Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

America Will Always Lose Russia’s Tit-for-Tat Spy Games


While not an article on Information Warfare, Information Operations, this article is about a form of political warfare in which the United States has consistently proven feckless, unwilling to do what it takes, and as a consequence, loses to Russia every time. 

The final recommendation, a “9/11-like commission to look into the Russian attacks on our system once and for all” took me a bit by surprise… and I agree, it is needed. Only if it is a non-partisan effort. 

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In the asymmetric warfare of espionage, playing fair means Moscow wins.

A recent BuzzFeed article outlined behind-the-scenes efforts by Russian and American diplomats to end the tit-for-tat expulsion of embassy personnel between the two sides. Reports say American officials are reacting positively to Moscow’s signals to end the feud and are looking to “turn the page” and improve relations.

While nobody should be against efforts to improve relations, let’s not fool ourselves as to who came out ahead in this contest. “Ending the feud” is exactly what the Russians want — because they won. The United States lost far more from the expulsions than Russia, and, worse, it acceded to a long-sought-after and long-rejected Russian demand that all interactions conform to the practice of parity. In fact, there’s a pattern that I observed during my years in the CIA: In 2016 — as in 2001, 1994, and 1986 — the United States tried to punish Russia but mishandled the effort, eventually cried uncle, and left Russia in a better position than when it started.

Let’s recap the most recent effort to “punish” Russia.

As we now know, Russia utilized a multipronged attack to destabilize our democratic system and damage our leadership abroad during the 2016 presidential election. We are learning more every day about the scale and audaciousness of the trespass, and it continues to disrupt our political process. Denis McDonough, former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, characterized the effort as an attack on the “heart of our system.” Some observers have even called it the “crime of the century,” and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner described his efforts to uncover the attack as “very well … the most important thing I do in my public life.”

What consequences did the Kremlin face for its brazen assault on our system?

Following a flurry of expulsions, both sides have settled on a position as outlined in an Aug. 31 State Department statement, titled “Achieving Parity in Diplomatic Missions,” that seeks to lock in the status quo and focus on efforts to improve relations.

Our mission in Moscow housed almost 1,800 people in 2006 but now has only 455. President Barack Obama cut Russia’s missions in the United States from 490 to 455. Since Russia refuses to hire Americans to work in its diplomatic facilities, the most powerful country in the world has fewer Americans in Russia than Russia has diplomats in the United States. Russia also maintains more diplomatic missions in the United States. Further, Russia finally achieved a long-sought demand that the two sides treat all interactions through the prism of reciprocity. All previous U.S. administrations have rejected this effort as part of Russia’s effort to force the United States and other interlocutors to accept a world of coequal spheres of influence.

That is, we lost.

Vladimir Putin’s singular goal is to win re-election in 2018, ensuring that nothing thwarts his ability to stage-manage the outcome.

Vladimir Putin’s singular goal is to win re-election in 2018, ensuring that nothing thwarts his ability to stage-manage the outcome. This drawdown of our diplomats and spies will make Putin’s job much easier.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations share blame for this outcome. The Obama administration held numerous secret strategy meetings and debates throughout the second half of 2016 but was ultimately unable to agree on an appropriate response. Each effort to consider action and weigh the possible consequences led to only hand-wringing and inaction.

In fairness, there were no easy answers, and such confusion has been a standard outcome as the United States has tried to determine how to best deter, defend, or retaliate against attacks in the new world of cyberintrusions.

However, by December 2016, and following the victory of Donald Trump, the Obama administration announced a series of measures that amounted to a slap on the wrist to the Kremlin. A small fraction of known Russian spies, 35, would be expelled, and the United States would close two vacation properties that the Russians often misused for espionage purposes. That is, the punishment for the chaos inflicted by the Russians during the election was what might normally be expected following a much lower-impact spy case. Indeed, the arrests of spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen led to more robust responses. As Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, noted, “The punishment did not fit the crime.”

Following an interval to determine whether the incoming Trump administration would radically reorder its relationship with Moscow, the Kremlin eventually retaliated, insisting that the U.S. mission in Moscow draw down by more than 750 positions, seeking parity in the size of the Russian and U.S. embassies in their respective countries. The United States, in turn, closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco but allowed the Russians to maintain a small numerical advantage in diplomatic properties, at which time the United States called for an end to the tit-for-tat action, accepting parity as the final result.

It was a huge win for Russia and a capitulation that every other U.S. administration had resisted. We were trying to punish Russian misconduct, but we ended up exactly where Russia wanted to be. They lost 35 people; we lost 755. For the first time, there are more Russians in the United States than Americans in Russia (although Russia has always had more spies in the United States than vice versa). While most Americans probably don’t even give it a second thought, Putin certainly sees it as a victory and a sign that the new administration is pro-Russian, weak, or just foolish. In retrospect, if we had simply accepted Russia’s bad behavior and done nothing, we would have ended up in a better place.

