Putin the Recruiter and Trump the Potential Asset? Agent-handling and the Helsinki summit

putin-trumpAny political leader meeting another is seeking to get something out of the exchange, whether a specific deliverable or simply developing the relationship. In this respect, the Helsinki summit will be no different from any other. What makes it more noteworthy is the personalities of the two interlocutors and that one was trained to recruit and run assets – and the other seems almost custom-built to be managed and manipulated.

Of course one can push the fact that Putin was a KGB case officer too far. Not every KGB officer is the same, it was a long time ago, and by all accounts he was at best an adequate one. He was not a high-flier, and former foreign intelligence chief and then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov once tellingly said that he had never heard of Putin when he was in service.

Nonetheless, when Putin said that his particular talent was “working with people,” there is more than a little truth in that. He has managed his own elites very effectively, and also has had considerable successes framing relations with other leaders, as well as leveraging his carefully-created ruthless, cool, macho image.

It is not that Putin (and the team working for him; this is not a one-man operation: it is worth remembering Gleb Pavlovsky’s observation that “he was like a talented actor who reads the script but does much more than is written in it”) appears to have a single, standard approach so much as – like any competent case officer – he looks for what will work, depending on both the target and the objective. When Angela Merkel needed to be put in her place, the notoriously dog-fearing German found herself in a room with Putin’s Labrador Koni, or she was kept waiting for 4 hours; when he needed to woo her, there were flowers and warm words about cooperation. When Putin met Obama in 2009, there was no expectation that the two men would bond, so the Russian treated his American counterpart to an hour-long harangue, more than anything else to show the world that he could.

It is very hard to believe that Trump is some bought-and-paid-for Russian agent (or if he is, then Moscow is unexpectedly clumsy running him). Moreover, the Russians are sufficiently aware of how the US political system works not to expect some concrete gains – he cannot himself legally recognise Crimea’s annexation. At the same time, there is much they can gain from both framing the relationship as one between equals (which flatters and empowers Russia) and also encouraging and directing his splenetic and seemingly unstoppable stream of bilious comments about America’s notional allies.

So how might they seek to handle him? Flattery is clearly crucial to winning over the Donald, but it can also make the flatterer appear weak. Instead of jumping straight into obsequiousness, Putin is likely to seek to appeal to Trump’s sense that he is one of the great movers and shakers of the world, precisely by framing the meeting as a discussion between two of the three (China’s Xi being the absent friend) titans. That manages to flatter Trump and elevate Putin at one stroke.

Trump, like so many insecure men who have never served, also has a shallow fascination with the military and all things martial, so Putin is likely also to play to that. Being in Helsinki rather than Moscow, he cannot whistle up a military parade, Macron-style, but he can regale the president with promises of terrorists whacked if only America cooperated. “Fighting terrorism” as a euphemism for fighting the Syrian civil war may well prove a powerful way to whitewash the bloodshed there.

Above all, Putin is likely to seek to try and get Trump to woo him, to make himself the cool kid whom the insecure narcissist wants to emulate and befriend. The best way to get a good deal, after all, is the make the other person more eager to conclude it.

Of course, none of this means that America is coming under Russian domination, nor even that Trump is going to be brainwashed. If nothing else, a president long on ego and short on attention span cannot be bought, only borrowed. Besides, his promises and his loyalties do not appear to be worth counting on. But nonetheless, even if just in order to sharpen his anti-NATO and Europhobic rhetoric – something that delights the Kremlin – and to present supporting Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty as a “bad deal,” Putin and his people will be carefully crafting their messages and approaches between now and the summit.

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New page for ‘The Vory: Russia’s super mafia’

VoryJust for convenience, I have a new page here on this blog for updates about my forthcoming book: launch events, some short promotional videos, reviews, excerpts, and more, updated as and when.

Corbyn. Neither Philby nor Fool

Corbyn-Commie-Spy-Live-Aid

The Sun. Really, what else can I say?

I am old enough, alas, to have been active and adult when the original Cold War was still on, and I have retained my childhood (but hopefully not – always – childish) interest in intelligence matters. As such, as few thoughts on the current hullabaloo about Jeremy Corbyn and the Czechoslovak StB spy who met him in 1986-87.

