Russia’s war in Ukraine is entering a new phase as forces shift their focus to the country’s east and south, seeking to capitalize on gains in separatist enclaves after numerous losses and shortfalls in the campaign’s initial months. As Russia adjusts its posture, the U.S. — particularly its intelligence community — also wants to shift to a long-term strategy that will deter Russian advances and violations of human security in both Ukraine and Eastern Europe at large.
In this Contours episode, Senior Analyst Caroline Rose sits down with Douglas London, a decorated veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Clandestine Service, an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Caroline Rose: Hello, and welcome to this New Lines Institute for Strategy and policy episode of our Contours podcast series. I’m Caroline Rose, the senior analyst and head of the Power Vacuums program here at the New Lines Institute. As the war in Ukraine enters a new phase as Russian forces capitalize on gains in the country’s east and south, the United States, particularly its intelligence community, is adjusting its strategy. As a series of failed attempts to simultaneously take major cities east and West of the Dnieper River, including launching an assassination and coup attempts against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia has shifted its focus to separatist enclaves in the Donbas, as well as strategic ports in the country’s south, shortening their supply lines, consolidating their forces and narrowing objectives to target transport nodes and repair facilities.
This change in strategy will call for a different long term Western strategy of lethal and non-lethal support for Ukraine, as well as presents a new challenge for the US intelligence community, as it contemplates ways to deter Russian advances in Ukraine and Eastern Europe at large. Today, we are privileged to have a very special guest with us here, Douglas London. Mr. London is a retired decorated 34-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service. Mr. London’s experience as an intelligence community leader includes executive positions in multiple field assignments as a CIA chief of station and director of national intelligence representative, as well as the president’s senior intelligence representative.
He served extensively across the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia, and was likewise the CIA subject matter expert on Iran, counterterrorism, and weapons of mass destruction. Mr. London is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and frequently writes on national security issues. He’s been published in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Hill, Just Security, and the Middle East Institute. He’s been widely quoted by journalists on the intelligence and issues related to counterterrorism, Iran, the Middle East and South Asia. Thank you so much, Mr. London, for being with us here today.
Douglas London: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
CR: So I would like to first start off with how this intervention began and the role of the IC in this intervention. Now, back in January and February, ahead of the Russian intervention, the Biden administration made a point in utilizing the U.S. intelligence community as a way to publicize and projected Russian false flag actions and promote accountability, staying a step ahead of Russian actions. I want to ask, what were the costs and the benefits to this U.S. Approach towards utilizing intelligence in this period of the crisis? And do you think this is a tactic that the U.S. Can and should replicate with future crises?
DL: We’ve seen the weaponization of intelligence as a means of preemption and disruption in this conflict in a way that we haven’t really seen at all for years or to a really small extent. The closest example that we can see in recent history is in the early ’80s, when United States had intelligence from a very well placed agent inside Poland’s chief of command, that the Soviets, then Soviet Union, was planning to invade Poland in order to crush the solidarity movement. The United States took the decision at that time to share that intelligence in a wide dissemination with allies and foes alike, and it did in fact deliberately get into the public space eventually as a means of disrupting the Soviet plans, which in that case it did work. And to your point, it also cost the agent that we had received the information from not his life thankfully, but because of the exposure of that information, which could be traced back to a very small circle of sources, we had to exfiltrate him out, which we did successfully.
The scale that we’ve seen in the United States, declassifying intelligence, sharing it, not just with partners, which the United States does and has done routinely, particularly since the advent of 9/11 in that post-9/11 period was really been significant, and I would like to think a deliberate decision in what the risk versus gain basis was going to be. We saw that come increasing volume as we came into the new year. Director of Central Intelligence Agency, Burns, did in fact travel early in the year to try to dissuade Vladmir Putin by basically doing the same thing. I was saying, here’s what we’ve seen, here’s our intelligence. Obviously I don’t know how specific he was, but I would imagine that which we saw or exposed publicly at a minimum is what he shared with Putin to establish our credibility, that we’re not just making this up or taking a chance to try to push back, but we were very clear on what was going to happen.
