Post Iraq, U.S. must rely on covert action
Covert actions are now crucial to U.S. foreign policy. After the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington should rely more on CIA-driven covert operations and less on military force in the world’s hotspots.
Ukraine could be a case in point. For covert action means not just collecting information (espionage), but also political or paramilitary efforts that help support political organizations, local media and on occasion, insurgents. Under the CIA’s charter, the government maintains plausible deniability for all these actions.
I’ve long advocated for greater use of this tool of statecraft — and not only because I ran the CIA’s Afghanistan Task Force during the successful effort to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in 1986-87, along with many other covert operations during my 32 years at the intelligence agency.
The ability to conduct activities below the radar is key. There has been a spike in instability across regions where the United States and its allies have major national security interests. Yet Washington is less able to exert influence through force.
President Barack Obama noted this in his May 28 West Point speech, saying the United States is unlikely to engage in another ground war any time soon. Washington can rely on the CIA (working with Special Operations Forces) to provide clandestine intelligence, training and, where necessary, political funding and paramilitary support for foreign groups aligned to U.S. interests.
A successful covert operation requires certain conditions on the ground: broad-based political support for policy or regime change consistent with U.S. national security interest; excellent local intelligence; forces in-country able to engage the opposition, and substantial financial and political support from Congress and the White House.
With Ukraine and its environs, all these components are in place: the newly elected Kiev government and its pro-NATO orientation has significant popular support, Ukrainians have shown a history of standing up for their country’s independence and freedom, and Obama and Congress strongly support the Kiev government, presumably also intending to supply the necessary funding. To strengthen Kiev’s resistance against Russian interference, Washington should be providing robust financial and training support to the appropriate security, military and political organizations as well as beefing up their intelligence and counterintelligence capabilities.
The West also needs to “contain” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s massive investment in covert action in Ukraine — and not-so-covert pro-Russian engagement. Putin, an experienced ex-KGB operative, has been drawing straight from the covert action playbook in Ukraine. He is inserting Russian Special Forces into the fray, trying to pass them off as Ukrainian pro-Russian activists. Though these efforts at concealment may look laughable, when combined with his carefully crafted propaganda campaign, Putin’s plausible denial pronouncements have successfully muddied the water.
Despite Russian denials, however, the political dissidents in Eastern Ukraine are being funded and supported substantially by Moscow. Rest assured, Putin’s numerous in-place agents are collecting intelligence and pushing every possible lever to build a political force in Eastern Ukraine against the Kiev government. At the same time, he is likely/assuredly inserting/ the plumbing into Western Ukraine in order to develop sources of intelligence and agents of influence.
To deal with this newly aggressive Russia, it may be instructive to study how Washington dealt with an aggressive Soviet Union during the Cold War. For Putin’s heavy-handed behavior is beginning to feel like the Cold War is making a comeback — protestations to the contrary.
For me, this all feels like déjà vu — because I worked as a CIA chief of station in five major Cold War locations, and served as deputy director for worldwide operations during the heyday of the struggle between the Soviet Union and the West.
The similarities are uncanny. The Cold War kicked off with Joseph Stalin’s postwar land grab of Eastern Europe and his aggressive efforts to promote Communism abroad. This round began with Putin’s assaults on Georgia, Armenia, Crimea and now possibly part or all of Ukraine.
In considering how to address this, Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech may still offer the best advice. “The only thing that Russians respect,” Churchill said, “is strength.”
Unfortunately, after Washington’s failure to respond to Syria crossing the red line of using chemical weapons, our adversaries and fair-weather friends are starting to test the limits of where the United States will keep its word.
Drawing red lines is hard – difficult even with a weaker country. So, it may be with Putin. He will likely trim his aggressive sails in Ukraine only when he sees the physical proof of the West’s “serious consequences.”
So Washington and the European Union should impose extremely strong economic sanctions and ramp up the NATO’s military and intelligence support for the Kiev government.
Washington power brokers should also study the “containment” policy that the United States used to counter Soviet aggression throughout the Cold War. George Kennan, a State Department official and Russia expert, laid this out in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs. In his article, which became the basis of the Truman Doctrine, Kennan stated the Soviet Union was inherently expansionist and that its innate sense of insecurity necessitated a hostile world to maintain power at home. Sound familiar?
Kennan also postulated that the West needed to apply vigilant counterforce wherever the Soviets pressed their advantage.
That view certainly has merit today in the wake of Putin’s most recent actions. The recent Ukrainian elections were promising because the new president, Petro Poroshenko, is an experienced official and billionaire businessman with a long record of dealing with Russia. But the fact that very few were able to vote in the east of the country, and that Putin will continue to push to maintain influence, means Poroshenko’s new government will have to stay alert to protect against Russian encroachment.
How does the West ensure the new Kiev government’s survival if we are not going to commit ground troops to counter Russia aggression? Much like the cold warriors of the past, we should return to tightly focused covert action. This means a robust relationship with the Ukraine Security Service and military intelligence, supplemented with direct financial support to political activists and groups.
This must be done with great care and strict compartmentalization because of Russia’s vast network of agents in Ukraine. But this program is necessary to balance the scale against Russia’s massive covert activities there. In the tradition of Kennan, we should be able to “contain” Moscow’s subterfuge and its efforts to maximize influence in Kiev.
PHOTO (TOP): Taliban Islamic student militia ready with their anti-aircraft gun in Maidan Shahr in Afghanistan, September 21. 1995. REUTERS/Archive
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko (R) walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day in Ouistreham, western France, June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Photo/Christophe Ena/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 2): A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army stands guard at a barricade near Donetsk airport May 29, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
PHOTO (INSERT 3): British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at the Berlin Conference, August 1, 1945. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
PHOTO (INSERT 4 ): George Kennan, 1947. WIKIMEDIA/Commons