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President Trump addressed our NATO allies in Brussels today, giving a speech that perfectly well could have been written by Vladimir Putin. Why Putin? Because it was brazenly inappropriate for the NATO venue and almost certainly was badly received by those allies and their constituents.Forget his boorish, egocentric behavior in abruptly and rudely shoving a fellow NATO member out of the way so he could move to the front of the assembling pack of dignitaries. Focus instead on what he actually said and did not say during his speech and on the likely effect that those words, or lack of words, would have on his fellow NATO presidents and their people.

The president hit hard on his view of the need for NATO members to tighten their immigration procedures. That is one of his ongoing complaints and one on which most Europeans disagree with him. It is an issue on which he has minor support around the world or even at home. It was hardly appropriate for that particular meeting of NATO heads of state.

In addition, he used the occasion to complain bitterly about the ongoing disinclination of many NATO member countries to pay their way, thus saddling the American taxpayer with expenses that should have been borne elsewhere. All of that is true and it is a theme that has been addressed by every American president since Harry Truman. This was a message well known to NATO and one which, under two of Trump’s predecessors, was beginning to have a positive impact resulting in rising contributions. His harping is not likely to help his cause.

In short, it was very much along the lines of ongoing Russian policy on Europe, NATO and the West.

What would have been appropriate for Trump to cover was a reiteration of America’s support to its fellow NATO members to accept and support the provisions of Article 5. That NATO provision commits every member to support any and all attacks against any of its fellow members. It was Article 5 that prompted the entire NATO membership to sign on with America after 9/11.

We are now at a moment in time when Russia is behaving very aggressively with most of the Western world, most emphatically including NATO’s European members. We have seen it in Ukraine and in Crimea. Additionally, the Russians have clearly been meddling in European elections. Here at home we have seen it in their covert meddling in our primary election process.

Under present circumstances, what our fellow NATO members wanted from the United States president was a clear, unequivocal statement that we still support NATO and adhere to the provisions of Article 5. They got neither.

What they got was a speech that never seemed to contradict Trump’ previous negative statements on NATO or the European Community. It never stated this new American administration’s commitment to NATO and the provisions of Article 5.

In short, it was very much along the lines of ongoing Russian policy on Europe, NATO and the West. It was almost entirely negative and non-supportive on those issues on which the NATO members wanted, needed and expected to hear — a strong reiteration of America’s past supportive policy.

America will find diminishing support for its leading role in NATO and the world, including in the counterterrorism arena, one of great importance and one of Trump’s favorites.

Just what Putin would have wanted if he had written the speech himself.

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During the Cold War, the United States Intelligence Community was plagued with conspiracy theories covering just about any event that was deemed to be important to our national interest. Some of those theories were so wild that they were unprovable one way or the other. Others were clearly the product of some individual’s paranoia. Many of them were the product of a general unease within the Intelligence Community over the aggressive activities of the Soviet Union and her allies.At the end of the Cold War, those paranoid concerns began to drop by the wayside. They were not revived until the planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field on 9/11. That raised a wholly new paranoid concern – that the 9/11 events had somehow been engineered by unidentified powers within the United States government. The Bush administration, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Intelligence Community were all labeled at one time or another as the evil powers behind that horrendous event.

In retrospect, what finally put most of those old conspiracy theories to rest were two realities. First, there was never any hard intelligence provided to prove the theories. Second and more important was the realization that any theory that relied on the participation of vast numbers of American citizens would be doomed to failure simply because, at the very least, one of them would have blown the whistle on the plot. The best example of that was the realization that American government involvement in 9/11 would have required far too many participants to have kept it secret. And such a conspiracy was never proven or revealed by hard intelligence or human penetrations.

Was that the end of the age of conspiracies? No way! The 17 member organizations of the U.S. Intelligence Community have said unequivocally that Putin’s Russia was involved in a conspiracy to effect the U.S. elections of 2016. Although few “facts” have been made public, there is a solid consensus that it really happened and that the Russians were actively involved in the operation.

However, unlike past presidents, he somehow feels compelled to publicly express his admiration for a group of foreign leaders whose activities are so questionable that they would never have been praised by any of his predecessors.

One thing that makes today’s new conspiracy theorists so intensely focused on this Russian involvement is the clear picture that our president has given about his likes and dislikes, most emphatically including his views about the world leaders with whom the United States must deal. What he has told us is that, first and foremost, he admires strongmen who seize power and exercise it in whatever way is necessary to maintain it. However, unlike past presidents, he somehow feels compelled to publicly express his admiration for a group of foreign leaders whose activities are so questionable that they would never have been praised by any of his predecessors. What sort of intellectual, moral and ethical environments do these attitudes set for members of this administration?