And I don’t think Putin was moved because he felt, “Oh my goodness, I’m compromised.” It was more that he really didn’t see the consequences and what was going to happen on the ground in Ukraine and the Western reaction. We saw a drop off, I would say, just from a very unscientific approach to how much declassified intelligence the United States had been sharing as we got deeper into the conflict. It’s sort of topped out with information about China being prepared to provide weapons to Russia, and in other aid, some of it perhaps in contravention of sanctions. That also would apparently have had some success in dissuading the Chinese from following through. What I think is an important clarification as people look into this and think, well, we did all that, we shared intelligence, we might have cost ourself collection, which is possible, and the Russians invaded anyway.
I don’t believe the intention was to stop the Russians from invading as much as it was to galvanize a unified consensus response. I think it was problematic whether countries like Germany, Poland and Hungary were going to be supportive of standing up to the Russians. If you look back at November, December of last year, 2021. But I think the public relations aspect are really more scientifically the messaging aspect; allow the United States to capture the narrative, ceded that from Putin because the narrative has been such an integral part of his foreign policy, because he’s been nothing, if you ask me, but transparent for the last, at least, 10 years, if not longer, about what his intentions were.
And I think that had a dramatic impact on getting resolved among the Western partners and having them step up to take action that frankly even I was pleasantly surprised, specifically at Poland and Germany. So, going forward, I think we’ve seen a slowdown. We saw only recently that the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan shared intelligence, suggesting that Iran was going to provide drones, perhaps technology, perhaps platform themselves to the Russians.
That’s the first I’ve seen on significant scale in a while, because there is a concern. There’s always going to be a danger, no matter how carefully you sterilize the intelligence to try to protect the actual sources and methods, and at a minimum pinpoints for your adversary, where they have a weakness, and it allows them to at least enhance their defensive, if not identify the compromise itself.
CR: Absolutely. And this definitely ties into the narrative that we’ve heard and also the information war that has been waged between Russia and the West at large. And it sounds like certainly this was a tactic for the United States and its Western partners to get a step ahead in promoting accountability, and like you mentioned, perhaps not necessarily staving intervention itself, but being one step ahead in that information war, and really galvanizing support for Ukraine ahead of the intervention. Now, we talk a bit about the tactic of exposing Russian plans and aims ahead of the intervention, but I’d like to also talk about how the United States squint about its prediction of how the war and how the battlefield outcomes would fall into place. So, of course, in contrast, some assert that the United States intelligence community, while correctly predicting a Russian intervention, projected the outcome in Ukraine incorrectly, that they didn’t expect the Ukrainian resistance to be so formidable, and that Russian operational performance was so egregious that the United States intelligence community didn’t see that unfolding.
So, despite its battlefield advantages, Russia has failed to establish air superiority in Ukraine, its experienced poor logistics and communications discipline, and it suffered a series of major leadership losses against a much less equipped Ukrainian armed forces. Now, Avril Haines, a while back, noted that they were assessing an actor’s will and capacity to fight, and that may no longer be enough, acquiring new and different methodologies. What do you think as we look ahead into the future and looking ahead at not only this frozen conflict in Ukraine, but perhaps future crises? Do you think we are going to have to require new methodologies other than looking at just will and capacity?
DL: There’s a lot of really interesting dynamics at play, kind of fascinating for me as a spy to consider them, if you would. So, clearly, the United States Intelligence community did not as a strength, reflect an ability to estimate how effective Ukrainian resistance would be, despite having collaborated with the Ukrainians overtly and covertly for years, at least since 2014. The United States has had both an overt program to strengthen Ukrainian armed forces, and I dare say, I would expect United States Intel community, CIA specifically, had a covert program. So, these were opportunities for us to work side by side. I think one of the consequences of strategic intelligence though is an over-reliance on what your adversary is himself or herself reading. So, United States could only have the limited footprint when it comes to collection against such a counterintelligence-savvy pro. You can’t have a whole lot of intel officers running around the streets of Russia. You can’t have a lot of agents.
You have to be very selective, very careful, and without exposing detail, I would submit that it’s not like we’re meeting these agents frequently. And the way we communicate has to be very guarded and thus those who reach the threshold of an agent will run on the ground, has to be a strategic reporter. Strategic reporters are reporting what they see as intelligence. There’s great reason to believe from consequences and actions and experience in this conflict that the Russians themselves overestimated their capability and underestimated that of the Ukrainian. If that in fact was the strategic intelligence we were stealing, and I suspect it was, then we were reporting that back as well, that here’s what the Russians expect offensively, here’s what they expect defensively, and that’s what we’re assessing.
