The CIA has long been on the hook to decipher the “riddle wrapped inside an enigma” posed by the Kremlin’s multifaceted threats to the national security of the U.S. and its allies. Right now, closing the intelligence gap about KGB-operative-in-the-Kremlin Vladimir Putin’s plans for the 100,000 troops he has menacingly deployed on Ukraine’s border is easily the highest priority.
Mr. Putin, who has a long history of ruthlessly subverting the international rules-based order, invaded and still occupies Georgia; was a co-conspirator in Syria’s and Iran’s attacks on innocent civilians in Syria; poisoned former Russian military intelligence officer Sergey Skripal and opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a banned chemical nerve agent; interfered in U.S. and European elections; launched the malicious SolarWinds cyberattack; and allows criminal hacking groups to homestead on Russian territory.
The Russian president’s national security strategy hinges on imposing control over Moscow’s historic regional sphere of influence, most especially with regards to aspiring EU and NATO member, Ukraine.
In 2014, Mr. Putin launched an undeclared war against Ukraine and annexed Crimea after the populist Euromaidan uprising sent pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. Russia has fired upon and seized Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait and launched cyberspace attacks on Ukraine’s media, electric power grid and government ministries.
For Mr. Putin, representative democracy is an existential threat, especially in the former Soviet Union, whose collapse Mr. Putin famously called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Ukraine’s painstaking effort to build a democracy is an inspirational clarion call to Mr. Putin’s own domestic opponents, increasingly under siege from the Kremlin’s Orwellian police-state repression. As much as Mr. Putin wants to paint Russia as a besieged fortress only he can defend, it is neither tanks nor missiles but liberty and freedom, which most threaten his kleptocratic regime.
Russia’s recent ZAPAD-21 military exercises, which showcased airborne and special operations, lend support to Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Agency Director General Kyrylo Budanov’s assessment that the Kremlin is preparing to attack Ukraine by early February 2022.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov predictably dismissed allegations of an invasion as a plot to discredit Russia.
Russia might indeed be preparing for an invasion. Still, suppose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is right about the Kremlin fomenting a coup against him. In that case, an overwhelming show of Russian military force instead might be designed to dial up the pressure on Kyiv and create the conditions for installing a pro-Russian puppet as head of state.
Presidential administrations rely on the intelligence community to spotlight national security threats and assess the effectiveness of policy options under consideration. The Biden administration needs to know the details of Mr. Putin’s strategy, not only whether or when he plans an invasion but also what it would take to deter him and preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Warning off Mr. Putin without backing it up with policy measures only invites more Russian aggression. Sanctions alone lack the throw-weight to change the Kremlin’s calculus.
First, the U.S. and Europe should increase military assistance to Ukraine, as Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov proposed recently to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The U.S., which has already provided patrol boats, Javelin anti-tank weapons and counter-fire radar systems, should deliver more sophisticated air defense systems, including Patriot missile batteries, lethal maritime equipment and counter artillery to Ukraine. NATO, which regularly deploys to the Black Sea, should do so again.
Second, senior U.S. officials should emphasize the prohibitively high political and economic costs of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia might win the war but at the cost of massive casualties and the financial burden of holding hostile territory, which would morph into an insurgency. Mr. Putin personally might not care much about Russian public opinion. Still, his coterie, on whom he relies on ruling the state, is another matter, especially if they determine Mr. Putin’s recklessness would pose too great a risk.
Third, the U.S. and Europe should continue to engage their Ukrainian partners to counter the country’s endemic corruption, corruption which creates open-field running for Russian influence operations in the country.
NATO members, especially the Baltic states which border Russia, will be watching for President Biden to address Russia’s threat to Ukraine during planned virtual and in-person meetings with Mr. Putin. Taking a page from President Reagan’s playbook, Mr. Biden should counter Russian aggression with concrete policy measures while concurrently engaging in the productive dialogue, dialing down the temperature on potential crises and opening the door for diplomacy.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.
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