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The New Russia: A Neo-Contrarian View

Meet the new Russia: same as the old.

By Christopher Marlowe  |  March 10, 2009

As we grow older, there comes a time when we are able to look back and reflect on whether, with our passing, the world will be a better or worse place.  My career in the discipline of intelligence lasted nearly a quarter-century.

I was born into a time of war and my beliefs led me to decide that the greatest thing I could do was serve my country.  I was extremely interested in joining the military but they did not appear too keen to have me; probably because my type of individualism does not sit too well with military discipline.

Reflecting back on that time and looking at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, some things have definitely changed; for the better and after 9/11, for the worse.  I take as my starting point the collapse or implosion of the Soviet Union and related events, but the curious, global Islamic fundamentalism and associated terrorism will get as detailed an examination as possible.  While it may appear somewhat unlikely, we'll find that the two major challenges facing Western style or model democracy have certain key features in common.

The Cold War - or, what do you want to call it?

When we examine the great ideological struggle between East and West that we conventionally and conveniently chose to call the Cold War, I am much more inclined to agree with a later definition offered by former KGB Major-General Oleg Danilovich Kalugin, who now resides in the US.  He has stated unequivocally that the period from 1947, when Winston Churchill first made his Iron Curtain speech until 1986 onwards when communism crumbled from within, was World War III.

I have two quibbles with the generally accepted subsequent historical narrative.  Winners write history, yes?  Not in modern Western civilization!

The first problem is that we completely lost sight of the fact that from the establishment of the Soviet Union under Lenin, communism was a militant expansionist ideology, bent on world domination, through every strategy and tactic short of total war, especially when America had the nuclear advantage.  Even then, it would surprise many to know that Cold War almost became hot on a number of occasions and the disaster of mutually assured destruction (MAD) was averted by the narrowest of margins.

The second is that General Kalugin stated that the West had won.  For a few years, that assessment possibly held true (except in the minds of cynics and skeptics, including me).  But as the politicians danced on the grave of communism, Lenin's "useful idiots" in Western universities redoubled their embrace of anti-Americanism under the guise of post-modernism and deconstructionism.

It is widely acknowledged that Reagan spent the USSR into bankruptcy.  The Soviet economy could not match US spending on re-armament, especially in the construction of new warships and high-tech developments.

The KGB, the GRU, and their allies in the Eastern bloc devoted a great deal of time and money to suborning people who had the technical knowledge and know-how to part with their secrets.  One Eastern European intelligence officer, now deceased, revealed after defection that his particular service had to finance their own operations from payments made by the Soviets for economic scientific and technical intelligence.  The USSR found itself in the position of playing catch-up and although their intelligence services gained valuable and theoretically useful information, they still had to attempt the almost impossible task of matching US design with antiquated manufacturing processes and management techniques.

Counter-penetrations of the Soviet intelligence services and their allies, while not so widely publicized, gave the West a tremendous advantage in looking at and exploiting Soviet weaknesses.  Alas, the West paid dearly because most of their best agents were betrayed by former CIA officer Aldrich Ames and FBI officer Robert B. Hanssen.  The price of treason in the USSR was death after interrogation; most Western agents identified by Ames and Hanssen were duly executed.

Soviet spies, or more correctly, recruited agents and their accomplices are still allowed to live on in US jails.  It's been rumored that American traitors were offered life imprisonment instead of execution in exchange for their cooperation.

Having seen the demise of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Communist Party, the entire West held high hopes for reforms in Russia and its former republics.  I was not as sanguine as the great believers.

In the time of general rejoicing, security and intelligence services in the West paid heavily for a "peace dividend" - a cutback in numbers and budgets that were to impose a toll of their own.  The loss, indeed the haemorrhage, of talent from security and intelligence services in the West left them generally in a weakened state.

What appeared then and even now to be beyond the comprehension of Western politicians is that despite what appeared to be a flirtation with democracy Western-style, the KGB was neither reformed nor dissolved, but simply rebadged.  Administrative changes occurred ending with its current division between the external arm - the SVR, successor to the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, and the FSB, those charged with maintaining order at home and spying on foreigners visiting Russia.  Quietly, and with little fanfare, Soviet military intelligence (GRU) scarcely broke stride.

