Putin’s War and Western Intelligence

Photo: unsplash/Robynne Hu

For Russian President Putin the Cold War never really ended. Nevertheless, in their ­policities toward Russia, Western governments should use the term “Cold War” with care and push for a future-oriented practice of intelligence instead.

By Calder Walton, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Vladimir Putin’s horrific war underway in Ukraine already marks a watershed in the history of European security and postwar international relations. Putin’s grand strategy, as we are seeing it unfold is driven by a revanchist fanaticism, to overturn the international order established after the Cold War and correct what he sees as injustices inflicted on Russia following the Soviet Union’s collapse. For Putin, in many ways, the Cold War never really ended. A digital Iron Curtain has fallen in Europe. Putin’s worldview is shaped by his experiences as a former KGB officer. As an old Cold Warrior, he has unsurprisingly used Russia’s intelligence and security services in ways he knows best, updating old Soviet tradecraft for the twenty-first century. His small inner circle is comprised of “men of force”, siloviki, who have backgrounds in Soviet/Russian military and intelligence services. They harken back to a largely imagined Soviet intelligence past. It is not for no reason that his security (FSB) and intelligence (SVR) services call themselves “Chekists”, in honor of the Bolshevik secret police established soon after the October Revolution in 1917, the Cheka. The value that Putin’s Kremlin attaches to history is revealed by the fact that his foreign intelligence (SVR) director, Sergey Naryshkin, author of an apparently plagiarized doctorate dissertation in economics, is also head of Russia’s Historical Society. Putin and his national security sycophants are applying history – in reality, misapplying it – as Putin’s rambling published essay about Russia’s “historical” claim to Ukraine reveals.

Prisoners to the past

As far as Putin and his intelligence services are concerned, there is, then, a direct continuum between the Cold War and Russia’s war-fighting grand strategy today. There is not much new about this Cold War; rather it’s an extension of the last one. Western governments, however, would be advised to use the term “Cold War” in the contemporary context, and build policies around it, with care.

History provides a roadmap about where we have come from, but decision-makers also need to look forward. Western governments cannot afford to be prisoners to the past, for there are significant differences between the Cold War and the geopolitical struggle we are seeing unfold today between East and West. As far as intelligence is concerned, it would be misleading to suppose that the Cold War provides a sufficient prescription for dealing with Putin’s Russia today. The world has changed over the past thirty years. Although they call themselves “Chekists”, the FSB and SVR are significantly different to their Soviet predecessor, the KGB. The FSB works for the vast personal enrichment of Putin and fellow oligarchs in ways that Soviet intelligence never did for the Politburo. After Putin became FSB head in 1998, and then leader of Russia the following year, the FSB has been a state-run mafia operation for him.

Lessons from the Cold War

The greatest change to the intelligence and national security landscape between the end of the Cold War, three decades ago, and today, is the cyber digital revolution, which is transforming all our societies, as well as the nature of intelligence collection. During the Cold War, it is thought that 80 percent of US intelligence collected on its primary strategic target, the Soviet Union, came from secret clandestine sources (intercepted communications, human sources etc.) and 20 percent from open sources (monitoring Soviet state media etc.). Today those proportions are thought to be precisely reversed. Open source is the future of intelligence. It is likely that a significant part of the accurate intelligence that the US and British governments disclosed before Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was derived from open sources. Consider satellites, for example. Three decades ago, satellite intelligence collection platforms were some of the most expensive and closely guarded secrets in the world. Today, private sector outfits like Maxar are providing breathtaking satellite intelligence about Russia’s military operations in Ukraine for the world to see.

The transformation of intelligence and national security, from stealing secrets during the Cold War, to collecting data today, offers an opportunity for European strategic autonomy. Intelligence agencies of all major Western governments are racing to compete with private sector providers of open source (more accurately, commercially available) intelligence. We are currently at an inflection point for intelligence and national security, which in turn offers an enticing opportunity: for the EU to become the leading provider of open-source intelligence in the world.

Calder Walton
Calder Walton Photo: Calder Walton

About Calder Walton

Calder Walton is Assistant Director of the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project and Intelligence Project. His research is broadly concerned with intelligence, history, grand strategy, and international relations. His research has a particular focus on policy-relevant historical lessons for governments and intelligence communities today.
Calder is finishing a book, “Spies. Russia’s Hundred Year Intelligence War against the West”, to be published in 2023. His research and commentary about national security issues frequently appear in major news and broadcast outlets on both sides of the Atlantic.

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