So the difficulty is, how do you sample that ground truth, if you would, to look for dynamics such as morale, willingness to fight. You certainly have open source. And I know my colleague at Stanford, Amy Zegart, is big proponent of doing more about open source. I couldn’t argue with that at all, but open source has a danger there, because if we’re reading the capabilities of a T-90 tank, [inaudible] multiple launch weapon system and such like that. We’re reading technical specs and drawing a lot from that, and we’re also drawing from the limited open source information that’s available in a closed society such as Russia, where you’re not going to see a whole lot of Russian soldiers openly complaining about morale problems.
And I’m talking about in advance of the conflict. Now, the Russians did not exercise on a scale that the Soviet Union did militarily when they were the Warsaw Pact. So, again, we didn’t have a lot of opportunities, overt opportunities, to witness Russian exercises. We saw them operate on a much smaller scale against a much different adversary in Syria and the Wagner paramilitary group, which might as well be Russian military forces in Libya. And I don’t really think that was revealing. So, we drew a lot of bits and pieces from open source, from strategic intelligence that we had stolen, which was what Putin was reading himself, because I have no doubt, but that his intelligence services spun a tale to fit Putin’s predetermined conclusions, which were, “We’re going to be done in 48 hours, we’re mighty and strong,” because he sort of drank his own Kool-Aid, and we sort of fell victim to that.
Looking forward, that’s a tough riddle to solve. You can’t suddenly say, “Okay, we’re going to start expanding our agent pool and running more agents in Moscow and St. Petersburg,” because you just can’t do that safely. So, how do you find a way to augment the right kind of collection that’s going to give you that sampling, because even if you were going to recruit, let’s say a dozen senior enlisted in the Russian armed forces, that’s a small skewed sampling in itself. So it’s a very tricky area. I think the lessons learned will themselves help us, help the intelligence community adjust its mechanics and its approach.
But if you think about the last few years, and I know I’ve written about it, remarked, people were describing the Russians as 10 feet tall. They had all these incredible weapons, they had modernized their military. There were pieces all across the media about there’s no longer hazing in the armed forces, which clearly is not true, and we really bought into that. So we’re victim of that ourselves. As far as the IC goes, the IC is going to need to do it better. They’re going to need to put their heads together on just how, but it’s not as easy a problem as it might seem on the surface that, oh, let’s just start talking to a lot more people because of the limitations I suggested.
CR: Absolutely, you make a really great point there about how the IC’s interacted with open source. This comes to my next question. And really this compliments a podcast that we did back in April quite nicely. We hosted a podcast with a series of open source intelligence experts to discuss the role that OSINT has played in efforts to disrupt, expose and promote accountability with Russian forces behavior in Ukraine. And like you mentioned, given Russia’s history of publicizing some of their very fancy and advanced equipment creating this belief, they did possess the capacity to conduct an intervention that was very quick and decisive. On top of that, of course, with the impression that Russia’s force structure and its posture was also conducive to an intervention like this. However, of course, OSINT’s efforts did expose some vulnerabilities on the ground.
For example, the lack of supply chains and poor logistics and then eventually low morale. And there’s a quote that I’d like to invoke here. The vice chairman of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Marco Rubio, once remarked on the influential and productive role on non-governmental, unclassified OSINT sources. And he said that their geolocation video and satellite vetting efforts were widely integrated into the broader work of the intelligence community, and he thanked OSINT experts for doing that work. So moving ahead, how do you perceive this relationship with the more classified traditional US IC and the unclassified more open and public OSINT community? And what are the pros and cons of this, especially when some OSINT accounts might get it wrong, and may be too quick to publicize information that might be too sensitive?
DL: OSINT is clearly the wave of the future. And, and I don’t argue against its value and it’s important. I think balance and understanding is really key. So for any intelligence to have high confidence in the community, it generally needs to come from multiple sources, multiple streams of information, and then within each, whether it’s signals intelligence or human intelligence, multiple strands that can be corroborated. Intelligence, as you know, is imperfect. We never say except some former presidents that slam dunk or former directors, I should say, because you never have the full picture. The art of intelligence is being able to take the bits and pieces you have, get as much as you can to fill in that picture, and then through deductive and inductive reasoning, fill in the blank. Open source plays a major role on that, but like any other form or strand of intelligence, can’t be one on which we over-rely because they all have inherent weaknesses based on the imperfection of itself.
