Part One: Vladimir Putin
Intelligence documents, by their nature, are not the smoking gun proof that many expect from leaked documents. Raw intelligence is a starting block that eventually leads to actionable intelligence – the information that has been vetted and tested. Even then, a well vetted and tested intelligence brief contains gaps in information and even data that is wrong. Intelligence gathering is not a scientific exercise, but rather, an art form. Most, if not all, the countries in the world engage in intelligence operations against each other. Many are simple operations of gathering public information and generating reports that their respective government can use during negotiations. Some, like the United States and Russia engage in sophisticated intelligence operations using vast resources against their adversaries. The 2010 diplomatic cable leaks demonstrated that the United States not only engages in military intelligence operations, but also in economic intelligence operations to use during negotiations for economic agreements with other nations.
The Russians have a long history of intelligence and with that history comes much experience. The Russians see intelligence as an important line of defense to protect their country against foreign and internal adversaries. Vladimir Putin, the current president of the Russian Federation, is a former KGB officer.
Vladimir Putin is a creature of the Soviet mentality and the KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti) modus operandi. Although the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) ceased to exist, the mindset that it created lives on. Unlike Russia, the United States is a country that is always looking forward. Its citizens live on the motto that the future is bright – unhindered by the past. Although this mindset has allowed innovation, it nonetheless limits the ability for US citizens to understand the world around them. US citizens see the world around them unhindered by past events. However, most countries view the world through the prism of their past. It is the history of the country’s people that affects how they view the external world around them. An example of how this works in the United States, is how the people that lived during the Great Depression are perceived by the younger generations. They are generally characterized as penny pinchers, fearful that the good times can suddenly end, unlike newer generations that do not fear long food lines or unrelenting job displacement.
The Russians have a long history of invasions and of war. Many foreigners have forgotten that over 20 million Russians (includes satellite states) were killed during World War II. It is estimated that the Soviet Union lost almost 14% of its 1939 population during the war. In comparison, the United States lost about 400,000 during the war. For the Russians, the war dead were in addition to the numerous purges by internal political upheavals by leaders like Joseph Stalin.
The Russian psyche is a product of a long history of fending off death. This psyche has developed over a long-established doctrine of self-preservation against outside forces intent on destroying them. This mindset is alien to US citizens, that for the most part, have been insulated from foreign military aggression. Notwithstanding the British attempts to take back its rebellious colonies, the mainland United States has never been invaded by another country. Although some argue that Pancho Villa’s invasion of Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 is an invasion, in reality it was nothing more than a raid across the border. Except for the US citizens in Columbus on the day of the Villa raid, US citizens have never experienced foreign soldiers on their streets.
It is with this backdrop that we must understand the long-tradition of Russian intelligence gathering and operations against foreign countries. The Russians have been honing their intelligence operations for many years. Many mistakenly assume that the demise of the KGB was the end of Russian intelligence expertise. The KGB was just a stepping stone to the next evolution of Russian intelligence expertise that started with the Cheka (1917) that then evolved into the KGB, which is now the FSB (Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti or Federal Security Service). The FSB is an internal security organization, much like the FBI but without the constitutional limits imposed on the FBI. The SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or Foreign Intelligence Service) is like the CIA, but again, without the limitations imposed by the US constitution.
Unlike the CIA and the FBI, which operate within clearly delineated limits imposed by the constitutional, the FSB and the SVR sees everyone as a potential source of intelligence. In the US, the FBI may only investigate US citizens under a court-ordered warrant, while the CIA may not operate within the US territorial limits. Russian intelligence targets Russian citizens, Russian proxies and citizens of other countries as sources of information. The Russian mindset is about knowing as much about the outside world as it can before the next threat manifests itself. Understanding the destructive nature of war, the Russians do not rely on machinery that can be destroyed, but rather on throwing as many bodies and machinery into a problem. Russian weapon systems are designed to be used by the least-educated among its population and easily manufactured in large quantities in the most impoverished conditions.
The Russians believe that quantity over quality is the best defense. The Russians also utilize this same mindset in when gathering information. Russians believe that information is the root to political power. As such, the Russians have no problem wielding power by using information against anyone they see as useful to their goals.
