Spy Vs. Spies: Why Deciphering Putin Is So Hard For U.S. Intelligence

Mar 10, 2016
Originally published on March 10, 2016 9:53 am

American intelligence officers are trained to tackle tough targets.

But there are tough targets, and then there's Russian President Vladimir Putin, who plays his cards so closely that it's hard for his own advisers to divine what he's thinking, says Gregory Treverton, chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

"Putin is so isolated that the chances that he might miscalculate and do something rash are top of my list for things I worry about," says Treverton. "I am fond of distinguishing between puzzles — those things that have an answer, though we may not know it — and mysteries, those things that are iffy and contingent. And so how Putin is going to behave is presumably a mystery, and probably even a mystery to Putin."

Treverton is not alone in this view.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, commander of NATO forces from 2009 to 2013, says Putin is exceptional in how little he telegraphs.

"He certainly has a cabinet of close advisers," Stavridis says."But at the end of the day, the strategic terrain is not on a map somewhere — it's in between Vladimir Putin's ears."

That makes it hard for the CIA and other spy agencies charged with tracking Russian military and economic assets — and with anticipating what Moscow might do next on the conflict in Syria, tensions in Crimea and a wide range of other matters.

Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, points to a couple of factors that make Putin such a difficult target.

One is the degree of control he has amassed in his 17 years as either prime minister or president of Russia. You have to look to North Korea, Stavridis says, or to Fidel Castro's long reign in Cuba to find another ruler who wields such absolute power.

The tools of espionage — phone intercepts, satellite imagery and more — can sometimes overcome such disadvantages, but may be of limited use against Putin: He's a trained spy himself.

Vladimir Putin joined the KGB in 1975, and was sent to Dresden in East Germany in order to spy on the West during the Cold War. There he learned both near-flawless German and near-flawless spycraft.

"Russia has always had a very strong counterintelligence capability, and Putin would be well-schooled in this," says John McLaughlin, who served as acting director of the CIA in 2004, during Putin's first stint as president. McLaughlin says the aides in whom Putin might confide are mostly ex-KGB, too. "The inner circle there would be very conscious of how they communicate, conscious of who meets whom. So it's a tough environment for intelligence."

But McLauglin adds that if you can't peer into Putin's mind, you still can analyze the realities he's grappling with, which may inform his actions.

"In the case of Russia, you would look at the effect of sanctions, which have been very heavy on them," McLaughlin says. "The fact that the ruble is now at kind of an all-time low, the fact that they have a serious capital-flight problem."

There's also the fact that Putin has spoken openly about his overarching goal of re-establishing Russia as a major world power. It's up to the CIA and other spy agencies to figure out how he plans next to go about it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Working in journalism, you learn to be exceedingly careful about reporting the future. It's hard to know what will happen next or what a public figure is truly planning. If you work for an intelligence agency, that may be just the information your boss wants to know. The CIA, for example, would like to understand the thinking and the plans of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin's behavior is even harder to predict than the behavior of others. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly explains why.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Spies have tricks of the trade like any profession. They use technical means of gathering intelligence, such as intercepting phone calls between leaders and capturing satellite images. Then there's what's known as human intelligence - running agents, traditional espionage. But try any of that on Vladimir Putin and you run into a problem. He plays his cards so close to his chest that it's hard for his own advisers to divine what he is thinking - forget Kremlin watchers in Washington.

GREGORY TREVERTON: Putin is so isolated that the chances that he might miscalculate and do something rash - that's top of my list for things I worry about.

KELLY: That's Gregory Treverton warming to the subject at a Washington think-tank one day last week. Treverton chairs the National Intelligence Council, which guides strategic thinking for U.S. spy agencies. I asked him, how hard is it to anticipate Putin's next move?

TREVERTON: I am fond of distinguishing between puzzles - those things that have an answer, though we may not know it - and mysteries, those things that are iffy and contingent. And so how Putin is going to behave is presumably a mystery and probably even a mystery to Putin.

KELLY: Treverton is not alone in this view. Adm. James Stavridis, formerly the supreme allied commander of NATO, says Putin is exceptional in how little he telegraphs.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: He certainly has a cabinet of close advisers. But at the end of the day, the strategic terrain is not on a map somewhere. It's in between Vladimir Putin's ears.

KELLY: Stavridis, now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, points to a couple of factors that make Putin such a difficult target. One is the degree of control he's amassed in his 17 years as either prime minister or president of Russia. You have to look hard, Stavridis says, to find another ruler who wields such absolute power.

STAVRIDIS: I would say North Korea. I would say Cuba throughout the majority of Castro's rule. You can go back through history and find people like Caligula, who drove the entire Roman Empire.

KELLY: OK, so there's absolute power. And there's another reason why Putin might succeed at eluding the efforts of the CIA, the National Security Agency and others. Here's a clue...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking German).

KELLY: Recognize the voice? That's Putin speaking near-flawless German in an address to Germany's parliament back in 2001. Putin speaks fluent German because he used to live there, specifically in East Germany, during the 1980s when he was sent to spy on the West as an officer of the KGB.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Russia has always had a very strong counterintelligence capability. And Putin would be well-schooled in this.

KELLY: John McLaughlin, who also knows a thing or two about intelligence and counterintelligence having served as acting director of the CIA. McLaughlin says the aids in whom Putin might confide are mostly ex-KGB, too.

MCLAUGHLIN: So the inner circle there would be very conscious of how they communicate, conscious of who meets whom. So it's a tough environment for intelligence.

KELLY: Tough but not impossible, says McLaughlin. You can't peer into Putin's mind but you can analyze the realities he's grappling with, which may inform his actions.

MCLAUGHLIN: So in the case of Russia, you would look at the effect of sanctions, which have been very heavy on them, the fact that the ruble is now a kind of an all-time low, the fact that they have a serious capital-flight problem.

KELLY: And the fact that Putin has spoken openly about his primary goal - reestablishing Russia as a major world power. Now the CIA and other spy agencies just have to figure out how he plans next to go about it. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.