So, with the advances in artificial intelligence, particularly our ability to synthesize and process those OSINT in order to understand patterns, precedence, let the algorithms try to see if you would, in fact, a crystal ball is fabulous, but there’s really nothing that replaces a secret because human intelligence or be it signal intelligence that will tell you here’s what a leader is thinking. Here’s what their plans and intentions are. And particularly from human, here’s the context. Here’s why they’re thinking that way is invaluable. OSINT is very good about telling you what has happened to allow you to look forward based on patterns, precedence, history, and data. The amount of data is fantastic, but it’s not going to tell you what will happen. And I say that even understanding that algorithms can project out, but they can’t really project the way a leader thinks be it a strategic leader, such as Vladimir Putin around whom you need human sources to tell you here’s what the context was.
He was angry. He was happy. He was sad. Here’s his ultimate aspirations and move that then down to other folks in that strategic chain of command that you’re watching. So I think there needs to be a sizable investment. I think that there’s probably a lack of understanding about how well integrated OSINT already is across the community, because I know there are calls for, well, let’s have a separate OSINT agency. An OSINT agency, which is going to be dealing with a lot of unclassified, is probably not going to have the benefit of a sufficient cadre, seeing all the classified and particularly the sensitive stuff to help them better understand the context. So NSA has OSINT. CIA has OSINT, in terms of separate groups or directorates and such like that, that integrate with the rest. So I think we need to continue to invest in that and the technology to exploit it.
I’m a little wary about making this IC manager for OSINT because we’ve seen some of those dangers with NCTC, the National Counter Terror Center. NCTC now has most of their people looking at classified information. And of course, NCTC, and not to digress too much, is looking at external threat. I would like to see them take on domestic threat as well, because they’re already a good, solid existing institution that can be leveraged, but even their folks because they work for the office of DNI don’t necessarily have the insight to the most sensitive collection operations going on, which analysts and CIA do and DIA and NSA do, which sometimes gives them a clearer vision at integrating the multiple sources of intelligence, which after all is why CIA is called CIA for being central to have that wider view, without coming off too biased.
CR: Mr. London, you wrote for Foreign Policy magazine two months ago of a series of mysterious fires and explosions inside of Russia and areas bordering Ukraine. There were fires to oil fuel and ammunition storage facilities with little civilian casualties, all valuable military targets that were potentially acts of sabotage. There was also a fire at Russia’s Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces, not too far from Moscow. And you asserted that this begs the question of how the United States and NATO members can leverage sabotage operations in Ukraine and in the region. How can the United States conduct these operations while maintaining that sweet spot that achieves deterrents of further Russian advance, but at the same time does not provoke further escalation in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe?
DL: I think the expectation of most observers and certainly the United States intelligence community was that Russia was going to succeed and likely take over, or at least decapitate the government, probably be able to take Kyiv, maybe leaving a swath of Ukraine towards the West, [inaudible] and such like that. So, it would appear to me that the strategy was to prepare Ukraine to be able to fight an insurgency — one that was covert, one that would operate behind Russian lines if you would, within the cities, largely as well as the countryside. So consistent with what I’ve also seen in the press and to which I referred in what I wrote is there’s certainly publicity about a CIA covert program that complimented the overt US special operations forces program with Ukrainian special ops units with CIA counterparts, both on the civilian side and probably in some of the military side to prepare what — if you would, a Jedburgh-like program.
The Jedburgh program is based on the model that the Office of Strategic Services used in World War II in supporting the French resistance, the Norwegian resistance, resistance in the Far East and such against our World War II Axis foes. And it was basically that. It was operations that allowed our friendly force to operate in covert clandestine cells and strike at key targets, both for strategic impacts, such as command, control, communications logistics, but also for messaging for propaganda value and such like that, to demoralize the enemy and give strength to the opposition and encouragement to the opposition, to continue to rally and rise up. Well, the Russians didn’t exactly succeed, but that model still applies very effectively for Ukraine should it choose to use it, which I suspect and as I wrote, has used it. And we’ve seen them use it effectively, both behind Russian lines in Ukraine, but also I would expect these fires and explosions, there’s not coincidence here and in intelligence is very rarely coincidence have been going on by Ukraine or Ukraine partisans or Ukrainian allies.
