Cheney), Milton Bearden (a former CIA officer who was a station chief in Pakistan where he played a central role in training and arming the Afghan mujahideen to battle the Soviet military) and Peter Clement (the former Deputy Director for Analytic Programs at the CIA and a professor at Columbia University). The meeting was moderated by Paul J. Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest and a former Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
Looming over any discussion of Russia is the omnipresent issue of political interference in the 2016 election. There was a broad consensus among the panelists that Russia did interfere in the elections but that it was a fairly low-grade operation and that Moscow is capable of far more, especially if provoked. The interference was based primarily not on the fact that America is a democracy, but because of Washington's actions. In Bearden’s view, relations between Russia and the United States today are worse—and more dangerous—than they were during the Cold War.
According to Beebe, many in the Washington’s political circles and national security apparatus assume that they understand Russian intentions without fully analyzing the problem. There is a consensus in Washington that Russia seeks to fundamentally undermine democratic government in the United States, but that conclusion is not based on any sort of sound analysis.
“We seem to know that, but that is something that could get us into trouble because we haven’t looked very deeply into the question,” Beebe said. “This is something that is an important function of intelligence analysis—understanding the intentions of foreign adversaries is critical to understanding the nature of the threat, how real it is, how damaging it might be and also formulating an effective response to dealing with the threat. If you get the intentions wrong, you often get the prescriptions wrong.”
In Beebe’s view, sound analysis requires “analytic empathy”—which is not to be confused with sympathy—to understand the problem set facing the adversary from their perspective. That means, in layman’s terms, the analyst must walk a mile in an adversary’s shoes. “Nobody does this well,” Beebe said. “It’s particularly difficult when dealing with a foreign adversary—a group of people with a different histories, culture, beliefs and perceptions.”
In fact, a more rigorous analysis of the current impasse with Moscow would suggest that Russia is not trying to destroy American democracy, but has more specific goals in mind. Those include corralling American power to ward off what the Kremlin sees as its threats to its interests—particularly in the post-Soviet space. “They want us to knock off the democracy crusade,” Beebe said. “Democracy by itself does not threaten them. It’s not who we are they’re concerned about, it is what we do—attempting to spread democracy abroad in key parts of the world that affect Russian interests and inside Russia itself.”
If Russia’s goal was to simply to cause chaos and destabilize the United States, Moscow would have already used the so-called “kompromat” file on President Donald Trump—whether or not the contents are true—to cause as much consternation as possible in Washington. “It doesn’t matter what’s in the file, at some point, in would serve the interests of Vladimir Putin to put something out there,” Bearden said. “It could be true or not true, it could be whatever they want it to do to stir up trouble in Washington.”
Beebe said that the revelation of such a file would cause absolute chaos in Washington. The question one must ask, however, Beebe said, is: Why have they not done that? It would seem that the Russians must have their reasons for holding back.
Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, observed that Russian intelligence might have been seeking to play each part of the political spectrum in the United States. “How do you know they haven’t done that?” Simes asked. It seems clear that Russia had extensive contacts with both sides in the election and actually expected Hillary Clinton to win.
It is not inconsistent with the way the Russians have reacted to the American response to the election interference, Beebe said, but they clearly had the potential to do a good deal more than they did. Beebe noted that Moscow does not seem to have accurately gauged the fallout from the entire affair. Indeed, the Russians seem genuinely surprised by how Americans have reacted to their interference in U.S. domestic affairs. At the end of the day, policymakers in Washington are often relying on speculation instead of any genuine insight into the Kremlin’s inner workings.
The panel also noted that it is now more difficult to recruit intelligence sources inside Russia than it was during the Soviet era. During the Soviet era, the CIA relied upon “volunteers” who would approach American intelligence officers, Bearden said, but the pool of Russians willing to betray their government largely has dried up. It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but Bearden suggested that given previous Soviet and Russian penetration of American intelligence services, it is possible that the fear of compromise has driven away many potential sources.
Clement suggested that Russian perceptions of the United States have deteriorated so badly that even educated Russian liberals take a dim view of Washington—making the recruitment of spies extremely difficult. Moreover, many Russians who might have betrayed their government in previous eras no longer feel compelled to risk imprisonment or death by working for the CIA. Instead, those dissidents can simply leave Russia for the West—which was not an option during the Soviet era.
Beebe, however, suggested that in the information age—where biometrics and social media are prevalent—the age of recruiting traditional human intelligence sources is over. “Biometric data means essentially that you can’t put someone under cover here in Washington and then have them travel around the world, pose under diplomatic cover and recruit people,” Beebe said. “Doesn’t work. Who they are, their identity is instantly known to governments that want to know who they are.”
Intelligence agencies—particularly those that rely on human intelligence such as the CIA—will have to adapt to this new reality. “Espionage, I think, is going to go in the direction of the digital domain,” Beebe said. “It’s going to be cyber, it’s far easier to get access to people and information in massive quantity. It just doesn’t pay to do this the old fashioned way.”
While new information technology will afford intelligence agencies more access to data, it will be much more difficult to gain context for that information—and to understand intentions. “Downloading reams of data on the target abroad is one thing, getting the perspective on this that you can only get by talking to people that can help you understand what it looks like through someone else’s eyes is an important part of this,” Beebe said. “That’s something that’s going to be harder to do as technology changes.”
“What exactly is Putin going to do in the next six years now that he has won reelection?” Clement asked. “Does he have a strategy? What does he seek to achieve?” Clement said that two schools of thought that have emerged in recent years on what direction the Kremlin might take. One school of thought posits that Russia has irrevocably broken with the West and is charting its own independent course. Under this school of thought, it might take a century or more before a genuine rapprochement with the West is possible. The second school of thought posits that Putin is a realist and recognizes that Moscow must engage with the West if Russia is to modernize its economy. Failure to do so would mean that Russia’s fortunes would be forever hostage to energy prices. But with the price of oil above $70 per barrel, “Putin can put off the hard decisions,” Clement said.
In all likelihood, Churchill’s observation will remain pertinent in coming years.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor of the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveMajumdar.