Putin's Motives Pose a Challenge for U.S. Intelligence Agencies

Putin's Motives Pose a Problem for U.S. Intelligence Companies

WASHINGTON — On the peak of the Russian effort in 2016 to govern the U.S. presidential election, the C.I.A. had a secret weapon: a mole with some entry to the internal circle of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who was in a position to inform Washington about how the grasp tactician was fascinated about his subsequent transfer.

That agent was extracted from Russia in 2017, leaving the US largely blind, for some time, to Mr. Putin’s considering. Now, after 5 years of slowly rebuilding entry to the very best ranks of the Kremlin, America’s intelligence companies face a vital take a look at: deciphering whether or not Mr. Putin will use the greater than 150,000 troops he has amassed close to the Ukrainian border to invade, or merely to offer him leverage as he dangles the prospect of a diplomatic settlement.

In interviews with officers from the US and its closest allies, it’s clear the US and Britain as soon as once more have home windows into Mr. Putin’s considering. Some intelligence conclusions are reached via digital intercepts, others bolstered by his periodic conversations with President Biden, which officers say have confirmed useful in understanding Mr. Putin’s worldview — and his transactional nature.

Mr. Putin’s calculus, based on a U.S. official, is probably going shifting as he weighs the altering prices of an invasion and he assesses what he may get from negotiations. A number of officers be aware that Mr. Putin has a historical past of ready till the final attainable second to decide, always re-evaluating his choices.

Not surprisingly, American officers won’t say how they know what Mr. Putin is considering, anxious to protect their present sources.

Figuring out the intention of any autocratic chief is tough, however Mr. Putin, who started his profession as a Okay.G.B. officer, is a selected problem. As a result of he avoids digital units, oftentimes bans note-takers, and tells his aides little, there’s a restrict to how a lot an intelligence company can study his intentions and considering.

“We don’t perceive essentially, none of us do, what’s inside President Putin’s head, and so we can’t make any guess about the place all of that is headed,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, informed reporters on Tuesday.

One senior official who has met with Russian counterparts in an effort to defuse the present disaster mentioned just lately that the U.S. delegation got here away with the sense that Mr. Putin’s representatives have been taking a tough line as a result of they didn’t know what their boss needed to do.

American officers are poring over intelligence — each analytic reviews and uncooked materials — attempting to reply a vital query: how Mr. Putin assesses his chance of success.

Each American and British officers say {that a} key component of their analyses is a shared conclusion that one thing has modified in Mr. Putin’s evaluation of Russia’s relative standing on the earth. After spending closely on his army, he now believes Russia is within the strongest place to coerce Ukraine — and the remainder of Europe — because the fall of the Soviet Union. His monetary reserves have tremendously improved Moscow’s potential to resist sanctions.

Extra just lately, he has benefited from excessive fuel and oil costs — and found that the extra he threatens warfare, the upper these costs go.

And as Germany and different nations have regarded on the wildly excessive price of changing Russian vitality sources ought to they be lower off, it has made some European leaders extra keen to barter an answer that may keep away from needing to impose sanctions. It’s extortion, one European negotiator mentioned, whereas noting that Mr. Putin thinks like an extortionist.

Mr. Putin additionally has the advantage of time. He doesn’t face voters for an additional two and a half years, probably permitting him to get well from any home criticism that might come up from a punishing battle — or the sanctions which may comply with.

Whereas there’s broad settlement of that evaluation in intelligence circles, former intelligence officers warn that these attempting to foretell the strikes of a pacesetter like Mr. Putin must proceed with humility about how a lot they have no idea.

“Analysts perceive how Putin thinks, his grievances and his anger on the West and the US,” mentioned John Sipher, a former Moscow station chief for the C.I.A. “Now, does that imply we all know what he’s going to do and when he’s going to do it? No, as a result of to do this you must get in his head.”

The US has clearly developed intelligence on the Russian army’s warfare planning, predicting the buildup of troops weeks earlier than it occurred, exposing what officers mentioned have been Russian sabotage plots and operations meant to create a pretext for invasion.

However the US has lengthy discovered itself caught abruptly by Mr. Putin, from his determination to annex Crimea to his deployment of forces to Syria.

Curiously, one supply of perception to Mr. Putin has been conversations with the Russian president himself.

So, like a hostage negotiator, they’re decided to maintain him speaking. Not lengthy after William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, visited Moscow in November to warn in opposition to an invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden’s aides got here up with a plan of fixed engagement, organising a collection of negotiations — in Brussels and Geneva, at many various ranges — on the idea that whereas Russia was speaking with the West, airing its grievances and making its calls for, it was unlikely to invade.

Paul Kolbe, who oversaw assortment of Russian intelligence for the C.I.A. for a few years, famous just lately that “you retain them speaking to attempt to determine what they really need, to seek out one other manner out.” However Mr. Kolbe, now the director of Harvard’s intelligence challenge, added, “it made sense — until what the gunman actually needs is to shoot the hostages.”

Mr. Putin wields info as a weapon, protecting his personal counsel and withholding particulars of his planning from shut aides.

When Mr. Burns visited Moscow to warn in opposition to an invasion of Ukraine, he supplied particulars of what the US had discovered in regards to the army planning. The disclosures appeared to catch some Russian officers off guard, as in the event that they have been much less aware about Mr. Putin’s planning, based on an American official briefed on the assembly.

“I wish to say, Putin’s not a superb sharer, he didn’t cross that kindergarten class” mentioned Beth Sanner, a former high intelligence official who frequently briefed President Donald J. Trump. “He was a spy. So he’s skilled to not be a sharer, he’s skilled to elicit and manipulate.”

However former intelligence officers mentioned that the Russia bench inside the C.I.A. remained robust, with quite a few analysts and case officers who’ve devoted their careers to finding out Mr. Putin. The lengthy reign of an autocrat, mentioned former officers, has sure benefits.

There are limits to what a authorities ought to ask its intelligence to do, mentioned Marc E. Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia. Intelligence companies can present warning, which is what they’ve executed in current months. Something extra might be fraught.

“Intelligence isn’t essentially predictive of time and date. The intelligence group has executed a reasonably rattling good job of offering policymakers with glorious situational consciousness for them to develop insurance policies if Russia goes by some means manner,” he mentioned. “That’s what intelligence does. Asking extra of that’s going to be very tough.”

Even situational consciousness could also be tougher to come back by at a second when the Russians declare to be de-escalating whereas army workout routines are nonetheless underway. The fundamental jobs of monitoring Russian strikes in Ukraine have been disrupted. On Tuesday, the C.I.A. closed, not less than quickly, its station in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a day after U.S. diplomatic personnel relocated to the western Ukrainian metropolis of Lviv.

Adam Goldman contributed reporting.

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