Don’t be Fooled by New Casks for Putin’s Old Snake Oil

| Mark Kelton
Mark Kelton
Former Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, CIA National Clandestine Service

In the version of Aesop’s fable, “The Farmer and the Viper,” as recounted by Roman fabulist Gaius Julius Phaedrus, a farmer finds a viper freezing in the snow. Taking pity, he picks up the snake and puts it inside his coat to warm it up. True to its nature, the reptile revives and bites its savior, killing him. The snake, Phaedrus tells us, bit its benefactor “to teach the lesson not to expect a reward from the wicked.”  I am reminded of that warning when I think of President Donald Trump’s oft-reported desire to forge a new relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Capitalizing on any opportunity to improve relations with the country most immediately capable of destroying the U.S. is a policy imperative. On the face of it, there are areas in which the U.S. and Russia should be able to find some harmony of purpose. They include making common cause against the threats of terrorism and proliferation (particularly that posed by North Korea), as well as working to stabilize the situation in Syria and Iraq in the wake of the U.S.-led defeat of the murderous Islamic State.

However, as my former colleague Dan Hoffman persuasively argued in a recent Cipher Brief article, divergent strategic goals and differing national security interests regarding even issues of seemingly mutual concern almost surely dictate that any cooperation between Washington and Moscow will remain tactical and episodic.

Trump’s wish to build better relations with Moscow is not peculiar to his presidency. His three immediate predecessors sought improved ties with Russia. And all tried to develop productive personal relationships with the former KGB officer following his 1999 ascent to power.

Failed Resets

In June 2000, President Bill Clinton cited world demands that the U.S. and Russia “take every opportunity [they] can to find common ground,” in reaching out to the new Russian leader.  A year later, President George W. Bush spoke of “great opportunities [for the U.S. and Russia] to cooperate on economic, commercial, regional and security” matters, as he announced an agreement with Putin “to launch an extensive dialogue about a wide range of issues.” In Spring 2009, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama highlighted America’s commitments to its allies while stating a “need to reset or reboot the relationship” with Russia…[because] “we have areas of common concern.”

Each of those attempts to improve ties with Moscow came to naught in the face of widely divergent U.S. and Russian worldviews and a counterpart in Moscow who, in keeping with his background, has adeptly used deception to mask his true intent and advance his actual aims.

Lessons to be drawn from his forerunners’ experiences notwithstanding, geopolitical realities dictate that this U.S. president will, like them, seek to engage Moscow. The man who wrote The Art of the Deal probably believes he can build a productive relationship with the snake-oil salesman in the Kremlin.

There are, however, several factors peculiar to the time in which we find ourselves that the U.S. president and his team will surely keep in mind, if that engagement is to be successful.

By this point, Trump is all too aware of the political “Sturm und Drang” and the leaks that accompany any mention of his name and Russia in the same sentence.  “A government,” New York Times journalist James Reston once said, “is the only vessel that leaks from the top.”  While that may have been true in Reston’s day, the government now appears to leak from the sides and bottom as well.

`Criminal’ Leaks

The seepage we have seen since Trump took office, leaks that have enhanced the effectiveness of Russia’s attack on our democratic process, shows no signs of ending. Many of those exposures are attributable to persons with current or former access to classified information who have disgracefully foresworn their oaths and duty to our country in the service of partisan politics. Some, such as that which resulted in the citing of purported CIA reporting in a recent Washington Post article, are treasonous in the moral, if not the legal, sense.  All of those leaks are criminal acts that have served to undermine the relationship between the president and the intelligence community.

In such a circumstance, the president must assume details of even the most routine contacts he has with Russia will be leaked to the press and then portrayed in the worst possible light by those on the other side of the deep partisan divide that grips Washington.

Further, the Russian government’s divulging that the U.S. passed along CIA intelligence on a terrorist threat to St. Petersburg underscores the fact that the “active measures” operation initiated by Moscow during the 2016 presidential election campaign has yet to run its course. Putin is alert to the fact he can use the exposure of even such otherwise normal interaction with Washington to feed the ongoing political firestorm over purported Russian collusion during the 2016 elections that he and his intelligence services did so much to ignite.

The Russian leader almost certainly did not foresee the success the operation has enjoyed to date. But, like a good intelligence officer, he has adapted to changing circumstances, fueling political chaos in the adversary’s camp as opportunities present themselves. Putin’s aim now is to politically weaken and isolate the president, putting him under increased pressure to secure concessions from him that advance Russian goals.