In taking on Russia in such an event, the Ukrainians and the United States both have a great resource in that of former Warsaw Pact allies, which are now NATO allies of ours, Poles, Hungarians, the Slovaks, you can go down the list. These are folks that not only understand and operated and trained with Russia, but most likely have many members of their communities still there in a capacity to perhaps provide intelligence, if not direct actions support across the country. And there are a great many Ukrainians who are still in Russia, Ukrainians who never left Russia to come back, but still value and maintain contact with their Ukrainian family members who also provide a resource. So I would tell you that in terms of what’s available, there’s no doubt that the United States certainly overtly on the special operation side and probably covertly were enabling the Ukrainians to conduct this as a resistance, but also one that they could project across the border into Russia.
But selectively, we talked about the narrative. It’s important. I would expect that while the Ukrainians are probably right to think we should be able to strike in Russia, just as they’re striking here, don’t want to lose sympathy, don’t want to lose support, and don’t also want to rally the Russians around Putin in any way. So would probably on their own be careful that the United States is facilitating, doesn’t also necessarily mean they control. So the United States might be providing advice, assistance, guidance, and material support to Ukrainian operations that might have helped them establish networks in partnership with NATO allies who are also intelligence allies of CIA and DIA and special operations forces. And I believe as I wrote that it’s a very effective tool, both in terms of its direct military value, but also in reminding Putin of the potential for these costs to be escalated at home.
A Putin leadership is all about strength and him riding shirtless on a horse and fighting bears, or God knows what. So things that make him look weak are embarrassing. And to him, it’s not just pride. He equates that with his ability to rule with intimidation and force, or prestige, if you will. So I wrote specifically to the possibility that were Putin to consider escalating to chemicals, or any weapon of mass destruction, including nuclear, is the United States or NATO going to go to war with Russia if he uses a toxin in Ukraine, if he actually uses a tactical nuclear device? But I do believe that without confirming there’s a US hand, because it would most likely be executed by Ukrainian forces and their resources on the ground, I think it’s a reminder that the cost could grow to him in a way that’s beyond his ability to control.
And I think it’s a useful tool, and it’s a useful tool to flag as has been done with these explosions and fires without slapping him in the face and forcing him to retaliate. Because if you keep it covert, which fundamentally for both United States law and in practice, covert is deniability. Deniability could even be a fig leaf. The fig leaf is sometimes as helpful to us as the practitioner, as to who we’re executing it upon, because if Putin doesn’t feel obligated out of pride to respond, but gets the message, we’ve succeeded despite how thin that fig leaf might be.
CR: Absolutely. And that’s a really interesting point that you make about how these covert tools have shaped, not necessarily just battlefield outcomes, but also of course, the considerations with Russian leadership, particularly with Putin and it leads me to my next question. We talk about some of the blind spots that we’ve seen with Russian forces on the battlefield. Again, like I mentioned before, discipline, corruption, inept command structure, morale issues, dependence on fire power and over agility, et cetera. And we’re starting to see this shift further east and Russian forces consolidate some of their gains in particular southern Ukrainian ports and in the Donbas, particularly in separatist enclaves. And I want to ask, how is the IC interpreting this? And do you think that both the United States and in Western intelligence, as well as Ukrainian resistance, are they going to be able to have an advantage in the intelligence community and in espionage efforts over Russia, as they consolidate gains eastward?
DL: Well, the intelligence picture will always favor the Ukrainians because it’s their home turf, and despite how many might be collaborating or how many Russian speakers might be saved — and I think we see from ground truth, and a lot of it through media and social media, that it’s not quite as strong a pro-Russian sense on the ground in the east as the Russians would’ve had us thought. So they’re going to be very successful in collecting intelligence, which means that’s going to enable their targeting. And we’re talking targeting both overt as Western supplies of more advanced weapons come their way, such as the HIMARS, which are those tactical rockets, which are fired with great precision. And again, the United States has provided a very limited version of the HIMARS in terms of the ordnance, one that I think can only reach about 40 miles. There’s projectiles that can go over 100 miles, should they decide, but the strength of the HIMARS is its agility and its accuracy.
