Beware Putin’s Special War in 2015

December 2014 is the month Putin’s Russia was plunged into undeniable crisis. Between the dramatic drop in oil prices and the collapse of the ruble, under Western sanctions pressure, Russians are going into the new year in a dramatically different, and lessened, economic situation than the one they enjoyed at the beginning of the year now ending.

This will bring myriad hardships to Russians, particularly because even Moscow is admitting that low oil prices may be the “new normal” until the 2030’s. Caveats abound here. The vast majority of Russians don’t travel abroad, much less have vacation properties in Europe, nor do they have hard-currency mortgages (the ruble now having returned to its Soviet-era pariah status). Moreover, the average Russian has a physical and mental toughness about getting by in tough times — it is an unmistakable point of national pride — that Westerners cannot really fathom. In no case now does Russia face the sort of complete economic collapse that it endured in the 1990’s, when the Soviet implosion pushed poor Russians to the edge of survival (were not so many Russians but one generation removed from the farm, and therefore had access to their own food supply, famine might well have happened under Yeltsin). Life in Yeltsin’s Russia, particularly beyond the bright lights of Moscow and St. Petersburg, where few Westerners visit, was harsh and frankly dismal.

Nevertheless, the economic undoing of Putinism over the last weeks, brought about by Western sanctions in response to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine which began in early 2014, heralds major changes for the Kremlin, and not just in its domestic affairs. While Russia has far deeper hard currency reserves than it possessed in 1998, the last time the ruble’s bottom fell out, and it’s clear that Moscow will try to prevent banks from failing, there should be little optimism among Putin’s inner circle. Russia now faces a protracted and serious financial-cum-economic crisis that will get much worse before it gets better. Since much of Putin’s popularity has derived from the impressive economic growth his fifteen years in the Kremlin have brought, a rise in living standards that has benefited average Russians as well as oligarchs, the political implications of this collapse for Russia’s president are grave.

But are they enough to get Putin to cease his aggression and, in the long run, perhaps even leave office? Western politicians, eager to avoid armed confrontation with Russia, have assumed that enough sanctions-related pain will force Putin’s hand and get him to back off in Ukraine and elsewhere. This was always a questionable assumption. In the first place, sanctions tend to work as intended mostly against countries that strongly dislike being a global pariah, like apartheid-era South Africa, whose English-speaking white elites hated how they suddenly were no longer welcome in the posh parts of London. There is no evidence that Putin and most average Russians find being despised by the West particularly objectionable; on the contrary, many seem to revel in it.

Then there is the touchy fact that sanctions sometimes work not at all as intended. Using economic warfare to break a country’s will, which entails real hardship for average citizens, can cause more aggression rather than cease it. The classic example is Imperial Japan, which faced grim economic realities once U.S.-led oil sanctions took effect in retaliation for Tokyo’s aggressive and nasty war in China. Lacking indigenous petroleum, Japan was wholly dependent on imports that Washington, DC, blocked with sanctions. These placed Japan on what strategists would term “death ground,” since without imported oil its economy and its military could not function. Moreover, the sanctions were seen — correctly — by Tokyo as a sign that the United States and its allies did not want Japan to dominate the Western Pacific region, which constituted an intolerable affront to Japanese pride. The closest place to get the oil Japan needed was the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, and Tokyo resolved to seize the oil there by force. To do that, Japan first had to drive the Royal Navy out of Singapore and the U.S. Navy out of the Philippines, and to enable that they had to disable America’s Pacific Fleet, which was ported in Pearl Harbor…and the rest of the story you know.

Japan in 1941 believed it was already facing defeat through oppressive sanctions, so engaging in actual war seemed like a logical choice. The total defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945 indicates that Tokyo’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor was madcap, but had things worked out differently at, say, Midway in June 1942, such choices might look very different to historians today. When sitting on promotion boards for battle-tried colonels hoping for selection to general in his army, something he enjoyed, Napoleon liked to ask of a candidate, pointedly: “Yes, but is he lucky?” Japan was not at all lucky in the war it started in December 1941, but its defeat was hardly preordained, and the salient point is that Tokyo felt that the Americans really started that war with their harsh sanctions.

Might Putin do the same and decide that since Russia is facing defeat at the hands of Western sanctions, which represent a kind of war, why not opt for actual war, in which Moscow at least has a chance of victory? It’s too early to determine that, but 2015 will be the year such grave decisions are made. To date, there are no indications that Putin intends to back down in Ukraine, or anywhere, thanks to Western sanctions. It’s important to note that Putin’s narrative, which he has elaborated on several occasions and is accepted by most Russians, is straightforward: He has done nothing illegal in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he is only protecting Russia and ethnic Russians, which is a legitimate national interest. Moreover, it is the height of cheek for the Americans, who after all invade countries all over the world in the name of “freedom,” to call Moscow’s legitimate actions on Russia’s borders “aggression.” Russia will defend itself against this rancid hypocrisy and will resist the West’s warlike sanctions, which are intended to punish Russia for defending itself and its rightful interests.

Putin’s public statements this month make clear that backing down now is not in the cards. At a press conference last week, he pointedly blamed the financial crisis on the West (“The current situation was obviously provoked primarily by external factors.”) while promising the economy will eventually improve. (Close observers will note that Putin cited “The main achievement of the year in the social sphere is of course positive demographics.”) The usual KGB-style tough talk, however, was on display, as a British journalist explained:

He brooked no compromise on the annexation of Crimea, and renewed his lambasting of the West’s policies since the fall of the Berlin Wall, accusing it of putting up new “virtual walls” and wanting to “chain” the Russian bear. He said that even if the bear were to “sit tight… supping berries and honey” and “abandon its hunting instincts”, the West would still “seek to chain us… then rip out our teeth and claws”. The bear, he said, had no intention of being turned into a “soft toy”. It would defend its sovereignty.