Putin’s Definition of Respect

Just what those goals are, as well as the mild and imprecise language Moscow uses to obfuscate its true intent, must also be borne in mind by Trump and his team. If one asked Putin what he wants from the U.S., he likely would, like Aretha Franklin, demand “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”  While Aretha’s meaning is quite clearly articulated, Putin, by design, leaves his real purposes a good deal murkier.

Central to what Putin surely means by “respect” is that the U.S. treat Russia as an equal on the world stage in a manner akin to the deference and “respect” shown the Soviet superpower in which he came of age.  A Russian definition of “respect” in this context would, among other things, include acknowledgement by Washington of Moscow’s revitalized role as a key player on the world stage, particularly in the Middle East; recognition that Russia has legitimate policy and security interests in former Soviet territories, the so-called “near abroad,” to include Ukraine and the NATO-member Baltic states; an end to sanctions imposed on Moscow as a result of its carving off a part of Georgia, seizing the Crimea and fomenting war in eastern Ukraine; and an end to further NATO expansion to the East.

All these goals reflect longstanding Russian grievances and indicate both the authoritarian mindset and the post-Soviet “revisionist” historiography predominant in the minds of Putin and those around him.  All are anathema to U.S. interests.

In his initial interactions with a U.S. president, the Russian leader will give a pretense of reasonableness, offering cooperation on — and exaggerating the significance of — issues of lesser import to him, as a means of advancing his main goals. Central to that gambit, as indicated by the Russian leader’s positive and sympathetic comments about Trump in response to the CIA warning of the terrorist threat, will be appeals meant to play on what former intelligence officer Putin apparently assesses as Trump’s greatest vulnerability: his ego. I trust the president and his team are wary of such an obvious operational ploy and will factor that knowledge into their responses to Putin’s statements and actions.

At some point, either out of frustration at an inability to leverage concessions from the U.S. president that advance his goals, or because he perceives an opportunity to do so and overreaches, Putin will revert to form. Thereafter, the Russian leader will more forcefully test the president’s judgement, character and resolve by fomenting or exploiting crises, likely in the Baltic states or Ukraine. He will more aggressively exploit the active-measures operation that has shown such success to date, by playing on existing themes and developing new ones through adept leaking of tailored threads of real, exaggerated and fabricated information.

As has been the case, the target will be Trump, but the target audience will be those most receptive to the message. That has been the case with all such Soviet and Russian intelligence operations dating back to the TRUST, a counterintelligence operation by the Soviet Union between 1921 and 1926 that involved setting up a fake anti-Bolshevik resistance organization, the Monarchist Union of Central Russia. The aim was to identify real monarchists and anti-Bolsheviks as well as to lure anti-Bolsheviks such as British Intelligence Officer Sidney Reilly back to Russia for arrest and execution.

The `Trump Dossier’ an FSB Work Product?

Today, the so-called “Trump Dossier,” much of which reads like Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) work product, is a case in point. It contains just enough verifiable fact drawn from press reporting and other (some presumably official Russian) sources to make the whole seem plausible to those inclined to believe it, but not enough to make it reliable. Further, assertions that the information reached the author through intermediaries, if true, raise the possibility the “operation” was under hostile control all along. Finally, the sourcing for the information contained therein is sufficiently vague and unlikely to evoke concerns – a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry official,” for example, and a “former top-level intelligence officer.” (As a retired KGB officer once told me, there is no such thing as a “former” intelligence officer in Russia.)

We have, to my knowledge, seen no evidence of an aggressive Russian mole hunt to identify and arrest those who purportedly committed treason by sharing state secrets with a former British intelligence officer. The FSB is not forgiving in that way, so one must logically conclude the exposure of the information in the dossier, if any of it was truly secret, came about with the Kremlin’s blessing.

Trump’s newly announced National Security Strategy is a good starting point for blunting the active-measures weapon Putin now wields.  It rightly identifies Russia, together with China, as trying to reshape a world “antithetical” to U.S. interests and values, through the use of “technology, propaganda and coercion.”

Highlighting the threat posed by Moscow’s interference in “domestic political affairs of countries around the world” is a necessary first step in confronting that challenge. Another prerequisite to prevent it from happening again is that Trump acknowledges Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. democratic process without giving credence to that which he says he knows is untrue — claims of his campaign’s “collusion” with Moscow.