Is there any evidence Corbyn gave secrets, let alone sold them? No. Even the unfrocked StB case officer who met him, Jan Sarkocy (‘Jan Dymic’), who initially claimed so, has retracted that allegation, and the Czech Security Forces Archive, whose job is precisely to dig into the StB’s files to find the truth on such matters says there is nothing to suggest this. Its Slovak counterpart agrees.

Was Corbyn naïve to meet with ‘Dymic’? Probably. Or rather, I wouldn’t be surprised if he naively took at face value what ‘Dymic’ said he wanted to discuss; there was (and still is) a depressingly uncritical assumption on the part of many in the British left that the USSR embodied any of their values, rather than just being a slipshod authoritarianism wrapped in an increasingly tattered red flag. However, ‘Dymic’ was an accredited diplomat who had reached out to Corbyn, so why not meet with him? So long as there was a Czechoslovak embassy in the UK, so long as the Foreign Office held meetings, why shouldn’t an MP?

Was ‘Dymic’ naïve to meet with Corbyn. Probably. If his goal was to uncover British MI5 and MI6 secrets, as seems to have been the case, quite what did he think a relatively junior lefty Labour MP knew, let alone would say? Corbyn’s warm views on the IRA alone – itself enough to get MI5 watching him – precluded him from being brought into any confidential discussions. But that probably didn’t matter. Spies, especially Eastern bloc spies, had quotas to fill, needed to show they were active (while enjoying a relatively plum, comfortable posting – most spent as much time shopping for goodies to bring back home and sell as grooming sources). Corbyn (‘Cob’ – there’s an impenetrable codename for you, that tells you something about Sarkocy’s tradecraft) was likely written up in much more glowing and encouraging terms that reality would dictate (Sarkocy does seem to have form as a fabulist). This is spycraft to fulfil the Plan, and every bit as tokenistic, half-hearted and inefficient as the rest of the Soviet planned model.

We meet spies all the time. If you’re active in politics, in strategic sectors of business or the media, or study the ‘right’ things, then you become of interest, and people will want to meet you, to see if you’re a viable candidate for recruitment, to see if you know anything (or anyone) or interest. Sometimes they are in time-honoured guises, as solicitous second secretary politicals eager to buy you lunch and ask you about your views on the world, but they could as easily take the form of journalists, potential customers, or attractive young grad students flatteringly enthused by your research. Sometimes you know in advance what’s likely what. Sometimes it soon becomes clear. Sometimes you never know. But to suggest Corbyn was uniquely naïve or vulnerable is downright wrong.

Frankly, I am worried not about past clumsy attempts at contact in a world long since gone, but the new generation of recruitment, smartly-suited businesspeople making all the right connections in British political, business and social circles, some of whom may be Russians, others simply handling Russian money. A pillar of the community is much more likely, knowingly or not, to make a great human intelligence asset and agent of influence than an avowed Bolshie outsider.

 

 

 

A Few Quick and First Thoughts on the US Airstrike on Syria

missileThe use of chemical weapons against civilians cannot continue with impunity, but is a 50-missile strike the right response? My thought is that it is not a great response – but that in the circumstances nothing better was available. (Though at almost $15 million, an expensive one.)

First of all, such a one-off strike is unlikely to be militarily decisive, even if it has made a real dent in the Assad regime’s airpower advantage. It is essentially more symbolic than kinetic, an act of communication, drawing red lines and reiterating that the USA is a serious force (and putting paid to the silly claims that Russia has become the regional hegemon in the Middle East).

That’s not at all a bad thing, but the question is what the message was meant to be, and how it is received, and that depends heavily on Moscow.

Its initial response was to huff and puff and call it unprovoked aggression, of course; it could do nothing less. But it is noticeable that its much-vaunted air defence systems – which could have been deployed against the Tomahawk missiles although not take all 50 out – was not even activated. Moscow might not like Washington’s response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it. That is a heartening sign of realism.

And how does Damascus respond? The chemical attack was as politically stupid as it was morally bankrupt, suggesting either that Assad’s regime is tone deaf (not impossible) or that it had some more nefarious intent, precisely to try and force a response in the hope of solidifying Russian support (a little conspiratorial, but not impossible).