On the weekend, specifically on 20 December, a holiday that honors Russia’s “special services” — this was the day in 1917 that the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, was founded by “Iron Feliks” Dzierżyński; in a normal country this would be a day of national mourning not celebration — Putin addressed Russia’s security posture, noting this year’s spike in espionage against the country. He proudly asserted that Russian counterintelligence, Putin’s former employers, had uncovered 230 foreign spies operating in the country during 2014. He minced no words about this threat:

Frank statements are being made to the effect that Russia should pay dearly for its independent stance, for its support for its compatriots, for Crimea and Sevastopol – for merely existing, it sometimes seems. Clearly, no one has ever succeeded in scaring, suppressing or isolating Russia and never will. Such attempts have been made regularly, over the centuries, as I have said publicly on numerous occasions, and in the 20th century it happened several times: in the 1920s, the 1940s and later. It did not work then and it will not work now. Meanwhile, we have to be prepared to experience certain difficulties and always rebuff any threats to our sovereignty, stability and the unity of our society.

This is not a man who is about to back down; doubling-down seems decidedly more likely. To be fair to Putin, Russia is a democracy of sorts, and popular opinion matters. He has dangerously stoked nationalist fires throughout the year now ending, regularly citing alleged Ukrainian Nazis eager to commit genocide against innocent Russians, so it’s difficult to see how he can turn those passions off with a switch, not least because beating the nationalist drum, while making the diplomatic equivalent of obscene gestures at the West, is popular with the Russian masses.

Neither does Western behavior always help matters. It seems not to have occurred to many Western politicians that gleeful public statements about how sanctions will cripple Russia might make Russians view these devastating acts as tantamount to war waged against them. President Obama, too, has not always been wise in his comments. In the first place he has not explained why a half-century of sanctions on tiny and impoverished Cuba failed to work — hence his opening to Havana last week — but sanctions on vast and largely self-sufficient Russia should be expected to deliver as advertised. Last weekend, Obama’s comments on his adversary in the Kremlin took a strange turn:

There was a spate of stories about how he is the chess master and outmaneuvering the West and outmaneuvering Mr. Obama and this and that and the other. And right now, he’s presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction. That doesn’t sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America.

Obama’s offensive defensiveness here speaks volumes — the self-reference in the third person is revealing — and will be read in Moscow as weakness mingled with taunting. If this is what prep school Ivy League lawyers think passes for tough talk in Chicago, the Chekists in the Kremlin, who are actual hard men with much blood on their hands, will be happy to give lessons to faux-macho poseurs in the West Wing, and in 2015 they will.

I don’t know if there will be war — real war — between Russia and the West in the new year. Surely such a possibility cannot be ruled out, not least because NATO has signally failed to implement the modest deterrence posture in Eastern Europe that I recommended six months ago, eschewing actual defense in favor of some showy yet small-scale exercises without strategic impact. It’s not surprising that some NATO frontline states are planning for possible invasion and occupation by Russia, since their faith in the staying power of the Atlantic Alliance, particularly in Obama’s resolve, is increasingly in doubt.

It is unlikely that Putin will soon choose overt aggression against a NATO country with the intent of causing major war, but such a conflict may result anyway in 2015. Rising Kremlin military and espionage operations in Northern Europe are a cause for concern, while Kremlin provocations against Estonia, that tiny country being a particular bugbear for Putin, indicate where the next Russian “microaggression” — here meaning an engineered “misunderstanding” at a border town to test Alliance resolve — may perhaps fall. It’s a tricky game deciding where Obama’s “redlines” are, particularly because the president himself seems not to know in Syria, Ukraine, or anywhere, so it’s dangerously easy to envision a scenario where the angry gamblers in Moscow roll the dice one time too many, forcing NATO’s hand, without realizing it until it’s too late. War can happen by a kind of accident, with a risky Kremlin operational game gone wrong, and since NATO is not seriously prepared to resist Russian aggression on its eastern frontier, in 2015 it just might.

What I am absolutely certain of, however, is that the new year will bring the West more of what I’ve termed Special War emanating from the East. Moscow is far from ready to wage sustained conventional war against NATO, not least because the oil-plus-ruble collapse will delay its long-overdue military modernization program, but it is eminently prepared to engage in the witches’ brew of espionage, subversion, and terrorism that makes up Special War. Here the West must be vigilant, since Kremlin Special War can do real damage, and represents something that NATO is poorly conditioned to recognize, much less defeat and deter.

First, espionage, which is a long-standing Russian core competency. Kremlin intelligence operations against the West are not only rising in number and intensity — even the media has belatedly noticed that Moscow’s special services are as active against us as they ever were during the Cold War — but in aggressiveness as well. Putin takes a deep and personal interest in the activities of Russia’s intelligence agencies, which formed his unmistakably Chekist personality, and he has given them wide latitude to “get tough.” Just as in Israel, though not at all in the United States, Russian spies know that “the top” has their back if an operation goes wrong, as some inevitably will; Moscow prefers a bias for action, not inaction, in its huge espionage arm. Moreover, the persistent inability of Westerners to see Russian espionage as the serious threat to our secrets and safety that it is — here the blindness of even some NATO governments to the painful reality of the Snowden Operation does not encourage — gives the Kremlin a latitude to wage Special War against the West that it does not deserve.

