What Putin Is Up To

And why he may have overplayed his hand.

 

 

Each year on December 20, the Russian intelligence community pays homage to its enduring guardianship of the Motherland. It was on this date in 1917, six weeks after the Bolshevik Revolution, that Vladimir Lenin established the Cheka, an acronym for “Emergency Commission.” Over the ensuing decades, the commission’s nomenclature and organization chart mutated: It became the OGPU from 1923 to 1934, the NKVD until the early 1950s, and then the KGB for nearly 40 years. After the collapse of the USSR, the sprawling institution was split into separate foreign and domestic agencies. Operatives of both are still called chekists, and they share Lenin’s original purpose: countering Russia’s enemies at home and abroad.

 

President Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer for 15 years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union, and the director of domestic intelligence in the late 1990s during his meteoric rise to power. He regularly throws a gala at the Kremlin on December 20 to extol the “sacred mission” of the state security services, recall their past heroes, and highlight their latest exploits. For the last 22 years, Chekist’s Day has been an official holiday in Russia.

 

Last December, Putin must have been in particularly ebullient spirits. Over the course of 2016, he oversaw the boldest, most consequential covert operation against Russia’s principal ideological and geopolitical foe for much of the last century, breaching the firewall of American democracy and influencing a high-stakes presidential election. Putin seemed to have made a big bet and come away with a trifecta: He could congratulate himself for settling old scores with a traditional foe, relish the prospect of a Russia-friendly counterpart in the White House, and let the ripple effect of the U.S. election further confound and further unsettle the democracies in a wobbly Europe.

 

Meanwhile, the reverberations of the Russian attack have the U.S. government in an uproar. The disruption has triggered bitter public tensions between the White House and the agencies it supervises, fueled a partisan debate in Congress, and opened a schism within the Republican party, most recently over potential perjury by the nation’s top justice official.

 

Ever since Lenin dispatched the first Soviet undercover agent across the Atlantic in 1921, Kremlin leaders have sought, with some success, to undermine the United States. In the late 1940s, Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Joseph Stalin’s secret police, masterminded the pilfering of America’s nuclear secrets. There were also sub rosa sorties into American domestic politics. In 1968, the Kremlin deemed Richard Nixon “profoundly anti-Soviet,” and sought to frustrate his White House aspirations by extending financial assistance to his Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey, who rejected the offer. The Soviets were particularly active in the 1976 presidential election, fabricating an FBI report designed to damage Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Cold War hawk, during his bid for the Democratic nomination, then recruiting a mole inside the Democratic Party to report on Jimmy Carter’s winning campaign. Once Carter was in the White House, the KGB attempted to smear his hardline National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, as a traitor and anti-Semite. In 1982, Yuri Andropov—the chairman of the KGB, who would soon ascend to leadership of the Kremlin—directed a multi-pronged campaign to thwart the re-election two years later of Ronald Reagan, who famously called the USSR the “evil empire.” Ironically, Andropov wanted his successor to be Mikhail Gorbachev, who, later in that decade, would forge a transformative partnership with Reagan.

 

But most of these efforts failed, and all of them pale next to Russia’s attempts to hack both major U.S. political parties, and subsequent leak of a trove of documents in an effort to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Two weeks before Donald Trump’s inauguration, U.S. intelligence agencies released a public report describing the Russian operation as a Putin-ordered influence campaign intended “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” Putin’s government, the intelligence community concluded, “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Putin saw Clinton as a serial regime-changer, eager to foment yet another “color revolution” in Russia like those in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, three former Soviet republics. He made no secret of this conviction. On December 5, 2011, Clinton publicly questioned the openness of parliament elections in Russia. In response, Putin accused Clinton of “set[ting] the tone for certain actors inside [Russia]. She gave the signal,” he said at televised crisis meeting with his subordinates. “They heard this signal and, with the support of the U.S. State Department, started actively doing their work,” he said. He was referring to the tens of thousands of Russian citizens who protested peacefully against his sudden announcement in September of that year that he would return to the presidency after serving as prime minister for four years.

 

Clinton’s support for the demonstrations hardly constituted a threat to Putin’s return to the Kremlin. But it seems he saw it that way. This conspiracy theory was typical of a worldview forged during his years at the KGB working chiefly in counterespionage—less a spy, and more spy-catcher, a profession that not only generates paranoia but also, to a degree, demands it. Aside from his anyone-but-Clinton mindset, Putin had additional reasons to boost her opponent: Candidate Trump’s admiration for Putin; his declared preference for nationalism over globalism; his apparent intention to revert to a world order based on great-power spheres of influence; his skepticism toward the European Union (he has urged members to follow Britain to the exit); and his denigration of NATO as “obsolete.”

 

Read more from the source article published in The Atlantic  Mar. 2 2017

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