Much depends on the backchannel messages from Moscow to Damascus. Will they be “don’t worry, this was just a one-off, let business continue as usual, but lay off the chemicals” or “what the hell were you doing, stop making this worse for us all”? Obviously no one will tell us openly, but we should be able to divine from what happens next whether the Russians are in control or not (and usually, to be honest, imperial backers have at best imperfect control of their supposed clients and proxies) and whether tactical successes on the ground mean more to them than the wider geopolitical context.

With Tillerson due in Moscow next week, this is an opportunity for Moscow to show some kind of flexibility and willingness to come out of the trenches. Assad’s move allows them the cover to withdraw slightly from him. If they are willing to take it. A big if. My money, sadly, on their not being willing or able to make the move.

The NYT story on “Trump associates” and Russian spooks: some questions

The latest story about Trump-Russia links comes from the New York Times and says that according to anonymous “current and former American officials”, “at least three” “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates” “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. Sounds very alarming, but the lack of any real information, the anonymous sourcing, and the minimal digging from the NYT means that it is all terribly insubstantial. It could be a massive story, it could be a trivial nothing (or a smear) – as is, we do not yet know enough to say. The result is that this is another one of those stories that really tell us more about ourselves than anything else, as we see in it what we expect or want to see.

To reach any serious conclusions, we need to know the answers to at least three basic questions:

Did the Trump associates know they were dealing with Russian spooks? They could have been Russian embassy officials, journalists, businesspeople, even non-Russians. It makes a huge difference. After all, one would expect spooks to be trying to gather information on the campaign, likely future policy trends, etc – it’s what spooks do.

Are these associates of any real substance? The only one cited is the usual Paul Manafort, who seems to have been of only brief and slight importance. Are these close aides or simply someone who raised funds in New Jersey for a few months?

Is there any suggestion they were told what to do or otherwise tasked or rewarded by the Russians? In other words, were they made active assets, or did they simply have a few conversations with someone who wanted to hear their views?

Based on the answers to these questions, we might begin to know whether there is evidence of a long-term conspiracy or simply the inevitable sniffing around of foreign intelligence officers, especially with an essentially unprofessional and inchoate campaign. Finding that out needs to be the focus of a serious and unbiased enquiry. But how possible is that in the current environment?

The NYT’s sources “spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.” In other words, they leaked a current intelligence investigation. One can hardly claim that this is whistleblowing in the public interest, because the enquiry is ongoing; it is not a matter of exposing a cover-up or the like. Instead – and I say this as someone with absolutely no liking for the Trump regime – this is essentially a political hit. As the US intelligence community, or at least parts of it, increasingly appears at war with the White House, this is inevitably going to have a corrosive effect for years to come.

Whether or not the Kremlin was trying to suborn the Trump campaign, this crisis within the US ‘silovik’ community, this opening rift in Washington, cannot help but be useful to them. All they need do is buy popcorn and watch the show.

Trump’s America, Putin’s Russia, and the difference a week makes

What a difference a week makes.

We’re used to seeing the forces of the state visiting petty hostility and obstruction on those from Moslem regions, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing official spokespeople lying openly and shamelessly, and shutting down critical voices that dare question them, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing personal favourites elevated into crucial national security and policy roles, instead of sober professionals, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

We’re used to seeing the personal financial interests of presidential favourites protected and furthered by state policy, but that’s Putin’s Russia, not the USA.

I’m still not at all convinced by the whole ‘Siberian candidate’ line that presents Donald Trump as a puppet of Vladimir Putin’s. Instead, what we see, I fear, is a miserable and soul-rotting convergence of populist authoritarianisms, a backlash against a northern hemisphere trend towards pluralism, multi-culturalism and proceduralism. An atavistic desire for charismatic (in the technical sense: to me, The Donald has all the personal charisma of an Italian TV game show host), patriarchal, personalised leadership, for simple solutions to complex problems, for the easy substitution of confidence for competence.

The good news, though, is that just as a massive majority of Russians express their approval of Putin but are not eager for some civilisational clash with the West, are fully aware of and disgusted by the corruption and incompetence of the state, and just want to live a ‘normal’ life, so too the early signs are that Trump’s narrow and technical victory is not an expression of a true majority opinion of the American people. The bad news is that it is not so easy to mobilise silent majorities, and that in the meantime, the executive can do a lot of harm. It’s going to be a rough, dark few years.

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