Which leads to the matter of subversion, a term which has fallen out of favor since the Cold War but which needs a rebirth as soon as possible. Russian intelligence and its helpers have a sophisticated doctrine, honed over decades, to wage what we would term Political Warfare against their enemies. To further the Kremlin’s aims, they cultivate Western politicos, activists and journalists to disseminate pro-Russian views on a wide range of issues; much of this is now conducted online. These Western partners range from being full-fledged agents of the Russian special services to mere pro-Putin influencers, not always entirely wittingly. Nevertheless, this Kremlin brand of espionage-based psychological operations — the proper term is Active Measures, which has no doctrinal NATO equivalent — can achieve devastating results through lies, half-truths, and forgeries. Russia takes advantage of Western gullibility, niceness, and unwillingness to accept just how dishonest the enemy is, sometimes to strategic effect. Subversion is back, with online disinformation as its main weapon, and the sooner we accept this the West can begin to counter Russian agitprop that aims to psychologically and politically disarm and divide NATO without fighting.

On the political front, Putin holds quite a few European cards. The Kremlin has successfully established important, multilayered agent-of-influence networks in NATO countries, as I’ve explained previously, and the current political ferment in Europe offers Putin an inroads there that Russia has not enjoyed since the early years of the Cold War. Moscow has long supported far Left parties and activists in the West, but in recent years they have made major inroads on the far Right as well, whose star is ascendant in many European Union states, thanks to hot-tempered debates about immigration and national identity. Simply put, if the EU fails to deal with such issues in an effective way, and soon, it will surrender them to the far Right, i.e. Putin’s allies, in a manner that will have strategic results that will benefit Moscow in important ways.

Last, there’s terrorism. In the 21st century this takes many forms, from blowing up bombs to raiding computer networks. It’s remarkable how few Westerners seem to notice that the sudden and devastating “cyber-vandalism” (to cite Obama) against Sony hits the presses just as Russia’s economy buckles under sanctions. Russian acumen at cyber-terrorism is not exactly news — just ask Georgia and Estonia — but it has yet to be employed against major NATO countries in a strategic fashion. Yet this should be anticipated as an ancillary to other warlike secret Russian operations against NATO and the EU. Moreover, the difficulty of establishing firm attribution in cyber-espionage and cyber-terrorism means that many acts that remain officially unresolved — meaning what Western governments are willing to say publicly — actually have the fingerprint of Russian intelligence on them. And more is coming.

The notion that an angry Russia would employ actual terrorism, meaning killers and bombers, against the West sounds fanciful to some but it ought not, given decades of Russian activities in this arena. The Soviet intelligence services engaged a wide range of foreign terrorist groups beginning in the 1960’s, and terrorists as diverse as the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction, and the PLO, among many others, obtained aid and training from the KGB and GRU, the Kremlin’s military intelligence arm, as well as from East Bloc sister services. Among major transnational terrorist groups in the late Cold War, only the PFLP-GC was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kremlin, while the Soviets were content to give aid, comfort, and cover to the PLO and let it kill innocents as it pleased, as long as the KGB’s fingerprint remained difficult to detect. (As a senior KGB officer who dealt with the PLO in the 1970’s replied, when I asked him why the Kremlin never told Arafat’s Fatah terrorists what to attack, “Why give them orders? Everything they do is good!”) It should be noted that the idea the KGB and its East Bloc partners gave assistance to terrorists in the 1970’s and 1980’s was derided at the time as a “conspiracy theory” by nearly all Western “terrorism experts,” yet turned out to be entirely true, we learned, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Hence Moscow’s present-day murky links to international terrorism, even al-Qa’ida, merit close examination.

Moscow need not employ cut-outs and false-flags to conduct terrorism abroad, it has plenty of in-house talent in those areas, which fall under the rubric of what Russian spies term “wetwork.” In recent years, Putin has not been shy about wetwork abroad, even when the Kremlin’s footprint is obvious. The 2006 London murder of the defector Sasha Litvinenko, the infamous radioactive tea assassination, was transparently the work of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s biggest intelligence agency and Putin’s power-base. Two years earlier, GRU assassins blew up Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, exiled leader of the Chechen resistance, with a bomb placed in his vehicle; the device exploded on the streets of Doha, Qatar, killing Yandarbiyev and two of his bodyguards. GRU was sloppy, however, and Qatari authorities quickly arrested the two bombers. At trial, they admitted Moscow had sent them to Doha to assassinate the Chechen leader, yet they were returned to Russian custody in early 2005 amid promises they would serve their jail sentence for murder in Russia. In best Putin fashion, the GRU officers served not a day in a Russian jail, instead getting a heroes’ welcome home, including decorations for their good work abroad, then disappeared from public view.

Contrary to myth, the Cold War KGB and GRU were decidedly cautious about wetwork in the West. Assassinations of “state enemies” abroad were commonplace in Stalin’s time, but they waned in the 1950’s after several embarrassing missteps, including the defection of one would-be KGB assassin to the Americans. The 1959 assassination of Stepan Bandera, the top Ukrainian nationalist, in Munich with cyanide was the last operation of its kind, as the KGB’s footprint on the crime was obvious and embarrassing to the Kremlin. After that, the Chekists became notably cautious about wetwork in the West, not least because such an operation gone wrong would lead to the expulsion of many undercover Soviet intelligence officers, undoing years of hard espionage work.

While KGB and GRU maintained significant wetwork capabilities, they were used very sparingly down to the end of the Cold War. Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from 1967 to 1982, was notably cautious in such matters, quashing numerous proposals to assassinate defectors and dissidents in the West. When the Bulgarian DS, a close partner agency, asked for Soviet help to murder a troublesome defector, Andropov told the KGB to help but to steer very clear of the killing itself. The Soviets gave the Bulgarians a special new weapon, an umbrella that fired a micro-pellet filled with highly toxic ricin, which the DS used to assassinate Georgi Markov in London in October 1978 — a crime that British investigators correctly pinned on the DS, though the case, never prosecuted, officially remains open. Yet the Soviets had nothing to do with the killing itself, per Andropov’s orders.