The list is endless and includes primarily those who, at best, have terrible human rights records and employ what in this country would be seen as extra-judicial methods in order to maintain their power. His favorites begin with Vladimir Putin of Russia and continue with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdelfattah Said Al Sissi of Egypt, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In addition, he has spoken admiringly of Syria’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moamar Khaddafi, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, China’s Xi Jinping, Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Why would any president of the USA openly deal with or speak positively of such a group? When thinking about that, one has to consider that that may be precisely what our president would like to be, a powerful autocrat. If that is the case, and particularly given Russia’s involvement in our 2016 elections and his recent praise for Putin, it becomes less problematical to speculate about Russia’s further involvement in U.S. politics.

Today’s Russia, particularly under the leadership of former KGB Col. Vladimir Putin and his former KGB colleagues, and specifically in the fields of intelligence collection and intelligence manipulation, is simply a continuation of Soviet Russia. The KGB’s successor organization, the SNB, is simply a continuation of the old days with new people.

The questions that any conspiracy theorist has to ask are pretty simple. What was the nature of Russian intervention in the 2016 election? What if any assistance did the Russians get from people in the Trump campaign? If they exist, who were they? Most important, if such relationships existed, as broadly alleged, have they been maintained by the Russians into the president’s first term?

That is the crux of the matter and that last question is essentially rhetorical. Soviet and Russian modus operandi dictates that they would maintain such relationships, particularly given the overriding importance of America to them as an intelligence target. Given the acknowledged meddling of Russian intelligence in our election, it would be foolhardy to assume, at least until proven otherwise, that the Russians have not recruited and are not running any penetrations of the current American administration.

In the end, conspiracy theories will persist. Some of them are accurate, particularly when they appear to be supported by existing facts.

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Originally published in Vermont Digger

Thanks to the infighting between the Trump administration and the congressional Democrats, it is now patently clear to anyone who cares to know that the U.S. government has phone taps on the Russian Embassy in Washington. That was probably an unnecessary revelation, but it will have few negative ramifications for the United States.

Equally, there will be few consequences for the Russians in their embassy. They all know from their own experiences and their own identical operations against other countries that such taps must exist and that they must conduct their business accordingly. The only consequences for them will be that people who might want to contact them anonymously may now have a second thought about doing so, fearing their identification through those taps.

The issue that remains in this bizarre situation is, what was in those phone calls? Does anyone in his or her right mind believe that there are no transcripts of those calls? There simply are no phone taps that do not produce transcripts.

It must be obvious that Russia is hostile to the United States. To think otherwise is dangerously naïve.

 Having acknowledged the existence of the phone taps, we have already done as much damage to our own counterintelligence efforts as we could have – and that was not too much. Having done that, why don’t we release the contents of those calls between members of the Trump primary campaign and the Russians?

The Trump primary workers and the current Trump administration have indicated that those employees have committed no crimes or indiscretions and that there have been no contacts with members of the Russian Embassy staff. They have only acknowledged those made by Gen. Michael Flynn on the issue of sanctions. That being the case, they should be happy to see the contents of the transcripts revealed, since, according to them, they will be vindicated.

This is not an issue that should be brushed aside. It must be obvious that Russia is hostile to the United States. To think otherwise is dangerously naïve. Their national goals and ours are totally different and increasingly in conflict.

It seems obvious that the Russian government has made a number of covert attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. It really doesn’t matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, that is internationally unacceptable behavior. It would seem that this Russian government has every intention of continuing this kind of covert action operation and since it strikes at the most basic elements of our democratic form of government — free elections — we cannot afford to let it slide by unchallenged.

Given what we have been told by the congressional Democrats and the Trump administration and assuming that everyone involved is telling the truth, there would seem to be no American losers, only Russian, in an examination of the transcripts of those phone calls.

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Originally published in THE RUTLAND HERALD                      

 

Vladimir Putin is a Russian who understands Russian history. He is swayed only by his pragmatism and has a very precise picture of what he wants for Russia in the world today.

President Donald Trump has a sparse record on the policy level and can only be measured by his statements since the beginning of the primary campaign.

Keep in mind that Russia is still very much our enemy. The fascinating thing is that Putin’s stated goals seem to be almost completely in harmony with those of Trump. Precisely what are those goals?