So as the intelligence picture favors the Ukrainians, they’re going to continue to be able to zero in on targets that advance their strategy, which is going to be a combination of military effectiveness, getting command communications, logistics, as we’re seeing, but also that weakens morale. That lets the Russian soldier on the ground know, you’re never safe. You’re never going to be safe. And I think at the end of the day, that’s the ultimate challenge for Putin, that the fight in the east certainly favors him militarily because of his superior fire power, but it doesn’t favor him in the long run to put down any resistance to maintain control.
It’s not like the Ukrainians are going to go, “Okay, you won in the east, we’re just going to go away.” They’re going to continue to fight. They’re going to be enabled with continuing supplies of advanced weapons and very good intelligence because clearly one thing that we’ve seen discussed probably too much in the press is the United States is providing very specific intelligence to the Ukraines, very actionable intelligence. I think after initial concern, oh, we want to be careful because we don’t want to give a reason for the Russians to retaliate, that seems to have been dispensed [inaudible]. I always question it because the Russians were on the ground in Vietnam during that conflict, and it didn’t seem to be a provocation for war back then from precedent and there’s always been advisers.
So I think the United States has been appropriately cautious, but maybe politically we’re a bit too concerned. So Putin has to decide, is he going to maintain the bulk of his own forces in perpetuity in Ukraine just to keep the east or just to keep the ground he has with the danger that as the Ukrainians strengthen, though they’re having manpower issues because there’s only 40 million Ukrainians, is that going to be something he can do indefinitely and keep control at home?
I don’t doubt Putin has considered that and we’ve seen much debate in the press about, oh, the long game is to his favor, he’s playing a war of attrition, the West will buckle, they’ll get tired, and there’s no doubt there’s been, just look at the press, how much coverage is there on Ukraine day to day? There’s going to be less, Americans themselves have a lot going on with what’s going on in the Supreme Court, politically, January 6th, the price at the pumps. There’s a lot of competing issues. But at least in this administration, under the Biden administration and across NATO, it seems there’s little suggestion that that’s going to waver, that I think even the costs have begun to be normalized about the price of the pump and the other consequences.
And there’s been some political damage from it, but I don’t see that really changing. So who does a long game favor? Is it Putin or is it the West? Now for the Ukrainians every day, Ukrainians die. So it’s really unthinkable to say, well, the long game favors them, but at the same time, as an intelligence officer, they’re not going away, the Ukrainians are not going to give up. They’re likely going to resist much longer than the Russians have the will to resist. And Putin’s going to have to continue to judge on the ground how much of a threat at home comes from what he’s doing in Ukraine.
And again, that’s an aspect I’ve written of that I think an area of the United States could leverage is that very cost to him, not just increasing the cost, but reminding him of the cost and playing to what we’ve at least seen suggested is his paranoia over who can I trust and what’s going to happen to me. There’s various tools that are available to spies, to the intelligence community to use all with risk, all with the need for due deliberate thinking, but still that can be leveraged. So I’m not necessarily a subscriber that the long game favors Putin as much as it’s at his peril so long as the West can stay unified because I have no doubt the Ukrainians are not going away.
CR: Absolutely. That’s a great point. And it really does make you think a lot about what Avril Haines mentioned about will and capacity and perhaps capacity has been overemphasized in Moscow versus of course popular will and the resistance on the ground, which is a huge consideration. Now I want to bend a bit and get a bit broad and look at the bird’s eye view perspective of this ongoing information war and this complex intelligence landscape. Now, if we zoom out to Eastern Europe and Europe at large, as well as the Middle East, how are you perceiving the larger intelligence and information more with Russia on these different scales and how should the United States proceed with a strategy? You mentioned, of course earlier today, about how Iran has now started, of course, to play a role [inaudible] Russian forces. Earlier today, there was a Guardian article actually about how Iran backed militias in Iraq were also providing equipment. How should the United States proceed with this in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, in Europe at large?