Although politicians are extremely reluctant to admit the fact, the level of Russian spying in the West is now held to exceed the halcyon days of the Cold War.  Moreover, counterintelligence and counterespionage divisions in Western intelligence services which had borne the brunt of the peace dividend were and are still playing catch-up.  Breaks in those nets of coverage are practically irreparable: continuity in identifying and monitoring the activities of hostile intelligence officers is essential in attempting to divine their purpose.

The collection of sensitive scientific and technical information, known in the trade as S&T, continues apace but other operations are re-emerging: recruiting agents of influence, political intelligence gathering, working among émigré groups including those members of the Soviet Mafia who have been allowed to migrate to the West - all are curiously reverting to an all-too familiar pattern.  For reasons that will become increasingly clear, the West is not prepared to meet this challenge.  Perhaps it's simply incapable of it.

The book, Comrade J, written by Pete Earley (author of competent books on the Ames and Hanssen cases) is the story and revelations of Sergei O. Tretyakov, a highly-placed SVR officer, who was run in place by US handlers and then defected.  His account has been damned with faint praise, with critics depicting him as someone who sought the good life rather than what he actually was - an asset well-placed to provide insight into the new direction from Moscow, SVR assets and operations in America.

He was acquainted with both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin and he did not like what he saw.  His revelations concerning Westerners whom he knew to be working for Soviet intelligence have been largely pooh-poohed.

For example, Mr. Tretyakov makes the charge that Strobe Talbott, a former Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration and very influential in the rise of the oligarchs in post-Soviet Russia, was regarded in Moscow as "a special unofficial contact."  To the lay reader, this would appear innocuous enough but it is a specific term used by the SVR and the KGB before it to identify its most secret, highly placed, intelligence sources.

If one thing stands out from the book, it is this statement that Tretyakov made which should have resounded throughout the US administration:

I want to warn Americans. As a people, you are very naive about Russia and its intentions. You believe because the Soviet Union no longer exists, Russia now is your friend. It isn't, and I can show you how the SVR is trying to destroy the U.S. even today and even more than the KGB did during the Cold War.

It cannot have done much for his peace of mind even with relocation and a new identity that by Presidential decree, Vladimir Putin reinstated the death penalty in absentia for defectors, although a moratorium is allegedly in force until 2010.  The list of appalling murders of opponents of the Putin regime is already impressively long, especially among journalists.

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, I was engaged in academic debate about the likelihood of Soviet communism continuing as a major force.  I can't remember too many Monday morning quarterbacks, although I am sure some are out there who will swear blind today that they predicted the end, firstly of The Wall and secondly, the collapse of what President Ronald Reagan described as "the Evil Empire."

My own attitude was broadly based on a respect for history and the long view.  I spoke of the period of Soviet communism as being something of an interlude, and that a newly emergent Russia would probably follow the imperial expansionist objectives of the former rulers Catherine the Great and Peter the Great.  These totalitarian czars relied on pressuring and absorbing neighboring states, driven by a deep need for the warm water ports always lacked by the Russian Empire.

Of particular concern to me at the time was the questionable proposition that Russia would become a Western-style democracy, embracing a liberal free-market economy and become virtually an ally of the US.  I argued that democracy as we know it has no historical precedent in Russia and it would be like trying to graft new growth on to old tired wood.  I was taken to task by certain American experts present who pointed out that the Clinton administration had sent a top team more or less jointly controlled by Vice-President Al Gore and none other than a Deputy Secretary of State mentioned earlier, Strobe Talbott.

For masochists, conspiracy theorists, or those with a genuine interest in history, the document Russia's Road to Corruption: How the Clinton Administration Exported Government Instead of Free Enterprise and Failed the Russian People, a report issued under the aegis of the Members of the Speaker's Advisory Group on Russia, US House of Representatives, 106th Congress, is a sober and disturbing document.

