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Putin draws a ‘red line’ on Ukraine, and he means it

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Last week, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), told the Senate Intelligence Committee that DIA has no idea why Russian President Vladimir Putin has mobilized troops near Russia’s border with Ukraine. “We don’t know what the intent is right now,” he said. This is disappointing, considering American taxpayers shelled out $23.1 billion for military intelligence in 2020 alone, but it’s hardly surprising.

As a former DIA senior intelligence analyst for Russian doctrine and strategy, I know that the lack of foresight in the intelligence community extends well beyond a failure to understand what Putin wants “right now.” Frighteningly, many officials have little grasp of the Russian leader’s long-term game and the peril it holds for the United States.

Tactically, Putin had positioned his forces on Ukraine’s border for a military intervention, aligning warplanes and heavy weaponry to ensure airpower support for ground forces that could invade Eastern Ukraine. From this posture, the Russian forces had the flexibility to pivot into a military training exercise or even sudden de-escalation, as Russia announced on Thursday. In this way, Moscow confuses Western intelligence services and desensitizes them to constant changes in force posture, so Putin can conduct a surprise attack if he chooses. At his annual address to the Russian Parliament on Wednesday, Putin warned the U.S. and NATO not to “cross the ‘red line’” by intervening on Ukraine’s behalf. He threatened a “swift, asymmetric and harsh response.”

Putin’s strategic goals are to reestablish Russia’s geopolitical dominance in Eurasia and to weaken its primary strategic adversaries, the U.S. and NATO. Putin believes that U.S. democracy promotion policies in Ukraine and other former Soviet states are a mortal threat to his regime and Russia’s security. Democracy is misunderstood by many Russians, and Moscow’s leaders see it as chaotic and destabilizing. Having modernized Russia’s military and warfighting strategy over the past decade, Putin feels confident about Russia’s return as a “great power,” even if he has to spar with Washington. Russia’s security strategy is more dangerous now than during the Cold War.

Many view Moscow’s actions as simply stemming from Putin’s personal grudges and ambitions. But Putin’s emotions likely inform little of what’s going on. Russia’s massive build-up of troops and weaponry on Ukraine’s doorstep is not random. Neither are Russia’s other provocations, such as the sophisticated SolarWinds cyber attack on vital U.S. government and corporate infrastructure; covert intervention in the past two presidential elections; suspicious spacecraft maneuvering near U.S. satellites; and breaches of the U.S. air defense zone by Russian bombers. All are elements of Moscow’s carefully calibrated anti-U.S. strategy.

Moscow’s behavior, brutal and pitiless, is motivated by deeply rooted fear of the United States. It is convinced that U.S. anti-Soviet policy led to the demise of the Soviet Union, rather than its own economic and totalitarian social policies. Putin believes that Washington seeks to weaken Russia economically and militarily and topple his regime. He believes this would lead to the collapse of Russian statehood, not unlike the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.

Russia views Ukraine as part of its security perimeter. For centuries, Russia has relied on this so-called “strategic buffer” to protect its heartland, including the seat of government in Moscow. It’s a cold-hearted survival strategy of dominating its neighbor to ensure its enemies spill more blood on the way to Moscow. The Nazi blitzkrieg rolled over France but came up just a few miles short of the Kremlin.

Annexing Crimea in 2014 and invading Ukraine is Putin’s way of preventing it from joining NATO. Believing the loss of the Baltic States to NATO has eroded Russia’s security, Putin has drawn a “red line” for the West with Ukraine. He views the outcome of the stand-off between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine as a contest Russia must win.

Putin understands the U.S. will work to contain Russia, regardless of who occupies the White House. The Kremlin likely has concluded that a U.S.-Russian war is someday inevitable and has taken steps to prepare for it. Russia believes that it could win such a war by targeting U.S. reliance on technology, which Moscow views as a vulnerability.

On his orders, Putin’s strategists developed a plan to gradually destabilize our country from within. The Russians think they understand the American psyche and can maintain the current U.S.-Russian confrontation below the threshold of actual war. Cyber attacks, disinformation, espionage and covert influence operations are Putin’s weapons of choice to amplify existing societal tensions and fuel instability in America.

As a “former” KGB spymaster, skilled in judo, Putin waits patiently for the opportune moment, when the risk appears acceptable, to unbalance his opponent. The Kremlin’s perception of a weak U.S. presidency under Joe Biden — preoccupied with China, partisan politics and domestic social upheaval — motivates Putin to act now on his goal to peel Ukraine away from Washington’s orbit.

President Biden’s recent “retaliation” measures against Russia’s aggressive actions in the U.S. and internationally will not change Putin’s behavior. These tactical, ad hoc responses will not reorder Russia’s century-old strategic mindset, which presupposes indefinite confrontation with the West. Sanctions will hurt, but they also will confirm Putin’s conclusion that the U.S. seeks Russia’s economic destruction, and they will solidify Russians’ support for Putin’s anti-American stance. Strongly worded phone calls, expulsions of Russian “diplomat” spies, and indictments of hackers, who will never stand trial in the U.S., are all meaningless gestures. 

“Reset buttons” — even if translated accurately into Russian — and other diplomatic pleasantries are equally ineffective. Calling Putin a “killer” will not scare Russia’s master spy, whelped in a fear-equals-respect culture. If anything, the name-calling will help Putin maintain his unpredictable, mysterious and ruthless image, which is part of his attraction for Russians, who don’t think like Americans. We are dealing with a nation with a bloody historic experience of violent intimidation, poisonings, ice-axe attacks, and war-torn devastation. Having a strong, if brutal, leader who can stand up to the West is viewed as an asset.

Understanding Putin’s mindset and anti-American motivation is a prerequisite to devising a viable U.S. counterstrategy. Regrettably, the Intelligence Community today is deficient in Russian language and culture expertise. An analyst working on the Russian target must be able to think like a Russian antagonist, not like an American, and have a near native-level fluency in the language in order to correctly interpret the intelligence and deliver sensible assessments to military commanders and policy planners. Without these skills, it is impossible to decode Putin’s intentions in Ukraine or stabilize poor U.S.-Russian relations. It also becomes tragically easy to bumble our way into the war Russia thinks inevitable.

Rebekah Koffler is a Russian-English bilingual former intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the author of the forthcoming, “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.”

Tags annexation of Crimea Joe Biden Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin

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