It is this mindset that has translated into today’s Russian intelligence operations. The Russians, especially the KGB, now the FSB and SVR, heavily relies on HUMINT, or human intelligence, over electronic and other types of analysis. To the Russians, everyone is a source of intelligence information. Because the Russians believe that an invader is around every corner, its intelligence apparatus is always being perfected. It is important to understand that to the Russians, invasion is not only foreign occupying soldiers in a country’s streets, but also includes foreign intervention in the country’s internal politics, the geopolitical empowerment of allies or adversaries and other activities such as economic pressures against a country’s self-interests. Russians fear all types of aggression, even passive, against its national interests. This is even more true among the Russians who operated in government circles during the Cold War. Individuals like Vladimir Putin.
Vladimir Putin is a product of clandestine operations against foreign threats to the motherland. Putin is fully indoctrinated in the mindset imposed by the Soviet leadership at the height of the Cold War.
Where US citizens focus on ISIS is the threat du jour, the Russians see ISIS and oil price fluctuations, or even the growing economic crisis in México, as a threat and an opportunity for the Russian motherland.
Propaganda, Misinformation and Misdirection
The Russians have developed a two-way and time-tested strategy for its intelligence operations. On one hand, the Russians gather dossiers or intelligence while on the other hand they release strategic information to deceive, misdirect or manage an outcome. Russian intelligence operations are fulltime ongoing projects. US intelligence operations, on the other hand, are reactive to worldwide events. Unlike the US counterparts, the FSB and SVR operate together as both answer directly to the Russian president – Vladimir Putin.
Nothing is off limits to Russian intelligence operations. Their aim is simply to get the raw information by whatever means necessary. Although the Russians derive intelligence from open sources, like academic publications and corporate publications, the Russians operate under the notion that the only true intelligence is information gathered via informants and undercover operators. As such, the Russians cultivate and develop informers from all walks of life. Everyone is source of information for the Russian intelligence apparatus.
Asking to share information, paying for information, offering help in corporate or political careers, providing sexual interludes or even blackmailing sources, are all part of the Russian repertoire of gathering human intelligence. The lowliest clerk to the highest placed source is each a part of the Russian intelligence gathering cog. Each source is part of the two-way intelligence network, as well. Each can provide the raw intelligence that fits the larger puzzle and, each, in turn can be used to decimate information that can be used to distract or misdirect away from the true issue at hand.
Even what may seem like outlandish and perverted sexual acts or acts of betrayal can be used to create the illusion that the Russians use to distract from what they are doing. A sly of hand, if you will. Even if they are nothing more than the figment of someone’s imagination, they piece of well-placed propaganda, or leaked information serves the purpose of distraction. Weakening a government by creating an illusion fulfills Russian goals as much as a coup d’état of government officials in another country.
Through western eyes, intelligence operations are expected to be centered on military activities, such as weapons technology, deployment and strategic decision making capabilities. The US includes economic intelligence, like Russia, as essential to ongoing foreign policy initiatives. Cyber and economic warfare are also part of the Russian strategy. Russia sees understanding economic intelligence as a defense mechanism against attempts to undermine the Russian economy in order to weaken it.
Russia has been targeted economically by western countries since the early 1900’s to weaken the Russians. General Electric led a multinational effort in the 1930’s to overcharge the Soviet’s for imports it purchased from multinationals. The Soviet’s paid upwards of 75% for consumables it imported from various companies across the globe under this scheme. From this experience, Russian intelligence officials included economic intelligence in its intelligence gathering efforts in order to protect themselves.
Cyber warfare is relatively new and the Russians see it as an opportunity to do what they do best – gather HUMIT intelligence through Trojans and viruses, steal technology and create illusions. Computers have replaced paper as the medium for storing secrets and networked computers have created many more doorways into the secrets, some of which are very difficult to keep closed.
However, the Russians use intelligence operations not only to understand its adversaries, current and potential, but also to take control of the them. Russian operations are proactive instead of reactive and they have demonstrated the patience to carry out long-term programs towards a specific goal.
Infiltrating foreign intelligence systems is obviously a goal of the Russians, however, to control outcomes, the Russians also infiltrate the political elite to plant operatives capable of implementing Russian-friendly programs. When usurping local governance is impossible, the Russians rely on misinformation to create an illusion for their benefit. The Russians are masterful at misdirecting the attention of observers away from their primary activities towards other activities that have lesser importance to them. Misdirection, misinformation and outright lies distracts their opponents in wasting time and resources on lesser important issues while allowing the Russians the advantage.
Thus, to better understand the Donald Trump Dossier that was recently leaked, the motives behind the leak, the contents of the dossier and the many reasons for its existence must be seeing through Russian eyes. But, understanding Vladimir Putin is also important element. Putin is no stranger to intelligence intrigue. He has deftly used it over time to take control of Russia, to intervene in neighboring countries and to hamper various US programs.