In contrast, Putin shows none of Andropov’s caution. He has been willing to send Russian spies abroad to kill people that the Kremlin does not like, and as Russia finds itself increasingly in a corner and willing to lash out at the West, this ought to concern all Western governments. Increased espionage and subversion against NATO and the EU, directed by Russian special services, should be considered a given. The West would also be wise to anticipate Russian terrorism, the ugly side of the Kremlin’s Special War, as Putin seeks ways to punish the people whom he blames for his increasingly dire politico-economic predicament.

Everything from cyber-attacks to bombings to assassinations of prominent Westerners should be considered eminently possible. The good news is that vigilant Western counterintelligence, employed in a joint and strategic fashion, can blunt Russia’s well-honed Special War acumen and will prevent terrorism by the Kremlin and its friends and various false-flags. By blunting espionage, you also cut short things much worse. The bad news is that NATO and the EU remain seriously deficient in counterintelligence, beyond the merely tactical realm, and are not yet ready to take on the Russians in this most important game. Money, motivation and cultural change inside U.S. and Western security services are needed urgently to develop serious counterintelligence vision and competence.

The new year will be filled with many Kremlin operational games of various kinds. Expect regular media reports of “unattributed” cyber attacks, “unexplained” acts of sabotage, “unresolved” online scandals, and “mysterious” terrorist incidents across the West. This can be stopped, and must be; there is little time to waste. I will be spending 2015 doing my part to assist the West as it learns to wage Special War against the number-one-ranked team in the game. I used to be a player, now I’m just a consultant. If you would like to contact me about how to fight smart, feel free to do so.



79 comments on “Beware Putin’s Special War in 2015”
  1. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    This should scare the be-jabbers out of you !!

  2. Jonathan says:

    I agree with this is general, but while a side point I admit, there is no way ww2 for japan could have worked out differently.

    1. 20committee says:

      Midway was a very near-run thing. Defeat there would have pushed back War Plan Orange by at least two years.

      1. Jonathan says:

        if we lost the battle of midway at sea, all the japanese forces that landed after that sea battle would have been killed. to a man. Now, granted Midway was near run, but japanese defeat was inevitable. maybe a year longer, but I doubt that. once mainland Japan in b-29 range, the war is over. the war was actually unwinable for Japan on Dec 7, 1941.

      2. 20committee says:

        Japan would have eventually lost the war but “eventually” can be a long time and you are avoiding facts. Midway only happened due to a weird intel bet — if you are not acquainted with this story avoid lecturing about Midway — and some odd luck as the battle unfolded. Instead of 4 Japanese carriers lost, you could easily have had 3 US carriers lost — and USN had nothing to replace them. ESSEX-class CVs were still nowhere near operational readiness. Midway was a very near-run thing. A defeat there would have cost USA any ability to win the war per ORANGE before 1946 at least.

        Your statement that the war was “unwinnable” for Japan reflects your faith in a religion based in predestination — Islam perhaps? — not historical reality.

      3. Jonathan says:

        Islam? Really? Wow. No need to be that snarky. But whatever. And I am not the one avoiding facts, but again, whatever. it is a side point of no importance to your piece on current events and Russia.

        And, while I am sure you will not take this as genuinely offered advice, but it is: I enjoy your work and follow your tweets to help keep up with events – but you could do with a little less “jerky-ness”.

      4. 20committee says:

        Thanks for your comments. I am here to disseminate truths, not to be nice in the oh-so-tolerant-I-don’t-even-support-myself manner of too many in 2014 America, or the West generally. You can find that all over the place. Cheers.

      5. 4MK says:

        John .businessinsider are running this whole article word for word,I know they do regularly and your friends but this article is very controversial and personally i stand by what you have to say word for word,I saw this coming a over a decade ago,,But the fact its in the public domain shows the gravity of the crisis that we are in,As for the Wests CI operations they are virtually non existent,This need rectifying with speed and stealth,it should be a top priority am so concerd i was thinking of applying for recruitment myself,I find the situation we are in Alarming..

      6. 20committee says:

        Thanks — I think we are in for interesting times ahead, indeed

      7. Blackshoe says:

        Jeffrey Record’s book (from which the excerpt you linked above comes from/expanded upon, not quite sure of the timing of the publication), “A War It Was Always Going to Lose” actually agrees with Jonathan-the Japanese were unlikely to ever win a war against the United States. Fascinatingly, the Imperial Japanese Navy knew the best that they had little chance of victory (and their only real chance was to inflict heavy casualties in the first six months and then grind the US out as the USN advanced per WAR PLAN ORANGE so much that the US sought a political solution, a possibly that ended on 7DEC41).

        The IJN advocated their plan (even though they knew it had very slim odds of succeeding) primarily since the Japanese knew that they would need to capture Malaya and the Dutch East Indies anyway, and they were locked in a vicious struggle with the IJ Army for resources and didn’t want the IJA’s plan to win out (the IJA’s plan, by the way, was an expansion of the war in China-since they were doing so well there/sarcasm-and to invade the Soviet Union[!?!?]). Record shows that the Japanese strategic decision making system was astoundingly dysfunctional even to people who are familiar with Washington turf wars.

        The other interesting tidbit was that the Japanese took the decision to go to war with the US before the oil embargo was announced, since they had already made the decision to attack Malaya and the DEI before then, and they viewed that action would cause the US to declare war on them (something they were almost certainly wrong about).

      8. 20committee says:

        The real war was against each other for both IJN & IJA.

    2. Kirk Augustin says:

      Easy for the US to have lost in the Pacific. If for example the 12 US carriers had been in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, or if they had been found at Midway, etc. The US Philippine invasion fleet also barely escaped annihilation. In fact, few people realize the main cause of Japan’s defeat was the mining of the Sea of Japan and East China Sea. We were more than just lucky.

