Editor’s Note: Douglas London is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. London served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years, mostly in the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa, including three assignments as a chief of station. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is among those warning of a “new phase” in the Ukraine war that will likely include heavier fighting. This messaging foreshadows the need to increase the quantity and quality of war supplies to Ukraine.
More telling, Western leaders are preparing for a protracted conflict, given the slim chance Russian President Vladimir Putin will rush for an exit regardless of his losses on the battlefield and mounting challenges at home.
That Putin will double down in the near-term with a scorched-earth strategy that targets civilians does not mean he can endure rising costs over the long term. The West must recognize Putin is not one for maintaining the status quo or playing by others’ rules. But he’s not the suicidal type either if escalating pressure is brought to bear.
The future hinges on accurately gauging Putin’s intentions through his mindset and worldview, not ours, a capacity for which the West – particularly the United States – has been historically lacking.
Putin is a former KGB officer who came of age during the Cold War. Intelligence officers, particularly those running operations in the foreign field, are risk-takers but not gamblers. Rarely is there a Hail Mary pass in espionage.
Seeking to make this conflict an existential clash of civilizations was neither emotional nor hardly out of character for Putin, given his background, one that includes a predisposition to employ terrorism as a tool.
Catherine Belton, author of “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West,” wrote that during his KGB assignment in Dresden – then East Germany – Putin worked in support of members of the Red Army Faction, the far-left terrorist group responsible for bombings, kidnappings and assassinations across West Germany in the ’70s and ‘80s.
Putin is hardly restrained by the post-World War II order or the Marquess of Queensberry rules for sportsmanship. He believes the US and its allies established such rules to promote their own values and interests at Russia’s expense. That experience was brought home to him as he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and, with it, the bipolar world order he had known.
Putin’s subsequent course should therefore come as little surprise looking back over the past 20 years so long as we don’t try to understand him from anything but his own perspective.
It’s important that we demystify his decisions by understanding his mindset is the product of a racist, elitist and xenophobic Cold War-era KGB experience in which might made right.
I spent a lifetime in espionage’s trenches running intelligence operations against the likes of Putin and his KGB, FSB and SVR brethren. My encounters offered different glimpses owing to their varied circumstances.
Some were well-scripted bilateral exchanges that resembled a cross between a Seinfeldian airing of grievances and evangelist proselytizing.
As a CIA chief of station, I occasionally had to confront aggressive Russian intelligence officers who had set their sights on a member of the US community. But most rewarding were the revealing vignettes I gained beyond public view and from undercover.
In one of my earlier experiences, I got a lift from a Russian intelligence officer I had been cultivating. He would have been a contemporary of Putin’s, older and more senior than me at the time. He was highly educated, personable and adept at adjusting his comportment to fit the room – like I said, a spy. The KGB officer came across in public as polished, erudite and diplomatic.
Relaxed while alone with me in his car, he was also somewhat worse for wear after an evening of drinking. Perhaps owing to that state, I was treated to a lengthy discourse outlining centuries of rightful Russian privilege and Western-imposed humiliations.
The exasperated KGB officer argued that the White races of Russia and the US should live and let live politically and focus instead on “the fifth column threats we shared from mongrels,” and the north-south challenges from “the less civilized who had to be brought to heel.”
His narrative addressed “the historic ravages of marauding Mongolian hordes,” code for China, to “the Turkish barbarians across the ‘stans of Central Asia.” Entirely lucid, albeit certainly intoxicated, he laced his observations with misogyny, ethnic slurs and comments regarding American decadence, ranging from gays to fast food and, ironically, substance abuse.
In the end, transitioning to almost professorial comportment as he perhaps began to sober up, the KGB officer delivered a scholarly defense of his country’s system. Moscow’s authoritarian model, he explained, rewarded conformity and fealty and benefited the elite. The proletariat profited simply in exchange for unquestioning, loyal service.
The veteran spy depicted a structure that was curiously outlined along the lines of a trickle-down system of social and economic distribution. His system, he argued, was more efficient and just than that of the corrupt and chaotic West.
Putin is the embodiment of a lifetime of such conditioning whose actions illustrate a firm belief in the more grotesque and literal sayings from Sun Tzu and Machiavelli that the ends justify the means. Ukraine, he believes, like other former Soviet states, are historically conquered parts of Russia because that is what he was conditioned to believe.
These territories’ population, while in his eyes ethnically and socially inferior to Russians of his own high-bound caste, are rightfully its citizens and serfs. Dehumanizing them as well as claiming threats from within enable the use of purges, starvation and concentration camps like those Josef Stalin used without hesitation. And it likewise accounts for the outlook behind Putin’s comments on a “self-purification of society,” and his brutal strategy in Ukraine.
Frighteningly, Putin’s ability to dehumanize people as traitorous “gnats” who must adapt, be reeducated or forcefully removed is not madness or unique to him. We regard such behavior as aberrations, the fog of war or an undisciplined army at our peril. We should recognize his attitude as the reflection of a mentality rooted in the historical wrongs to which he and those of his generation believe Russia has been subjected. Knowing this, the West should be determined not to allow the Ukraine conflict to go on indefinitely with Putin digging in for a war of attrition.
While not consciously reckless, Putin suffers from the hubris of the powerful. If he’s like the other Russian intelligence officers I’ve known, Putin is likely to be naturally defensive when challenged, believing his conclusions are the product of intensive study, expertise and his own exhaustive testing.
Alternative viewpoints are disrespectful slights. He will have to come to the realization of needing to cut his losses on his own, but Putin will have realized by now that the intelligence, estimates and ground truth on which he made his calculus and plans to invade were flawed.
Constraining Putin requires vigilance and calculated risks to keep adding to pressure intended to force his hand. The more he threatens, the weaker that hand will be. When Putin is in a position of strength, he need not bluff; rather, he simply acts to leverage his advantage. If negotiations offer the possibility of an agreement, it will only be as binding as the prevailing circumstances, requiring a long-term campaign to maintain the appropriate amount of pressure to constrain him.
The cyclical danger, however, will come from public exhaustion and political complacency that might occur when Ukraine recedes from the headlines. To keep Putin in check is to remember the past as prologue.
Peace will require vigilance and consistency in leveraging the tangible consequences of aggression. Putin will escalate if he can, test our boundaries, dig in if allowed, but compromise from necessity if he can’t. What Putin won’t do is reform or abandon his vision, so it’s imperative we understand that view through his eyes.