But articulating a strategy will not suffice to stop Putin from continuing to resort to his proven active-measures capability. That will not happen until he pays a price for what he has done.

Taking Lessons from Reagan

If Trump wants a productive relationship with Putin’s Russia, he needs to take a lesson from another of his predecessors: Ronald Reagan. Like Cold War-era presidents before him, and particularly after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told him Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom the West could do business, Reagan sought to establish a personal relationship with his Soviet counterpart. But he also understood it would take more than strength of personality to alter Soviet conduct, much less bring an end to the Cold War.

Reagan’s bold articulation of the nature and benefits of freedom, coupled with a massive U.S. defense build-up, served to expose the vacuity of Soviet communist ideology and the hollowness of Soviet power. That demonstration of U.S. might allowed Reagan and his successor, President George H.W. Bush, to work from a position of strength during their meetings with Gorbachev.

A similar show of strength and resolve by the U.S. under Trump is essential if he is to deal productively with a now much-emboldened Putin. Trump’s actions to date, such as the closure of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco and sending lethal arms to Ukraine will certainly have served to temper Moscow’s expectations about what it might expect from the president.

It is, however, unlikely those measures have caused Putin to reconsider his own course of action. To do so, the U.S. will have to turn the tables on Moscow by taking advantage of what is, at once, its own greatest strength and the greatest threat to Putin’s authoritarian rule: the idea of democracy.

A recent Russian proposal underscores that vulnerability. The Russians suggested that Moscow and Washington agree to mutually abstain from interference in one another’s internal affairs and elections, an offer the U.S. wisely turned down. In making that proposition, Putin cynically tried to draw a direct correlation between the actions of Russian intelligence in working secretly to undermine American democracy and Moscow’s oft-repeated claims that opposition parties, humanitarian organizations and what remains of the free press in Moscow are working at the behest of Western intelligence.

U.S. Support for Democracy in Russia

U.S. government backing for the idea of democracy and for those espousing it within Russia would send the clearest signal to Putin that his actions will no longer be tolerated. There are risks in taking such a course, not the least of them that Putin will use any U.S. support for democratic forces in Russia to justify further repression of them. Still, any such crack down would differ only in degree from what they are experiencing today.

Furthermore, allowing Putin to continue his depredations against American democracy is intolerable.  As President Reagan said: “Evil is powerless if the good are unafraid.”

In another version of Aesop’s fable, the farmer asks the snake why it bit him after promising it would not. “So I did,” said the snake. “But you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”

If Trump is to have the insights he needs as to who Putin really is and what he intends, he is going to need very good intelligence on Russia and its leader. Some of that intelligence, often the best of it, will be information that a president does not want to hear. But if he is to deal effectively with Putin, he will have to be open to listening.

He will also need to accept that the unprecedentedly partisan nature of some public criticism levied at him by a few former intelligence officers is not reflective of the outlooks of those currently serving in the intelligence community. The men and women I served with are apolitical and deeply committed to giving any president the best intelligence support they possibly can.

Collecting good reporting on Russia is not easy. Russia’s services remain the most professionally capable intelligence adversaries the U.S. confronts. The American professionals working against that difficult target need to know that their president understands the challenges they face and has confidence in the dearly won intelligence they produce. For their part, those officers will deliver secret victories that will ensure that Trump knows who Putin really is and what he intends, irrespective of the guise in which he presents himself.

A snake can shed its skin. But it is, after all, still a snake.

The Author is Mark Kelton

Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations.  He completed his career in 2015 after serving as Deputy Director of the National Clandestine Service for Counterintelligence.  Mr. Kelton's distinguished career includes sixteen years of overseas service, to include four assignments in key CIA field leadership positions. Mr. Kelton is Director of MEK & Associates, LLC.

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2 Replies to “Don’t be Fooled by New Casks for Putin’s Old Snake Oil”
  1. Regarding the Trump dossier, Mr. Kelton does not need to highlight the possibility it may be a Russian plant especially after portions of it has been vindicated. By doing so, Mr. Kelton risks leading himself and others into the morass which debilitated the effectiveness of the James Angleton epoch. Take what is of use and dispose of the rest and move on.

  2. This article shows once again why Europe needs to find its own way. There is a need for a european version of the Monroe doctrin which keeps the US from meddling in european affairs.