Despite the popularity of the former Vice President and failed Presidential candidate, Al Gore Jr., the report flays Mr. Gore for his relationship with Victor Chernomyrdin, a notoriously corrupt Russian politician - one of the discredited oligarchs who seized the jugular of power in the immediate post-communist period.  It also explores the key role played by Strobe Talbott in the machinations that led to what amounted to carpet-bagging in Russia to the detriment of fundamental economic and political reform.

The language of the report is very strong, unusual for a government report.  Even more surprising is the lack of systematic analysis of its findings.  However, three vital points emerge which inform the ongoing political debate about US relations with Russia.

The first is that power passed into the hands of the oligarchs and the Soviet Mafia (Mafiya), and for those naïve enough to believe that the Mafia existed in the USSR somehow independently of state control, I respectfully suggest a cold shower.  As any number of KGB intelligence officers who have defected to the West have revealed, corruption was endemic in the Soviet system and the Mafia was under the firm control of the KGB.  When migration was liberalized, the US gained an unwanted and extra group of ruthless individuals, who became quickly involved in organized crime and probably included a number of intelligence assets.

Such was the problem with corruption in Russia that, as a damning report in the Fordham International Law Journal said, it was

...a warning to U.S. businesses and businessmen that bribing Russian Government officials is a risky and illegal process under both Russian and U.S. laws.  It is also a warning to the U.S. Government that the bribery of Russian Government officials by U.S. and foreign businesses and businessmen is seriously undermining the transformation to democracy in Russia.

Ancient History?  Or Breaking News?

If you're wondering why I am mentioning 20-year-old material, there appears to be a view among American self-defined conservatives such as Pat Buchanan that the US lost Russia.  I have literally turned scarlet in the face pointing out that Russia was never the West's to lose, as Winston Churchill sagely observed in a 1939 radio broadcast:

I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.  Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and shrouded in obscurity.

Churchill was undoubtedly correct in his famous "Iron Curtain" speech, made in the US in 1946 as he received an honorary degree.  Facts on the ground have changed very little in the transition from the USSR to Russia.

The plan to assist in the reconstruction of Russia was very poorly handled.  Cold War suspicions died hard on both sides, notwithstanding the personal rapport struck between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.  However, there was never any suggestion during the days when Mr. Gorbachev attempted to introduce perestroika and glasnost that Soviet spying in the West decreased to any marked extent - one could paraphrase President Reagan: "Trust but verify."

In the event, the corrupt rulers of Russia fell as the economy drifted into an abyss and life became even harder for the average Russian citizen.  It needs to be borne in mind that Western civilization has only touched Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  The rural areas and their inhabitants have a terrible nostalgia for Josef Stalin and the notions of order and stability.  Conveniently overlooked is the terrible toll of human life exacted under communist rule.

Despite a brief opening in the Moscow archives, the best guesstimates of casualties of communism range from 40 million to over twice that much in the Soviet Union alone.  Those in the West who argued about Soviet intentions on the basis of a moral equivalence are the same people who would recoil in horror if it was suggested that somehow Adolf Hitler was planning a resurrection - yet Soviet communism murdered many times more innocents than Hitler ever did.

Russia was always going to follow its own course and when the oligarchs were elbowed aside, the dying Boris Yeltsin installed Vladimir Putin as his successor, according to some, to avoid various legal charges against him.  The inside story of that takeover and the rise and continued rise of Vladimir Putin contains an important challenge for the West: the culture of denial is an extraordinarily interesting phenomenon and Russia is busy whitewashing history.

The present economic crisis besetting the world is far from predictable and history has shown that nothing is impossible politically or militarily as various powers jockey for position and influence.  Dealing with Russia will be an important task for President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  In some countries, both would be described as having training wheels (on bicycles) which can be hazardous in traffic.

The next article will take a closer look at the way Russia is viewed by people who can be regarded as experts in the field.  However, as we'll see, the West had already made a further critical error which led ultimately to the horror that was 9/11.