How far should US intelligence go in supporting Russia’s armed opposition?
The horrific images of Russia’s latest targeted strike on an apartment building, killing dozens of Ukrainian civilians, provoked renewed pleas for the U.S. and its allies to provide Kyiv with more capable weapons to aid its defense and make Vladimir Putin pay a greater price for such atrocities. Apart from the prospect of Western tanks and missiles, Putin’s most exposed vulnerability is one he largely has created himself. It’s already being exploited by Ukraine and presents a challenge that the U.S. ultimately will be forced to address, regardless of its own level of involvement — that is, the impact of foreign fighters and Russian minorities.
Thousands of foreign mercenaries, volunteers and ethnic minorities are fighting in Ukraine on both sides. For Putin, minorities provide a source of troops from Russia’s most neglected regions and oppressed communities. Targeting minorities and pressuring Central Asian nationals in Russia to enlist allows Putin some relief to mitigate the war’s impact on the more affluent and urban communities whose support he requires for political survival. But no matter for whom the Central Asians and Russian minorities fight, they pose a long-term vulnerability to Putin that Ukraine is exploiting on the battlefield. U.S. Intelligence should consider this with open eyes.
Last March, the Ukrainian government estimated 20,000 foreign fighters had joined its forces. Ukraine has made good use of its foreign volunteers. Only a few offer valuable skills and experience, but almost all bring an intense hatred for Russia and a desire to settle scores. More significantly, those foreign fighters hailing from the Caucasus, Central Asia and Chechnya, as well as displaced Tatar and Turkic-speaking refugees, bring area knowledge, language and networks across Russia that enable sabotage and intelligence collection behind enemy lines.
Putin is desperate to change his battlefield fortunes and is gambling on short-term gain in aiming mobilization at Russia’s Asian- and Turkic-speaking populations and minorities. Doing so might limit the war’s impact on Putin’s core constituencies but it risks accentuating longstanding grievances and divisions. Such considerations likely are not lost on Putin. He has hesitated to cross certain tripwires, such as refraining from using Belarus troops given President Alexander Lukashenko’s shaky control. Putin also has relied heavily on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries and thousands of released Russian convicts pressed into military service for manpower. Although barely trained, poorly supported and being used in what’s best described as human wave attacks, Wagner’s prisoner-fighters, like their families, are unlikely to make a fuss.
Putin’s hubris, isolation and conspiratorial beliefs concerning the West account for his undertaking in Ukraine and have laid bare Russia’s systemic military and intelligence flaws, corruption and battlefield ineptitude. Military and intelligence strategists argue that Ukraine’s success in exploiting these weaknesses was facilitated by denying Russian forces sanctuary. Such operations were helped by advanced Western weaponry and Ukrainian innovation and perseverance, but succeeded due to targeting and operational assistance rendered by partisans and special operations forces behind enemy lines.
Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, announced having arrested five Russians and three citizens of Ukraine and Armenia related to the Oct. 11 attack on the Kerch Bridge. The FSB claimed that the attack, which disrupted Russian logistics and humiliated Putin, was organized by Ukrainian military intelligence.
Pro-Kremlin Russian media corroborated Ukrainian reports that an untold number of Wagner mercenaries were killed in a Dec. 12 HIMARS strike on a hotel in Kadiivka in the occupied Luhansk region. And Russia blamed its soldiers’ use of cell phones for a subsequent Ukrainian HIMARS strike that killed 89 soldiers on New Year’s Day in the occupied city of Makiivka, in eastern Ukraine. HIMARS are exceptionally effective but they need to know where to go, and when — intelligence that did not come exclusively from cell phones or drone imagery; it no doubt was aided by eyes and ears on the ground.
The U.S. has denied providing support for operations in Russian territory that have included fires, explosions, drone strikes and assassinations. Washington even condemned the August car bomb attack near Moscow that killed Daria Dugina, the daughter of a prominent Russian nationalist. Ukraine did not claim responsibility but celebrated the attacks.
U.S. intelligence may not be facilitating attacks inside of Russia but according to a late August CNN report, American and European officials have acknowledged teaching a method of U.S. resistance warfare designed for smaller nations such as America’s Baltic NATO allies, which Ukraine has used to great effect. U.S. intelligence and special operations forces began training Ukrainian military intelligence in the doctrine and tactics following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Several media outlets have reported the acknowledgement by U.S. officials, such as Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby, of ongoing intelligence support.
Ukraine — and by extension, U.S. intelligence and its Western partners — is plugged into Russia’s internally aggrieved, those who threaten Putin cronies such as Lukashenko and Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov and various anti-Russian elements from across the former Soviet republics who have scores to settle. These connections provide Ukraine and the West a ready means to escalate asymmetrical warfare in the heart of Russia, should they so choose.
But such endeavors should not be pursued without appreciating the lessons learned from the wars in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Syria. The foreign-fighter flows to Afghanistan to oppose the Soviets in the 1980s, those who fought with Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, and the Central and South Asians and Uyghurs who joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq created pools of veteran, radicalized jihadists. The Afghan and Balkans generations contributed to violent extremism and civil wars across the globe. The outcome of those who fought with the Islamic State has not yet manifested.
There are likely to be consequences at home for Putin’s heavy use of Russian minorities and for his control over Chechnya and former Soviet republics, regardless of whether the U.S. adds fuel to the fire. But controlling such developments is difficult and requires staying power that successive White Houses failed to show in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq or Syria.
Advocates for greater U.S. support to Ukraine’s effort grumble at what has been the Biden White House’s incremental layering of more advanced weapons, technology and materiel assistance. Washington’s “frog in the pot” gradual introduction of such increases is meant to desensitize Putin incrementally from overreacting with potentially catastrophic escalation. But Putin long has believed that Washington stirs internal Russian unrest and has responded in kind with disinformation and election meddling to sow divisions and chaos in America.
U.S. intelligence would benefit from establishing relationships and lines of communications with foreign fighters, opposition groups and Russian minorities, including the Belarussians and Chechens fighting on Ukraine’s behalf. This does not necessarily require aiding or directing their own armed revolts for the time being, but provides future options. As a spy, I found that keeping lines of communications open, whether with enemies or prospective partners, is wiser than waiting for the day that doing so is urgently needed.
As reflected by the CIA’s success in getting boots on the ground in Afghanistan 15 days after 9/11, the logistics, due diligence and personal relationships take time. In the interim, such contacts would provide useful intelligence. And psychologically, Russia’s discovery of such communications would remind Putin of the vulnerabilities America could leverage if his behavior warranted, perhaps making him hesitate to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Regardless of what the U.S. chooses to do, perception is reality. Putin determined long ago that the U.S. was out to destroy him and would have concluded that Washington is already engaging in such activity — after all, it’s what he would do. But the better reasons the U.S. has to explore the option of facilitating Russian minorities, Chechens and Belarussians in opposing Putin are that it’s already underway — a threat to the Russian leader and a development in America’s interest to understand, if not influence.
Douglas London is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years. He is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” Follow him on Twitter @douglaslondon5.