DL: Well, the United States again has an advantage here in being a worldwide service with a much larger alliance network of very capable partners. We saw not that long ago; it was the Dutch service in the Netherlands where we saw in the press about how the Dutch had stopped the Russian illegal. And that’s a Russian intelligence officer in this case, GRU, the military service who assumes the citizenship and the background of a foreigner, in this case the Brazilian, who had done very well and in fact, went to CISE here in the United States for a graduate degree as a Brazilian, but that person’s cover didn’t hold. And he was stopped, turned around and sent back home for prosecution by the Brazilians, and as some have suggested, probably done to sow some seeds of discontent between Brazil and Russia, but that’s a whole separate issue of what was at play there.
So Russia doesn’t have that, really. It has intel partners to some degree, it has its former satellite states who are all very closely monitored by their Russian advisors, if you would. It has China and they of course share counterintelligence information as do the Iranians, particularly that against the United States and Western countries. But the United States has all of NATO, a great number of non-NATO partners who are considered in fact, as a status of significant non-NATO partners, such as the Middle East — that’s Kuwait and Qatar with whom the United States shares intelligence, runs joint operations at times. So I think Russia’s definitely had a disadvantage there in the intel war in terms of being able to project intel power as both in a collection capacity, in a partnership capacity, and in the information war.
And I think we’ve seen an awakening among Western intel services, at least over the last year, certainly magnified by Ukraine, of playing more aggressively in this game. Because the Russians were very good at this hybrid warfare of combining information, economy, military, disinformation, in terms of weakening because the Russians practice more, a strategy of weakening their adversaries to level the playing field, because the Russians can’t stand toe to toe economically with the West nor militarily with the West.
So, thus need to find a way to add by subtracting, trying to subtract the strength of the West. They’ve done themselves no favors in Ukraine where they’ve clearly increased the cooperation, increased the exchange. And if anything, it would appear just from what I see in the press that the United States and its Western partners certainly lowered the threshold to what they’re willing to share with other partners. We saw hundreds, literally hundreds of Russian undercover intelligence operatives, those operating under diplomatic cover, largely, expelled from a number of Western nations and even non-Western nations. That was based on sharing. That was no one country. That is an exchange of intelligence. And we talked earlier about OSINT and stuff like that. It’s getting a lot harder to maintain undercover operatives overseas, where it’s really hard to protect certainly a false background and even a legitimate background where you have true name undercover officers operating in their true name, but as Russian commercial officials or diplomatic officials whose backgrounds don’t fit.
And if not revealed by intelligence sources, by SIGINT or human sources who are able to identify Russian operatives, just simply their social media is exposing them. So I really think that particularly if the West puts its investment there and uses its resources, which it seems they have been increasingly so, it’s going to be a harder day for Russia. I think what they have to hope for is a diversion of resources against China, where we heard recently the head of MI5 and our FBI director, Chris Ray, jointly put out a communique talking about how China is a big threat. China is the big CI threat and among other issues and how we’ve been expanding our resources against them. So no resources are infinite even for the United States and its Western partners. So Russia can only hope that all right, well, the United States also is going to be preoccupied by China.
There’s also Iran and North Korea, but the Senate could be set on the military side for Russia, where it’s clearly preoccupied by Ukraine. And if it was truly threatened by an outside aggressor, if it was truly threatened by NATO or by China, most of its forces and its investments right now are in Ukraine. So I think again, the intel landscape favors the West, as long as it’s done smartly and they don’t overplay their hand and minimize or undermine their credibility.
CR: So you touched a bit upon something I wanted to hit with our last question, which is of course, how this landscape relates to the landscape of great power competition. And as you mentioned, and particularly before this intervention in Ukraine ensued, one of the top foreign policy and security priorities for the United States and something that was absolutely evident in its national security and national defense policy, was of course, how do we compete with China? And how do we prepare for great power competition with China? And there have been of course, some criticisms about, of course, with this intervention in Ukraine, how there’s been a lot of attention and a lot of focus that has been drawn away from how we are preparing for great power competition and how to compete with China. And how do you think we can apply some of these lessons learned into this greater dynamic and really looking ahead to not only how we can deter Russian misinformation attempts and of course, Russian interventionism, but also applying that to how we will interact with the Chinese government and the potential competition with them.