NATO

If Putin could write his own ticket today he would want to see the end of NATO, which has been a thorn in the side of Russia since its inception in 1949.

Trump has called NATO “obsolete.” There is concern here and in Europe that Trump’s comments will not only undermine the European Union, but benefit Russia, which would prefer a weakened NATO and a strained Europe-U.S. alliance.

Trump, in his distaste for NATO, has made it abundantly clear that he opposes the membership of any of the former Soviet satellite countries in that organization. What this has done is strengthen right-wing political movements in those countries, movements that oppose the E.U. and NATO and their countries’ involvement with them.

EUROPEAN UNION

Putin will revel in Britain’s exit from the E.U. and in the chaos it causes. The political swing to the right resulting from the xenophobic European reaction to the refugee flow and the concomitant move away from European political cooperation is clearly approved by Putin. Such is the case in countries like Austria, Italy, Sweden, France, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Trump shows little love for the E.U., saying recently that he had a “very bad experience” in which “getting the approvals from Europe was very, very tough.” Trump seemed to be referring to an E.U. ruling against a wall he wanted to build at an Irish golf course he owns because it would endanger protected snails.

Trump has negatively dismissed the 28-member E.U. as a “vehicle for Germany.” European officials and analysts say the Trump administration seems to be trying to rewrite the terms of the U.S.-E.U. alliance in ways that are potentially destabilizing for Europe.

SYRIA

The flow of refugees from Syria, the rest of the Middle East and Africa to Europe does not bother Putin because that flow also further weakens the E.U. and, through that, NATO. That partly explains the continuing heavy involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict.

Trump’s Syria strategy, as seen by Foreign Policy, would be a “disaster.” The president-elect wants to fight the Islamic State and to cease support to those fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The main effect of those policies, however, would be to eliminate the moderate opposition to the Assad regime, empower extremism and create chaos across the Middle East.

EAST EUROPE

The historical Russian preoccupation with border states like Estonia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, all of which are showing indications of dissatisfaction with E.U. involvement, is of critical interest to Russia today. One of the causes of that discontent, migration from the Middle East and Africa, is something the Russians would clearly like to foster.

US DOMESTIC

Putin would do everything possible to weaken the United States. He would love to see ethnic and religious divisions in the United States grow. He clearly revels in the dissent that now exists in our political system between Republicans and Democrats.

Given the first few days of his administration, it is clear that Trump wishes to continue the ideological and political divide that has plagued this country for far too long. His recent edicts on Muslims in the U.S. have provoked widespread, divisive demonstrations around the country. His moves in foreign policy have exacerbated the same national divisions.

US INTERNATIONAL

Putin would want to see America to withdraw from the world, particularly from areas like the Middle East where Russia has had unmet goals for centuries. He would do everything possible to see us lose our ability to affect events abroad.

“America First” — we all know that to be a cornerstone of Trump’s overall policy. What it means in terms of our foreign policy is that we will withdraw from the world. No longer will America be a dominant force, politically economically or militarily, in the international arena.

If you agree with Russian policies as reflected here, then there is no problem. If you do not, this administration’s policies are a real cause for worry.

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Originally published in the Valley News

Ukraine is in ferment. Roughly one-half of the population (largely the half that populates western Ukraine) is in favor of joining up with Western Europe and most of the rest of the world both politically and economically.

 

The other half, which populates the eastern side of Ukraine and contains most of Ukraine’s nearly 8 million ethnic Russians, favors joining Russia. Western Ukraine is largely Roman Catholic, where the east is Russian Orthodox.

 

Does that sound vaguely familiar? Well, it should, because it is really nothing much more than a replay of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin, the old KGB colonel, has never given up on the Soviet theme of hegemony in their “near abroad” — those countries that abut their borders.

 

With a population of almost 50 million, Ukraine is high on the list of countries he would like to see return to mother Russia. In fact, what is clearly a major initiative on the part of Russia in Ukraine can logically be expected, should Russia succeed, to refocus the same sort of attention on the other countries in Eastern Europe that slipped out from under the Soviet/Russian yoke with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

 

It seems highly unlikely that Russia will interfere directly and overtly in the ongoing Ukrainian struggle. The events of 1991 probably ended Russia’s option for that kind of direct military intervention in its old Eastern European domain, and current realities in the West would make such a move fraught with danger for the Russians.

 

But then that’s not how the Russians like to operate. They are far more at home with covert, clandestine operations and provocations of the sort run so often by the old Soviet Union.