  3. cw says:

    “…and wanting to “chain” the Russian bear. He said that even if the bear were to “sit tight… supping berries and honey” and “abandon its hunting instincts”, the West would still “seek to chain us… then rip out our teeth and claws”. The bear, he said, had no intention of being turned into a “soft toy”.”

    Even if Putin didn’t invade Ukraine he needed to be sanctioned for the use of such super-cheesy metaphors.

    Does it mean anything that he speaks this way? That the Russian people (who I assume this is intended for) are really unsophisticated? That he’s watched too many reruns of Kung Fu?

    1. 20committee says:

      He talks like a Chekist; most Russians love this sort of thing.

  4. Great piece. I was in Russia in 1994 as a very young student during the worst of Yeltsin. Now that Russia was on the verge of collapse and the post-Soviet infrastructure was collapsing. Nonetheless, it still managed to invade Chechnya.

    1. 20committee says:

      Indeed. Yeltsin’s Russia was a disaster; Putin has created a different country. Notice he won *his* Chechen war. 🙂

      1. Niccolo Salo says:

        Strobe Talbott is suggesting a 3rd Chechen War will be coming, no doubt once again financed by the Saudis and aided covertly by you know who.

        I think Talbott is off by one province as the Kadyrov regime has Chechnya locked down, as evidenced by the recent attack in Grozny, and that Dagestan will be the location of guerrilla warfare/terror acts in 2015 aimed at the Russian state.

        Only last week did Dagestani Jihadis pledge fealty to ISIS.

        BTW John, what’s your take on Stratfor’s Friedman conceding that the Yanukovich overthrow was a blatant coup?

      2. 20committee says:

        Stratfor? HAHAHAHAH! 🙂

      3. Fritz Wunderlich says:

        Friedman`s thinking is shaped by geopoilitical notions, so his conclusion is consistent, inside this pattern, and meets and confirms the Russian belief in politics as conspiracy.

    2. Paul says:

      What do you mean by invade Chechnya? It’s like saying US invaded Ferguson.

  5. Docgas says:

    He “won” the 2nd Chechen war, which solidified his image as the Russia’s strongman. In fact, that war, along with the “terrorist” bombings of apartment blocks at a suburban part of Moscow was what brought the KGB colonel to power. Both were examples of “active measures”, which you are referring to. You cannot speak to a bully with a language of diplomacy. He only sees it as weakness. The West needs to wake up from its slumber before it is too late. Thank you for all your hard work.

    1. 20committee says:

      Yes, they certainly were “active measures” 🙂

  6. cw says:

    So if Russia today is a Chekist state totally controlled by Putin, why does public opinion matter? How can public opinion affect Putin’s position if he literally controls everything?

    1. 20committee says:

      Russia is a very flawed democracy. It is Chekism perfected. Popular opinion, as I said, matters.

      1. cw says:

        I have been trying to figure this out, but have had no luck. Why does Putin care about public opinion? What would be the effect of negative Russian public opinion on Putin? Could demonstrations in the street force him out? Can’t he just engage full-on Stalin mode?

      2. 20committee says:

        No, it’s 2014.

      3. Guy Montag says:

        Contemporary Russia can be best described as a hybrid regime like for example Chavista Venezuela. Its an authoritarian regime with trappings of democracy, with freedoms either gradually eroded, restricted, or disappeared over the years.

      4. KyleWOrton says:

        Doubtless you’ll have seen Peter Pomerantsev’s idea of a “postmodern dictatorship,” with its “liquid, shape-shifting approach to power”: think there’s much in that? Seems to be a form of authoritarianism (in Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela at present) based on whipping-up a narrow majority that’s kept on the State payroll against the rest

      5. 20committee says:

        I think Peter P is on to something, yes, and clearly current technology allows less-than-democratic systems new avenues of influence. Social media, alas, is not always a benefit for freedom.

  7. Guy Montag says:

    So how would you rate the chances of a full-scale overt invasion of Ukraine by Russia? Funny thing is is that I thought that was the worst short to medium term case scenario, until you’ved mentioned a reference to a wider war in Central Eastern Europe in your article.

    But there’s also a possibility that Putin would have a thought in his KGB mind that he would say to himself “ah screw it, let’s go to war with the decadent west anyway. No amount of sanctions will ever stop me. They’re weak willed and minded”.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’ve written plenty on Ukraine scenarios, try there.

  8. Alex says:

    Call me naive, but I just can’t believe even a newly desperate Putin and co. would sponsor terrorism against civilians. I can easily imagine them plotting attacks against military targets though, attacks such as assassinating NATO leadership or killing Western military personnel in Iraq and Syria, or in Israel.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’m calling you naive.

    2. NotAlex says:

      It is precisely this kind of thinking that has got the West in the cureent trouble with Putin. Nothing is of the table in KGB. It’s that simple.
      The Baltic states and Poland has been saying this for a long time, but untill Malaisian Airlines downing we were just brushed away a paranoid…

      1. 4MK says:

        No the penny dropped in 2010 with the Baltic states,,the rest of us woke up in 2001,,

  9. Leslie Nicholson says:

    Mr S, I found this an uncharacteristically reasoned analysis of the Russian conflict. You showed a remarkable and rare ability to comprehend Russia’s view of its isolation and conflict.
    You must understand that Russia and not just Putin view the overthrow of corrupt but democratically elected government of Ukraine as a very grave threat to its survival.
Over at the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens points out:

    “Since 1989, Moscow, the supposed aggressor, has – without fighting or losing a war – peacefully ceded control over roughly 180 million people, and roughly 700,000 square miles of valuable territory.

    The EU (and its military wing, Nato) have in the same period gained control over more than 120 million of those people, and almost 400,000 of those square miles.”

    And also: “Stupid, ill-informed people nowadays like to compare Mr Putin with Hitler. I warn them and you that, if we succeed in overthrowing Mr Putin by unleashing hyper-inflation in Russia, we may find out what a Russian Hitler is really like.”

