Does the U.S. Really Need Russia This Much?

By Steven L. Hall

Steven L. Hall retired from the Central Intelligence Agency in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing intelligence operations in Eurasia and Latin America.  Mr. Hall served as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, the small cadre of officers who are the senior-most leaders of the CIA's Clandestine Service.  Most of Mr. Hall's career was spent abroad, overseeing intelligence operations in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the former Warsaw Pact.

WEEKEND EXTRA — What did U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo really get out of last week’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Unlike some other Cipher Brief Experts, Steven Hall,  former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service,  makes the case for why the U.S. really doesn’t need Russia all that  much.  

The Cipher Brief:  Did the U.S. gain anything from last week’s meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov?

Hall:  The only reason I can offer any full-throated support to the United States engaging with Russia at senior levels, is in terms of U.S. interests in arms control. The INF Treaty is an important treaty. The Russians were cheating on it.  There are other issues that have been raised with regard to that treaty.  Should other countries besides Russia be included, especially China?

Those are all very valid issues, and I think there are direct negotiations and discussions that should be started as soon as possible with Russia on that. But it doesn’t need to be done by the Secretary of State, or even by the President, which I think is why you heard Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov say that both heads of state had directed their subordinates to meet.  That’s very common Russian/Soviet style language that they use.

It does make sense for American experts, people who know precisely how many warheads there are, people who understand how many nuclear delivery systems there are, and what type the Russians have, to be in conversation with each other, but those are extremely technical conversations. They do need to be held, but that’s really the only thing I can think of where the U.S. really needs to engage the Russians. Surely, the President of the United States – the strongest country in the world, the largest economy in the world – and his administration, ought to be able to figure out a way to deal with issues like North Korea, Iran, or any of the other issues that are out there, without Russia’s help.

The Cipher Brief: Do you read anything into the timing of this most recent meeting, and the new push for increased dialogue with Russia?

Hall:  Russia is a pariah state. It’s behavior in the international theater has been nothing short of horrific. Anything from the now well-understood annexation of Crimea, to assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, its own citizens abroad. It is acting as a pariah state. I think it’s a very valid question to ask why the United States of America, again, the strongest country in the world, would be reaching out to Russia.

I think the answer is because the president of the United States is trying to put the Mueller Report in his rear-view mirror.  He believes he has been fully exonerated, despite the fact that that’s not precisely what the report says, and despite the fact that there are other ongoing investigations, but, I think the president feels like he now can move ahead with his plan to have a great relationship with Russia that he talked about so extensively about in the lead up to the election, when he was still a candidate.

The Cipher Brief: So how do you think a U.S.-Russia engagement in some of these other areas of the world, Venezuela, North Korea, Syria, Iran, might play out?

Hall:  Let’s start with Venezuela. Do we honestly believe that Russia, whose primary geo-political goal is to weaken the United States, and divide western democracies wherever it can, should be a country we should engage with to resolve the Venezuela situation?

Doesn’t it make more sense for the U.S. to reach out to its Latin American partners, and European partners, many of whom share our basic values when it comes to allowing the people of Venezuela to actually be able to choose their own leaders? Why would we want to engage with Russia on that? And even if the U.S. gave it a shot, could they trust them to do something that would benefit the interests of Venezuela, the United States, and the region? No. There’s been no indication that would happen.

Iran is a bit more complicated because the Russians already inserted themselves into a situation where they can now say to the rest of the world, “If you want any progress on this, you had better come to us. Because we can reach out and talk to the Ayatollahs.” But, again, that’s just because Russia’s been very clever about inserting itself in areas where the U.S. shouldn’t have to deal with them.

The Cipher Brief:  Both Pompeo and Lavrov said last week that there was mutual agreement on both sides to rebuild channels of communication.  What do you think that means on a practical level with respect to the U.S. Russia relationship? And from an intelligence perspective, what opportunities would interest you as an intelligence officer, in a scenario like that?

Hall:  From an intelligence perspective, it means very little if anything at all in terms of hoping what we would refer to as a liaison-style relationship. We cooperate with – for the sake of example – the British, or the Germans, by sharing information, sharing intelligence, the sort of thing that benefits both sides.

The problem is, with Russia, there are very few, if any topics where the U.S. can trust the Russians to be helpful to the United States.  You can’t forget the context here.  Russia attacked our democracy in 2016. Russia annexes its neighboring countries. Counter terrorism is almost always the one issue that is offered up where we can cooperate on a limited basis, but even then, the Russians have sometimes chosen to manipulate instead of cooperate.  They have chosen to try to take advantage of any type of intelligence exchange.

Again, the only thing I can think of that makes sense to engage with Russia is on the discussion of nuclear treaties.

The Cipher Brief: What are your thoughts on recent reporting on the new effort to examine the origins of the Russia investigation, and that CIA, FBI, ODNI are cooperating with Attorney General Barr?

Hall:  The first thing I thought of when I first heard about this was that this is almost a textbook example of my experiences after 30 years in the foreign field, of how authoritarian regimes will investigate the investigators.   My experience in the Balkans is probably the best example. You would see a new government elected in a Balkan country and the new president or prime minister would often believe that the intelligence services and the police had been against him or her when they were a candidate. So, the first thing they do when they get into power is to start investigating those people.

There is also a certain revenge issue there that was all very familiar to me. The problem is when you live in a developed democracy with an open society like ours, is that people like CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray are in very difficult positions.  How can you argue against transparency, right? How can you argue against getting to the bottom of things? You can’t deny the political sensitivities. Nobody wants to be the first person to stick up their hand and say, “No, please don’t investigate us“.

The CIA of course would have had nothing to do with anything that happened domestically. That would have been all FBI.

The Cipher Brief:  Where do you think the U.S. will be a month from now or three months from now on the issue of Russia?

Read other Cipher Brief Experts on the U.S. – Russia relationship:

Rob Dannenberg, a 24-year veteran of the CIA and former head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, as well as former director of International Security Affairs for BP, writing in Six Degrees of Russia: 

  • Russia is a bit like six degrees of Kevin Bacon.  There isn’t a geopolitical risk in the world that it would take anything near six steps to get to Russia.  Those who suggest ignoring or isolating Russia without a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Putinism just don’t get it.  We need a 21st Century George Kennan to help develop that strategy.”

Dan Hoffman, former CIA Chief of Station and now FOX National Security Contributor, writing in The U.S. – Russian Venn Diagram:

  • “We’ve got kind of a Venn diagram relationship with Russia where we’ve got some shaded space, things that we actually need to work together on that include arms control and counter-terrorism. There is also some unshaded space that includes their espionage operations and aggressive military activity throughout the world, starting with their own region, Ukraine, Georgia. There is some gray area where we may be able to find some common ground to our advantage, and potentially even to theirs, too.”

And Steven Hall’s Cipher Brief Members Only Webcast on Russia’s Global Ambitions.