 

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the communist regime’s last-ditch effort made to keep control was to order the Soviet military into action against the demonstrations. It didn’t work because almost every soldier knew that he or she had friends and relatives among the demonstrators. In this context, it is fascinating that the only concrete warning given by President Obama on the Ukrainians was that they not commit their military establishment to the struggle. Additionally, there is little reason to believe that the Ukrainian government would be any more successful with military intervention than were the Soviets in 1991.

 

Masters that they are of provocation, it is likely that the Russians are doing everything they can to increase tension in Ukraine. It is worth noting that where the struggle started with rubber bullets, there were later live rounds in use. The demonstrators were reportedly using them against the Ukrainian authorities. But who were those demonstrators? Given what we know about Russia and its history in clandestine operations, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there are Russian agents provocateurs on the streets firing live rounds at the Ukrainian authorities.

 

So, what is the United States to do? Clearly there is an element that feels we should get involved in any and all events where we somehow feel threatened. The real question is whether or not our involvement is in our own national interest.

 

To better judge that issue, we need to look at Russian motivation and goals. Putin would clearly like to reassemble the old Soviet East European Empire, and the best possible first step there would be to succeed in bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold. If, for no other reason, that would encourage the Russians to think they could succeed with the rest of their reassembly project.

 

But that seems incredibly far-fetched. Ukraine is a European issue, and it seems unlikely that Western Europeans will be enthralled by the prospect of Russian success. The European Union has already entered the fray with sanctions against those Ukrainians believed to be involved in the Kiev carnage, coldly dismissing strident Russian criticism of their plans.

 

Given West European attitudes and the likely failure of Ukrainian military involvement against the demonstrators, Russian success in returning Ukraine to the fold seems highly unlikely. We can and certainly should give moral support to the European Union. Anything more that that would be crazy.

 

 

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Russian fears are product of centuries

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Nations get to be the way they are as a result of the broad sweep of their own histories. The Afghans are a tribal/warlord society because they have survived that way for centuries in a hostile world. The Polish are skittish because they have no natural, effective geographic defenses, and as a result, over the centuries, they have suffered land invasions from every direction.

The recent arrest and exchange of Russian spies underlines some very real Russian realities for us. Over the past millennium, the Russians have found that they are seldom immune from foreign meddling. For them, their “near abroad,” or the countries surrounding their borders, particularly to their west and south, is a national fixation, an imperative that is unlikely to change. It is their buffer against a constantly dangerous, potentially hostile world.

This is particularly important when you consider the fragile, unstable and vulnerable multinational nature of pre-Soviet Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It is part of the Russian psyche and for us to be able to deal effectively with them, we have to know and understand that.

This reality under the recent Bush presidency was either not understood or simply ignored. Like so many administrations before it, the only reality that the Bush administration acknowledged was the reality of internal U.S. politics. In the past decade this can most clearly be seen not only in U.S. policy toward Russia, but also in our Middle East policies. We rarely, if ever, let facts on the ground influence our national security policies — intelligence, diplomatic and military. Instead, those policies are crassly governed by the effect they will have on our domestic politics.

We Americans have our Monroe Doctrine, which states essentially that any attempt by foreign countries to meddle in the Americas (our “near abroad”) will be viewed by the U.S. as an act of aggression requiring our intervention. It was last implicitly employed in the Cuban Missile Crisis, or perhaps Grenada or Panama. The Russian “near abroad” doctrine, their Monroe Doctrine, doesn’t differ materially from ours in intent.

During the eight years of the Bush II administration, we took every opportunity presented to us to stick our thumb in the Russian eye, particularly when it came to their “near abroad.”

We pursued the integration of the Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. We solicited the cooperation of the intelligence organizations of the European “near abroad,” ostensibly against terrorism and international instability. We openly spoke of and planned the extension of our “missile shield” into the Russian “near abroad,” claiming it was designed to defend us against nations like Iran, even when those nations did not have the capability to launch nuclear weapons against us. We got involved in the Georgian spat with Russia, once again successfully pushing their “near abroad” button.

All of this was wildly threatening to the Russian weltanschauung, or view of the world. In their normal state of mild paranoia, irrespective of what we said we were doing, they knew what it really meant, and it represented a direct threat to them.

The last century had a powerful reinforcing effect on the Russians’ weltanschauung. During that period, the Russians have been confronted every step of the way by a variety of alliances led by the Western countries and designed to inhibit the growth, influence and power of the Soviet Union and its successor government — and they know it.

For that reason, it is naïve and probably dangerous to fall prey to the premise that today’s Russians are going to succumb to President Obama’s “reset” of American policy and suddenly become our best friends, however well-intentioned we may be.