DL: Oh, absolutely. You could imagine the wheels turning among all the experts inside and outside of governments, our Western partners, China, Russia, right now in doing just that. And there’s certainly a great many lessons learned. You have to start, one of the fundamental difference between the China issue if we’re specific to Taiwan is the United States president has specifically said, we will come to Taiwan’s defense. So you start from there. So the Chinese have to think, well, maybe the United States is bluffing. Maybe they’re not. And then from that point on start looking at lessons learned from Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, from the way the West has tried to punish Russia economically. Lots of people in Europe, particularly, thought by drawing Russia into interdependent economic relationships, they were going to minimize the threat from Russia. Certainly that was the mantra of successive number of German chancellors. That all didn’t work, clearly Putin at least was willing to undermine 20 years of economic advances in prosperity based on his concern.
And I think fundamentally, he legitimately believed that the threat from Ukraine was existential to him I believe. I believe having worked in the former Soviet republics, being a Russian-speaking case officer, having run those operations, Putin in his mind believed, I think, that he had a limited window. And if he didn’t do something about Ukraine as it grew to be a more vibrant, democratic, pluralistic society, more integrated into the West, he was going to lose control at home, which is why I think drove him to make those sacrifices economically and make them now. China, it’s harder to say. And again, I’m less the China insider than I am when it comes to Russia, the Middle East and some other issues in Iran. But even my experience running Chinese operations is that they have relied on economy as a way to offset the lack of democratic freedoms.
And they would then have to prioritize the risk of losing that by going to war with the West over Taiwan, or we saw recently the United States reminding China of the international court’s ruling on some of the islands that the Philippines claim control over that they would have a great deal to lose. But let’s say they wouldn’t, then you’re transitioning to the information war, the intel war, the military war. From what at least what is apparent in the public, at least in the media is Taiwan, the United States, and its allies are reshaping how Taiwan would fight a defense against China with or without United States military cooperation as are our other partners. The quad that is Japan and India, United States, and Australia has been strengthening its military cooperation, thereby threatening China with another front to have to deal with.
So as much as China is, I would agree an ascending power, and I think Russia is a declining power in terms of military intelligence and economy, it’s a question of where will it rank its priorities and under Mr. Xi, obviously it’s been very different in the past so I don’t think there’s any guarantees. I would say, oh, Chinese interdependence is going to keep them from all that, I don’t necessarily know that’s the case. So, again, my roundabout way of returning back to your question, there’s a lot of lessons learned going here about how we would fight a fight with the Chinese, be it in Taiwan or elsewhere, be it in the information sphere, the cyber sphere, the counterintelligence sphere, but at a minimum, what we’re seeing is a much more aggressive Western response — Western response in partnership with its allies outside of NATO in the Far East with the quad and such like that. And I think there’s more attention now to training for that war where I would tell you having sometimes in my retirement partnered up with the US military as an intel adviser on their military exercises, I would tell you despite what’s going on in Ukraine, there’s a lot more activity related to China now than I recall in my first experiences.
So all that will come to strengthen whatever the West can do across this broad landscape, which is military and economic. We just talk about DIME, right? Diplomatic Information Military Economic, in terms of tools of power. Now you have to add intelligence as a tool of power in terms of how it’s been weaponized. You have to add technology in terms of what it’s doing offensively and defensively. So it’s a much more complex and complicated landscape. But again, one that I don’t just think my gut tells me favors the West, just in terms of pure resources and capacity and capability favors the West. But you’ve got a lot of Western players in regards to China. You have one China. So it’s easier for them to consolidate control and command over that, which they have than it might be for these various alliances, but the more they train and integrate and cooperate together, the more potent they’re going to be in dealing with that sort of threat in the future.
CR: Absolutely. Well, it definitely appears that the United States intelligence community has its hands full, particularly as they position themselves more towards great power competition, as well as of course, trying to deter Russian advances in Ukraine. And with that, I would just really like to thank you so much, Mr. London, for joining us today to discuss the role of the intelligence community in assessing, shaping, and deterring Russia’s ongoing war, and thank you so much to our listeners for tuning in. For more unique and policy-relevant analyses on the unfolding geopolitical, security,: and humanitarian dimensions of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, please check out www.newlinesinstitute.org. Please also check out Mr. London’s book, The Recruiter: Spying and The Lost Art of American Intelligence. It’s paperback version is out this fall. Check out his latest book and thank you so much for listening in, and I hope all of you have a safe and great rest of your week. All the best.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.