The People in the Best Position to Stop Putin are His Own

By Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman is a former senior officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, where he served as a three-time station chief and a senior executive Clandestine Services officer. Hoffman also led large-scale HUMINT (human intelligence gathering) and technical programs and his assignments included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union, Europe, and war zones in the Middle East and South Asia. Hoffman also served as director of the CIA Middle East and North Africa Division. He is currently a national security analyst with Fox News.

The Cipher Brief:  Understanding that there is no clear view into what Russian President Vladimir Putin is really thinking – what do you think Ukraine and the West should be prepared for – based on his actions and behaviors to date?

Hoffman:  I think he’s gone all in. In the past, I might have said that he escalates and then de-escalates. He escalated by deploying almost 200,000 troops to the border. At the time, I thought he was going to charge a hefty price for sending those troops home. But since then, he invaded Ukraine and has been launching indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians.

He’s gone all in like he did with Grozny and Aleppo. It’s scorched earth. His plan was to subdue the Ukrainian population, decapitate the government by trying to find, fix and kill President Volodomyr Zelensky. I’m not that sanguine that there’s an off-ramp for him. He’s going to have his guys keep up the fight until there’s no more fight left in Ukrainians. And because Ukrainians are committed to fighting, and because President Zelensky has mobilized support from the international community and is inspiring his civilians and military alike to keep up the fight, I just don’t see an end to this without a lot of bloodshed.

The Cipher Brief:  Would a Russian victory in Ukraine bolster Putin? Would he be even more dangerous post-Ukraine?

Hoffman:  His economy is cratered right now. He’s lost the psychological and moral advantage because of the way his military has conducted their brutal and barbaric offensive. All the things that he said about bringing stability to Russia after the shaky years during the Yeltsin era, has all gone by the wayside and there is a sizable portion of the Russian population who are not going to be very happy with this.

Even more importantly to Putin in the near term, is his inner circle.  They’re going to see that he went to brinkmanship and then he went overboard and risked everything. He went from playing chess to poker with a pair of twos. He had a lot of hubris to think he could pull this off.

He doesn’t have the troops to subdue Ukraine. If they do win the war, they’re not going to win the insurgency, the guerilla war that we all expect will follow, whenever the kinetic part of this war might be over. Ukrainians are going to keep fighting this epic battle. I’ve been saying for a while, that Taiwan and Ukraine are on the fault lines of the geopolitical struggle of this century between democracy and authoritarianism. That’s what we’re seeing play out.

Cipher Brief Subscriber+Members can access Cipher Brief Expert and former CIA Chief of the Central Eurasia Division, Rob Dannenberg’s assessment, With his only option being escalation, this is how Putin’s War Must End

The Cipher Brief:  Let’s talk about Putin’s inner circle.  They’ve been difficult to penetrate. How likely is it that the West might be able to convince someone in his inner circle to have a change of heart?

Hoffman:  Eventually, the Russian military has got to look at this and say, okay, we just can’t take orders from the KGB guy in the Kremlin anymore because he’s asking us to kill innocent civilians. We’re supposed to be one people. We’re killing innocent men, women and children who have nothing to do with the fight. It’s just unprovoked aggression. I don’t believe the stories about neo-Nazis and drug dealers that Putin has thrown out there.

So, when does the military just stop and say we’re not going to do this anymore? That can happen. Ukrainians have the power of a righteous fight and that is powerful. When it comes to Putin’s inner circle, there are three guys who matter; Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. Director of the FSB Alexander Bortnikov, and National Security Advisor Nikolai Patrushev, who used to be the FSB Director. Those are three guys who matter and they have their own constituencies.

They all rip off the Russian the economy by selling hydrocarbons to build palatial estates for themselves. They’re going to think that Putin has driven us back to something worse than we had during the 1998 financial crisis. They’re very intertwined with the Western economy. That $630 billion rainy day fund is frozen right now.  Putin could have subdued enough of Ukraine to achieve his aims without firing a shot. But he didn’t do it.

Register for your own Expert-Level Briefing on Ukraine and How Private Sector Intelligence is Defining a New World with Mandiant CEO Kevin Mandia

Wednesday, March 23 from 1:30p – 2:30p ET

The Cipher Brief:  Why is it so hard to get intelligence? Why is Putin such a hard intelligence target?

Hoffman:  He’s a hard target and his inner circle are hard targets because they know that they are extremely vulnerable, and their people are vulnerable. The Russian government has a massive counterintelligence apparatus that is designed to keep out the prying eyes of their adversaries. They know that lots of their own people would be happy to talk to the Americans. Not just intelligence people, but regular people.  Vladimir Putin used Novichok to try to kill Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny when he could have hit them both over the head with a hammer and ended it right there. But he wanted everyone to know, ‘if you betray me, I will kill you’.

He did the same thing to Alexander Litvinenko by poisoning him with Polonium-210. Again, he could have killed him quickly, but he wanted to leave breadcrumbs back to the Kremlin so that the guys who are currently working in the FSB, where Litvinenko worked, would think twice about betraying their country. As, Stalin said, ‘Who owns the other person’?

What has to be humiliating for Vladimir Putin right now is that the Jewish former comedian turned President with zero experience in affairs of state, is not only turning the tables on Putin’s nonsensical allegations of fighting ‘neo-Nazis’. He is also kicking the Russian President’s ass right now as a communicator and as a leader. He is owning social media and is mobilizing the international community to act.

Read more expert-driven national security insights, perspective and analysis in The Cipher Brief