With centuries of national insecurity behind them, the Russian psyche is simply not capable of such an abrupt “resetting” of the bilateral relationship with America. It is naïve, even dangerous, to think that they are. Having always been beset by enemies, both real and imagined, they have learned that no matter how rosy things may look for the moment, they will ultimately fall apart. Their national life experience compels them to hedge against such calamities.

That is why the Russians “reluctantly” incorporated the KGB Illegals Directorate into their new intelligence service in the 1990s, why they permitted it to operate, why there were 10 “illegals” arrested in the United States, why more will be found elsewhere and why more will be trained and dispatched for work here in America.

Given their history and experiences, the Russians have no viable alternates. It is simply in their DNA.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who worked during the Cold War in East and West Europe and the Middle East, primarily against the Soviet Union and its allies.

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[Originally published in the Baltimore Sun.]

The recent arrest of 10 Russian citizens in America on charges of espionage at first blush appears to be a typical Cold War scenario. But it clearly is not.

Human intelligence operations are uniquely equipped to ascertain an enemy’s intentions. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union ran extensive intelligence operations against the United States. They targeted just about any American they could, many of whom were insignificant employees of the U.S. Government and members of the armed forces. In short, the Soviets were omnivorous. They would take anybody. That is not to say that they were unsuccessful, only that their standards were not too high.

The Soviet espionage apparatus included an “illegals program.” “Illegals” were normally Soviet citizens who were documented as citizens of other countries. Armed with the necessary language fluency and area knowledge, they were dispatched to the United States and other countries, primarily to conduct the most sensitive and productive operations that the Soviets had. They had no contact with U.S.-based Soviets.

A Soviet couple who were exhaustively trained intelligence officers, carrying carefully forged or altered Argentine passports and speaking native Argentine Spanish might be sent to New York City to set up a support mechanism for the most sensitive and productive Soviet agent in the U.S. government in Washington. This would be done on the normally valid assumption that, as “Argentine” citizens, they would not be subject to U.S. surveillance and could thus securely handle the important assets in question.

They ran these illegals because they knew that their official representatives were subject to regular U.S. surveillance that might uncover Soviet intelligence’s most sensitive and productive American sources.

When the USSR came to an abrupt end in 1991, there were probably a handful of such illegals already in the U.S. There certainly were KGB officers in Moscow who had worked in support of illegals during the Soviet era. They would have stayed on and joined the KGB’s successor, the SVR, and continued to run illegals operations, albeit at a reduced pace, perhaps putting the Illegals they already had here on ice and continuing to infuse their original program with new blood.

The point is that the expertise required for running such costly, complicated and sensitive operations has almost certainly been alive and well in Russia since the fall of the USSR.

So, why is this different from the Cold War?

It has recently been reported in the media that in 2002 or 2003, at President Bush’s insistence, then-Russian President and former KGB officer Vladimir Putin quietly agreed to no longer run intelligence operations out of Russia’s legal rezidenturas (overseas intelligence offices) in diplomatic, trade and other official Russian enterprises in the U.S. Clearly in the knowledge that the old Soviet illegals program existed at minimum on paper, Mr. Putin had little difficulty acquiescing to President Bush’s proposal.

In addition, it now seems fairly obvious that not only had this Russian program been in place and functioning in the United States for a decade or more but that the FBI has been onto them for a number of years. It does seem a bit unusual that the arrests were not made years ago, which has led to additional press speculation that the White House, for reasons not yet explained, had not permitted the roll-up of the net until now.

Whatever the ultimate truths about this drama, it is clearly not a Cold War remnant. According to documents released by the government, these Russians were here not to handle the most sensitive Russian penetrations of the American body politic, as in the past, but to function as spotters of prospective new agents for the Russians to recruit outside the United States.

Maybe it’s as simple as the Russians sticking with Mr. Putin’s promise to President Bush not to conduct espionage from their legal rezidenturas, maybe they simply wanted to make use of old assets, but it’s more likely that they have simply changed their targeting.

Given the fact that they are now using illegals, their most complicated, costly and sensitive assets, in the mundane process of spotting Americans who have knowledge of and influence in important policy circles, the Russians clearly become far more selective in their targeting.

They would appear, finally, to have come to understand that in today’s post-Cold War world it is no longer profitable to target every American in sight and that the only Americans of any real espionage importance to Russia are those who can report on the most secret American intentions.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East. His 24-year career was focused on the Soviet Union.

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