    Mr. Schindler, hasn’t the West brought this crisis about? If the United States stopped spending billions of dollars to foment revolutions in countries bordering Russia and stopped encouraging basket case states like Ukraine to fight wars they don’t have a prayer of winning, wouldn’t all this tension be avoided.

    Maybe the thing to do now would be to stop poking the bear with a stick?

    1. 20committee says:

      Ah, the sage Peter Hitchens …

    2. Robert Marchenoir says:

      I have read that Peter Hitchens piece in the Daily Mail, and it is a masterpiece of chutzpah and dishonesty.

      Let’s just take your quotation. He equates the USSR being forced to relinquish dictatorial control over Eastern Europe, through the crumbling of the communist empire, with some of those Eastern countries voluntarily joining the EU and NATO.

      The EU and NATO do not “control” Poland or Estonia. That’s equating tyranny with free association. Killing 6 million Ukrainians through deliberately organised famine does not equate giving Ukraine financial help to assist her in building a democratic and prosperous nation. As a matter of fact, it’s exactly the opposite.

      Of course, Chekist Russia wouldn’t know the difference between oppression and freedom. But that’s precisely the point. A bully can only envision everyone else acting as a bully. That’s the only mode of relationship he knows. He cannot understand democracy and free association of equals.”We” (loosely meaning the West) should keep defending our conception of liberty and sovereignty.

      Also, “poking the bear with a stick” is typical Putin-speak. It’s a buzz-phrase pushed by the FSB through its network of Western agents of influence. Russia is no bear, and the West’s means are hardly limited to sticks. Even if NATO has been excessively loath, up to now, to arm Ukraine according to Kiev’s requests (which was the point you were trying to make, right ?)…

      1. Leslie Nicholson says:

        Democracy and the free association of equals. Ah, such as when the US spends three billion dollars fomenting a revolution in a democratic state, street mobs overthrow the government (while murdering 20 uniformed cops) and install a puppet regime which wants out of alliance with Russia and aggressively seeks Nato membership, which would mean massed American armies at the Russian border? Apparently you’ve only been watching US television news.

        Putin could have rolled tanks all the way to Kiev in a day and restored the democratically elected government there. I’m astonished at his moderation.

        Unless the US is prepared to fight a major European ground war against Russia, maybe cooler heads should prevail and avoid the provocation which could start it.

        Whatever you think of Putin’s talk, he is the most popular leader on earth with an approval rating somewhere north of 80%. Sounds like he speaks for his nation. When I look at him I don’t see somebody tempted to back down.

      2. Leslie Nicholson says:

        FYI, I strongly recommend Hitchens’ follow-up “Oh Hush Your Noise, Ye Man of Strife – a message for David Frum”

        Hitchens writes: “I have explained at length here what I believe is taking pace –a rebirth of a longstanding German policy of breaking up the old Russian empire by encouraging nationalist feelings in Russia’s subject peoples, and then incorporating the new ‘independent’ countries in a modern liberal empire.

        I have explained how I believe German aspirations, which Germany itself can no longer pursue because it is discredited as a power by the Hitler era – have been transferred to the EU.

        In fact the EU *is* the Liberal ‘federative empire’ dreamed of by German liberal imperialists such as Friedrich Naumann and Richard von Kuehlmann, whose Eastern policy was so devoted to the destruction of Russia that they financed the Bolshevik putsch of October/November 1917, not caring about the appalling aims of Lenin and his accomplices, and continued to support them till they were no longer able to do so.

        This policy also led to to the creation of an ostensibly independent Ukraine which was in fact a German colony, and which was indeed very useful economically to the besieged Wilhelmine empire.”

        So as he says here, the EU is basically the German empire. It’s attempting to do by revolutions and NATO membership what it failed to do in ’42.

    3. Sam says:

      Moscow ceded control of those 180 million people peacefully bc Moscow could no longer afford to feed or support those people with the USSR failed economy.

      Those 120 million people had the freedom to choose their destiny. They chose the West for a chance of prosperity instead of the eastern feudalism and stagnation.

      Nobody in the West hates Russia or Russians. That’s Putin’s propaganda.

      The West believes that Ukraine should be able to decide their own fate, Putin disagrees.

      Germany was de-Nazified, but Russia was never De-Stalinized after the Cold War, hence Putin is in power.

      The West never humiliated Russia, Russia humiliated itself by never learning Economics 101.

    4. Robert Marchenoir says:

      @ Leslie Nicholson

      “Whatever you think of Putin’s talk, he is the most popular leader on earth with an approval rating somewhere north of 80%.”

      Wrong. His approval rating is 100 %. That’s the figure which came out of Russian survey a few weeks ago. Guess what that means…

      This “80 % approval rating” thing (with all Putin shills quoting exactly the same figure, while there are of course different polls with different outcomes) is one of the stupidest buzz-phrases plucked out of the FSB propaganda manual. So let’s suppose Hitler, Stalin or Genghis Kahn had a 80 % approval rating by their people : you’re actually saying that it would be a good reason for other peoples to lay down in front of them ? Only a traitor (or a Kremlin troll) thinks that way.

      The fact that such a thuggish and militaristic president should enjoy an undeniable degree of support from Russians is a very good reason why the West should consider him as a dangerous leader, and Russia as a hostile country, not to be trusted.

      And that’s even before taking into account the dubious nature of that “support” in a country where elections are rigged, the Kremlin creates false opposition parties, journalists are routinely murdered for being overtly nosy, opponents die of unknown poisons, oligarchs are jailed when they oppose the tsarevitch, the FSB threatens Ukraine-supporting citizens with loss of employment (exactly like in the “good old days” of comrade Stalin), mothers need to bribe officials in order for their sons to escape military service (in the course of which they are quite likely to be killed by their officers just for fun), etc.

