About a year ago, one Evelyn Farkas boasted “we have good intelligence on Russia…“. She was an important functionary on Russian matters in the Obama Administration and was, therefore, much involved in “intelligence on Russia”. My immediate reaction when I read it was: No, you do not have good intelligence on Russia; if you did, you wouldn’t be surprised all the time and your boss wouldn’t be saying such silly things. In March 2015 I enumerated some of the delusions. Vide this famous quotation from a 2014 interview:
But I do think it’s important to keep perspective. Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents.
Obama was surely repeating what Farkas and others told him. Wrong on all three counts: Russia makes many things; it is the second immigrant destination on the planet; and its life expectancy and population are growing. This was not hermetic knowledge, available only to the Illuminati; these facts were easily discovered by any competent intelligence agency. That is not good intelligence. He liked to tell us that “Russia is isolated” or that “its economy [is] in tatters.” Wrong again.
All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill.’
That is a concise description of intelligence. When done right, intelligence minimises surprise: it gives an idea of what is on the other side so that when it does come over the hill, you’re prepared. You can imagine anything you like, of course, but when it does come over the hill, you find out. Which made it all the more amusing to watch Obama when it did come over the hill: by two years later reality was making him admit that Russia was no declining regional challenge but
an important country. It is a military superpower. It has influence in the region and it has influence around the world. And in order for us to solve many big problems around the world, it is in our interest to work with Russia and obtain their cooperation.
Today Obama’s political party thinks Russia so powerful that it is suing it because “Russia launched an all-out assault on our democracy, and it found a willing and active partner in Donald Trump’s campaign.” Deep persistent ignorance: the opposite of “good intelligence”.
Washington was not prepared for Russia’s action in Crimea. It was so sure that it had the naval base there that the US Navy was soliciting bids on a real estate development in Sevastopol. But really… who thought that Moscow would acquiesce to the snatching of a territory that had been part of Russia before the USA existed and a part of the Byzantine-Russian space half a millennium before Columbus? Moscow moved and moved quickly and Washington was left inventing humanitarian crises in Crimea. Intentions and capabilities: the very stuff of intelligence. Both wrong.
Nor did they learn from their mistakes: Moscow had moved quickly after Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia and again Washington had had to explain it away with silly theories that Russia tricked him into attacking. Better intelligence would have considered that Moscow might react to its soldiers being killed and might have the capability to do so. Intentions and capabilities again.
So it’s not that complicated: competency, attention to first principles, reality, planning, consistency of purpose and unity of execution beats incompetency, interfering in everything everywhere, illusion, sloppy assumptions, confusion and disunity.
Syria was the next to show that American intelligence hadn’t seen over the hill. Some of the surprises.
- Relatively insignificant boats in the Caspian Sea with a thousand kilometre punch.
- The high sortie rate of Russian aircraft.
- “Dumb bombs” turned into “smart bombs”.
- Russian EW capabilities.
- The S-300/400/500 series, a major off-stage frightener.
- Impressive stunts like the “White Swan” strike from the Kola Peninsula, or the Kalibr cruise missile strikes from the super-silent Varshavyanka submarines were another unexpected display of capability.
- And, of course, the speed and decisiveness with which Moscow moved.
And the surprises keep coming. Whether the Syrian air defence (with, no doubt, Russian help) really did shoot down 70% of the missiles in the latest FUKUS strike as the Russian MoD claims, there is no doubt that FUKUS is hiding something (unless you believe their absurd claim that 76 missiles hit this site). An American general complains that
Right now in Syria we are operating in the most aggressive EW environment on the planet from our adversaries. They are testing us everyday, knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s, etcetera.
Another surprise from the country “that doesn’t make anything”. Today the US Defense Secretary talks of “the erosion of U.S. military advantage in relation to China and Russia.”
So, in short, bad intelligence. Wrong on the significance of Russia; wrong on its capability; wrong on its determination; wrong on its military sophistication. Wrong too on the effect of sanctions.
‘It seems that the people working on this lost their way a bit,’ said a former Treasury official who was involved in drafting the sanctions imposed in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. ‘The bottom line is that the US government has a very shallow bench on Russia. And so they end up acting more-or-less at random.’
“Shallow bench”? More of an echo chamber in which people at the top expect to hear what they want to hear and are told it; reinforced by a news media full of people paid to believe what they believe to be paid. The only challenge to this bubble of complacent idiocy is the difficulty of inventing excuses for failure: Putin tricked Saakashvili, Ukraine would be rich if Putin hadn’t “invaded”, Crimeans are suffering, Russia’s not really fighting ISIS, Putin hacked our elections, the Russian economy trembles, Putin is about to fall (here’s the latest in the long series).
We do know what we’re doing; tomorrow will prove us right; we’ll shout louder.
All this would be harmless and amusing if it were about Ruritania and the Duchy of Strackenz. But this complacent bubble of idiocy directs and informs the behaviour of the “world’s indispensable power” in its undeclared war against a power with enough nuclear weapons to obliterate it.