But we should have seen this coming. It is the same game we’ve played and lost numerous times — most recently in 2001.

On Feb. 18, 2001, officers of the FBI’s Washington field office arrested one of their own, agent Robert Hanssen, while he was hiding a package of classified materials for his Russian spy handlers. A secret FBI-CIA team had been hunting a mole inside the national security apparatus for some time and had acquired information pointing to Hanssen as the traitor.

In the wake of the arrest and subsequent media coverage of the serious damage Hanssen’s treachery had inflicted, the George W. Bush administration decided to play hardball with the Russians. The administration knew that the Russians had been taking advantage of a disparity in the number of spies in each other’s countries.

To this day, Moscow has more spies deployed overseas than any other country — including the United States.

To this day, Moscow has more spies deployed overseas than any other country — including the United States. And despite the disparity between its relative economic and political power, Russia has assigned far more spies in the United States than the Americans have ever had in Russia. Every few years or so, a spy scandal reminds U.S. officials of the imbalance, and both Democratic and Republican administrations have sought to use those opportunities to cull the herd. For the Bush team, the arrest of Hanssen was a golden opportunity to change the calculus.

We in the CIA warned the administration that the Russians were masters at playing a strong game with a weak hand. Their tighter decision-making chain, willingness to engage in brinksmanship, obsession with reciprocity, and focus on a singular enemy (the United States) had manifested in a willingness to take a hard and consistent line. In past spy spats, the Russians immediately expelled U.S. diplomats in retaliation, maintained a hard line, and capitalized on U.S. indecisiveness. They had consistent goals and were willing to act boldly to defend them. In each case, the United States ultimately backed down, settling for a less-than-successful outcome. Utilizing the policy of brute force, Russia approached each interaction like that of a schoolyard bully.

Although we were supportive of the expulsion of Russian spies, we feared that unless the administration was willing to throw out the great majority of them, the Russians would retaliate and leave themselves with far more spies in the United States than anything we could match in Moscow. Hardly a fitting “punishment.”

Indeed, the history of tit-for-tat spy expulsions has taught the Russians how to ruthlessly manipulate squabbles within the U.S. bureaucracy. Whenever the United States throws out Moscow’s spies, the Russians make sure to expel U.S. diplomats from a variety of agencies — Commerce, Defense, State, Treasury, USAID, and others, making a second round of expulsions less likely. Each agency, reluctant to risk losing employees for what it believes is an internecine battle between spy agencies, lobbies the White House to avoid further expulsions for fear that it may lose its limited resources in Moscow. It is a game Russia knows well.

But, no, the Bush administration assured us, the United States would not accept an imbalance of Russian spies in the country, and we would hit back even harder if the Russians retaliated, drawing down the substantial U.S.-based Russian spying apparatus once and for all.

Sure enough, however, in 2001 following the expulsion of 50 Russian spies, the Kremlin retaliated immediately, kicking out 50 Americans from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow — including a smattering of individuals from all agencies. When the Bush administration regrouped to consider a second round of expulsions, several U.S. departments lobbied to complain that they couldn’t possibly tolerate any additional drawdowns. Not surprisingly, the administration balked, agreed to end the expulsions, and left us with a decimated intelligence capability in Russia compared with a much larger Russian presence in the United States.

The same cycle of pain followed a spate of spy cases during the Ronald Reagan administration in 1986 and following the arrest of Aldrich Ames in 1994.

The Russians know us well.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Russia wins when we aim small. The focus on expulsions plays into its doctrine of conflict. The Russians are playing a bigger game and are willing to take losses if they can achieve their goal of getting the United States to play by their rules. It doesn’t matter if you lose 10,000 men to take a position as long as the position was taken. If we limit our responses to petty diplomatic expulsions, we cede them the results of their efforts and simply give them acceptable casualties. It’s a good trade for them. Their leadership doesn’t mind the petty human losses if they win. Betting on improved behavior from the Kremlin is not likely to pay off anytime soon unless and until Putin fears that his actions will have real consequences for his staying power. In the meantime, the United States needs to protect itself from further Russian manipulation. Multiple and partisan efforts to investigate Russian action won’t suffice to meet the threat. Instead, it seems to me that the only sensible means to prepare for the future is to empower a 9/11-like commission to look into the Russian attacks on our system once and for all. Maybe that way, although Russia will likely continue to win the short-term, tit-for-tat battles, it will lose the larger war.

Photo credit: Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images

Source: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/12/america-will-always-lose-russias-tit-for-tat-spy-games/

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