      “Apparently you’ve only been watching US television news.”

      Yeah, the usual put-down from leftists when they have no argument whatsoever. I’m French and I don’t even own a television set. Rest assured that our own, domestic leftists (and extreme right-wingers, by the way) are as clueless as you are and use the same “argument” (but with French television), while they think nothing of plucking their “information” out of dubious conspirationist blogs and bogus sites which are fronts for Kremlin propaganda.

      By the way, the fact that you “accuse” me of the crime of watching “US television”, and not just television, while commenting on a US blog, makes you a serious suspect for being an actual Kremlin troll.

      1. Polarny says:

        Of course it is a troll. Nobody living in the the West thinks in such exotic way.

  10. Icatchka Olsson says:

    I believe the most effective counter to Russian aggression in Central Europe would be a powerful EAST EUROPEAN FEDERATION comprised of: Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, The Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia & Ukraine.

    A central/eastern European nation state spanning from the Baltic to the Black Sea would be based on multiple historical precedents. The times of a large, consolidated, mostly Slavic East European state were also the times when East Europe enjoyed greater peace and freedom from aggression.

    An EEF would be more populous, have a potentially larger military, and greater production capacity than Russia. It could be firmly in the Western democratic tradition. An EEF could be part of both NATO and EU, capable of exercising enormous influence on both, while also operating independently. It would be the largest geopolitical entity in Europe, bound by common ethnicity and cultural traditions. It could be among the most influential nations in the world.

    I think it is time for the Central and East European nations to start discussing an EEF. They cannot rely on NATO or Obama’s USA to defend them. The EU is not to their advantage. It is time for them to take matters into their own hands. To stop being weak, little territories and join together for their common prosperity.

    1. 20committee says:

      Google Intermarium

    2. Piotr says:

      Icatchka Olsson: you propose “federation of EastEu countries”. Nothing wrong in as close cooperation as possible here, but all our roots, values and identities are with this thing called Europe. This started somewhere, sometime, with Greek cities, 2400+ years ago. We all have shared responsibility to carry this torch. There is a constant back-and-forth invention, affirmation, implementation of our ideas. Modern democracy as worked out steadily in what became Great Britain, Enlightenment as pushed chiefly by French, and so on (you may mention every single European nation or state here with something, naturally with due contributions from East Eu as well).

      And the United States – well, this is just another home, across Atlantic, of the same family of values.

      A year ago, Ukraine, another European country, reminded us again of all those values. People had been dying under EU flag. First time in history. Well, we all have responsibilities here. Yes, part of those responsibilities is to have as close relations locally as possible, but do not forget about the big thing.

      And, by the way, I hope this Europe vs Russia thing is a fleeting issue. Russia is also Europe, maybe we just have to wait a bit for them to realize this. And hold the fort until then.

    3. Oslo says:

      The most stupid idea I have ever heard. Germany,UK,France- the rest of Europe clearly revolves around them.

      The people in Ukraine had no need to “die under EU flag” they needed to make their point for a couple of days,as a civilised placed should, then get back to their normal lives recognising that the government they had elected had made a decision they viewed as in the best interests of Ukraine.

      Considering the dirty tactics that Yanukovich used towards Russia to get a more than generous lease deal for the naval base, more gratitude should have been shown to him by the ultra-nationalist lunatics

    4. PolishPointOfView says:

      The EEF idea is great for Russia. It is better to fight weaker half of Europe than the whole Europe…. You put in the same row Belarus which is close Putin ally with countries wchich are already in EU and NATO. It does not make sense.

  11. Jan Liekmann says:

    Excellent read.The only Western leader that can at least try to compete with Putin in the tactic thinking is Merkel. Cameron and Obama are just like “Putin is idiot, we are so much more right than him” France, Italy, Spain are irrelevant as, let’s say, Slovenia. Putin knows the West can’t compete with him, just as author mentiond – we don’t have doctrinal NATO equivalent for the Russian “Active Measures” The Latvian Foreign minister just labeled 2014 as Europe’s “Year of Horror”, as Latvians usually call the 12 months of the first Soviet occupation of the Baltics june 1940 – june 1941. But reading this looks like the real ” Year of Horror” is going to be 2015, if we don’t do anything.

  12. want2no says:

    “I don’t know if there will be war — real war — between Russia and the West in the new year.”

    Or an indirect Russia-West conflict, perhaps between nations perceived as “proxies” in some area of the world?

    1. 20committee says:

      Safe assumption, IMO.

  13. Moth says:

    Is Snowden paid in rubles or euros for his press interviews?

  14. James B. says:

    The example of Japan in 1941 is the perfect choice, but something else to consider about that situation, which also applies to today’s situation:

    Some Japanese leaders, Admiral Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor among them, were well aware that Japan could not defeat the United States in a protracted war, based on factors of size and industrial capacity. The most realistic Japanese hope was that America would fold, and accept a diplomatic settlement of the issue. This idea did not fail with the American victory at Midway, it failed because Americans take things much more emotionally than Japan expected, and this misjudgment led them to start a hopeless war.

    The danger which also exists today is misjudgment, because Vladimir Putin is not operating with the same worldview that Western leaders are, and vice versa.

  15. davidfarrar says:

    “He [Putin] has done nothing illegal in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he is only protecting Russia and ethnic Russians, which is a legitimate national interest.”

    Did Putin raise these points in any international tribunal prior to supporting armed conflict in that region?

    ex animo

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  17. Piotr says:

    Maybe a bit wandering off-topic – many Russians seem to not comprehend TODAY what evil the ChK/NKVD… organisation was. NKVD was continuously committing crimes against own Soviet citizens and against originally-not-Soviet citizens, always citing “defense against foreign aggression/subversion” as a rationale. While in most cases it was “The face will always be there to be stamped upon”.

    I might be picking at silly sentimental irrelevancies, but all these references to noble traditions of the service by Dzerzhinsky and his creation grate me. I would like to remember good-will gestures by Russian Presidents (including Mr Putin), who admitted and apologized for particular events (Katyn Massacre for example), but I think they should be consistent and follow through with the evaluations. This, in my opinion, has highly practical consequences for everybody.

  18. miguel cervantes says:

    Maybe it might be more correct for Volodya to see himself in the guise of the Oprichniki, the first of the secret apparat, he sees himself as a czar, perhaps channeling Nicholas I, to whom the West blundered into the Crimean war, through inaction,

  19. lew says:

    Is Russia a danger to the United States? No divisions on our borders. No NGOs in our country pushing Putinism. It isn’t an economic competitor to the US in any area. The US invaded the Ukraine, not the Russians. NATO is encroaching on Russia, not vice versa. Putin is popular because the economy is doing better, the oligarchs are being controlled, Putin doesn’t need enemies to keep himself in power.

    So maybe the US Federal Gov needs enemies to distract, divide and rule US Citizens?

  20. John hennessy says:

    Excellent article. I think some thought into raising the price of oil by Putin is on the horizon, the straights of Hormuz, shattal al Arab waterway… Nice shipping targets for a country like Iran… That would solve a few problems for three of our worst adversaries… To bad the fifth fleet is in shambles

    100 bucks a barrel is what pieties needs desperately

    The allegory

  21. A. Nonimous says:

    In the Yeltsin years the Russian people were learned to hate democracy by the KGB, as I see it, so they would later welcome Putin as their savior. Yeltsin, the unwanted politician, never had any real power as president, because he was controlled by the KGB, that also controlled the country. The main difference with Putin is that he is one off them and Yeltsin was not, so Yeltsin was made into a fool and a scapegoat for all that was wrong with democracy (and western capitalism), while a selective group of people enriched themselves with the nations wealth. I somehow knew it was a trick by the KGB, letting Yeltsin become president of the Russian federation after this clumsy `communist` coup attempt against Gorbachev, and G.W.H. Bush seemed to know it as well, as I could tell from his reactions. It was only after the first Gulf war that he started to believe something had really changed in the former Soviet Union, as he began to speak of a new world order, since the Russians had not intervened while Saddam was their ally. His optimism didn´t last long though, as I remember. The anti Western propaganda never ceased to exist on Russian television, so only in the West there was a change of hearts towards the feared Russian bear, exactly as planned by the KGB I suppose. A plan that was already set in motion by installing Gorbachev as president, introducing glasnost and perestroika.

  22. carl says:

    One of the things I have been hoping for is that those in responsible positions in the West are thinking about how bad things can get in the next two years, that is until Mr. Obama leaves office. Your article is an happy sign that is happening. Now I hope people are thinking about ways to get out of the deep hole we might be in on Jan 21, 2017.

    Do the various Checkist types charge some of their people with making Putin party line pronouncements on sites like this? I’ve noticed that on other sites and maybe here too.

  23. Hippocritopotamus says:

    Putin is victim to the same confusion about Obama’s character as many Republicans in the US. Obama is somehow simultaneously feckless and vacillating, AND devious and powerful enough to mastermind a crypto-campaign to dismember Russia’s sphere of influence. He can’t be both at the same time, yet Putin doesn’t seem prepared to resolve that paradox.

    Russia may be “self-sufficient” in terms of essentials, but times have changed since her Soviet-era economic isolation. Physical borders were never enough to prevent people from learning that things are simply better elsewhere, and the advent of the internet has made that even more true today. Russians may be willing to stand in defiance against the West in the short term, as you suggest. But in the medium-to-long term, they will inevitably become dissatisfied with the lack of basic opportunity offered by their economy. That dissatisfaction will have real effects, as it already has in most of Ukraine.

    To his credit, I think Putin understands this–and that any kind of obvious hostility against NATO or the EU will result only in more isolation, more wasteful diversion of diminishing resources. The kind of sub rosa attacks you warn about will never be more than annoying pinpricks; they would never change the basic equation of power between Russia and the West. Meanwhile, the US is actively helping many East European nations wean themselves off Russian oil and gas–the real source of Putin’s leverage (such as it is) over Europe.

    The upshot: in a wired, interdependent world, Russia has even fewer realistic options to push back against the West than Japan did on December 6, 1941.

  24. carl says:

    Does the extreme kleptocratic nature of the Putin regime have any effect for good or ill on the ideology he is developing? It doesn’t seem to have had any effect on his ability stay in power.

  25. Chris says:

    @20committee: “Stratfor? HAHAHAHAH! :”

    In-depth insights. I would like to read a more elaborate analysis from you on the two men – and just the two men:

    Stratfor’s George Friedman (his free articles are at: )

    And Robert D. Kaplan (he actually just left Stratfor; free articles at: – In 2011, Foreign Policy magazine named Kaplan as one of the world’s “top 100 global thinkers.”)

    Both have interesting titles on Amazon. The two of them do not agree 100% but I enjoy reading them both. I appreciate your work.

    1. 20committee says:

      If you want detailed bespoke analysis, commission some.

      1. Chris says:


        I forgot to add, if you view Fred Burton, VP of Stratfor (former chief at the Diplomatic Security Service, he got Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the WTC plot in ’93 and on and on – kind of a distant colleague to you, isn’t he?) also as “HAHAHAHAH! :)” or perhaps you hold a little (just a little) more elaborate views on him?



      2. 20committee says:

        Burton was a DSS Special Agent, not a spook. They’re only part of the IC in a highly technical sense; they’re cops. They have no more business calling themselves intel than spooks do claiming to be cops. You may draw conclusions from there.

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