The West has struggled to predict and later understand Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is a big reason for that. His KGB past is still mythologised in the West, and he is often portrayed as either a ruthless strategist or a victim of his own paranoia. Jack Barsky, an ex-KGB agent during the Cold War, offers an insight into Putin’s past, his strategy in Ukraine, and highlights the mistakes of Western intelligence and foreign policy when it comes to understanding the war in Ukraine.
There is a mystery and intrigue surrounding Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, that feels like a remnant of the Cold War. Putin in particular carries with him some of the darkness and mythology that accompanied the KGB, having served as an agent in the security agency in Dresden, Germany.
Today, when trying to decipher Putin’s motives and tactics in Russia’s war against Ukraine, many Western analysts are left baffled. They swing between the extremes of seeing Putin as a skilled strategist, a grand master chess player always several steps ahead of his opponents, and dismissing him as someone who’s lost touch with reality and gone mad, or been consumed by illness. Neither of these two portraits seems to give a full or sophisticated picture.
So could a fellow ex-KGB agent give us a better understanding of Putin’s mindset and strategy? Jack Barsky was a sleeper Soviet agent from 1978 to 1988 based in the United States. Born in East Germany under the name Albrecht Dittrich, whilst a student at the University of Jena he was recruited by the Stasi, the East German secret police, to join the KGB. He was sent to Moscow in 1975 and after three years of further training was eventually dispatched to America with the rather ambitious directive to embed himself into American society, make contacts with foreign policy think tanks, and eventually "get close" to President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, with the ultimate aim of influencing US foreign policy. After the end of the Cold War, and a few years after he had severed ties with the KGB, Barsky was discovered by the FBI. Following his cooperation with the FBI and the NSA, he eventually became a US citizen in 2014.
“Western intelligence has been a failure since
The West’s failure to predict Putin’s actions
We started our conversation by focussing on why the West failed to predict Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the first place. Even as tanks and the Russian army were building up at the border with Eastern Ukraine, there were doubts about whether Putin was actually going to invade - a significant intelligence failure. “Western intelligence has been a failure since the Cold War,” said Barsky. “When the Berlin wall came down, everyone was surprised. When the Soviet Union collapses in 1991, no one expected that.”
How we got Putin so wrong Read more But leaving the failure of intelligence services aside, did the West fail to take Putin seriously as a threat to global security and peace? Going over his speeches prior to the invasion of Ukraine, political scientists now point out that Putin was explicit about what he wanted to do to Ukraine. “He said it all publicly some years ago, and he was very open about it. He even wrote an essay about how he wanted to reinstate a Great Russia. Although, by the way, there was never such a thing as Great Russia, it was always mostly a country of peasants,” said Barsky.
So why did the West fail to heed Putin’s warnings? Part of the answer has to be that the US, at least, was so focussed on the war on terrorism that it had no time to focus on Russia or China. The other reason? “Daydreaming.” Barsky blames Barack Obama’s administration for being naïve about the supposed “reset” of the West’s relations with Russia. “They should have talked to someone like Henry Kissinger or Brzezinski for advice. Interestingly, they were both Europeans.” According to Barsky, the US simply hasn’t had a very professional approach to foreign policy for a number of administrations, including Trump’s.
“He is very calculated and focussed in his efforts to create a mythology about himself that will survive in the coming centuries, right next to Peter the Great. That’s what’s driving the guy.”
And what about Putin? Which of the two portrayals of him by the West does he think is more accurate: the master strategist or the madman? “Putin is not crazy,” Barsky says confidently. He references a recent interview with Kenneth Dekleva, a former US physician-diplomat who spent five years in Moscow and who has extensively studied and profiled adversarial leaders for US national security and policy communities. “I do not find, nor have I seen in over 22 years of closely studying Putin, any signs of mental instability. He is, and remains, a rational actor,” Dekleva concluded.
“He’s not suicidal, and he’s not stupid. The moment he launches a nuke, he’s done.”
That is not to say that Putin is making no strategic mistakes. “Nobody is the master of everything,” says Barsky. But “he is very calculated and focussed in his efforts to create a mythology about himself that will survive in the coming centuries, right next to Peter the Great. That’s what’s driving the guy.”
As for the question that’s been hanging over the war in Ukraine since the very start, whether Putin is willing to use nuclear weapons, Barsky couldn’t be more adamant: “He’s not suicidal, and he’s not stupid. The moment he launches a nuke, he’s done.” Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about the nuclear threat: during the Cold War the world came close to nuclear disaster because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation between the two sides.
Tensions are also not helped by politicians such as President Joe Biden, who call Putin names like war-criminal, and escalate tensions, said Barsky. The more tension, the higher the possibility of an accident, of one’s words being misinterpreted. “It’s unproductive and it’s dangerous. It’s politics!” he says with frustration. With such attacks, Biden is principally speaking to the American people, but foreign policy shouldn’t be dictated by internal politics, he says. It was also unwise of Biden to say publicly that the US would not get involved militarily with Russia. Barsky said: “Keep them guessing! In that respect, Donald Trump did a pretty good job. He was such a wildman that people from the outside didn’t know what he’d do.”
“The United States has always overestimated the capability of the KGB, but they were just as flawed as any bureaucracy.”
And what about the mythology around the all-powerful KGB and by extension Putin? This image of the security agency, according to Barsky, is largely based on the testimony of Yuri Besmenov, another former agent who defected to the West. In a 1984 interview, Besmenov claimed the KGB had a master plan to undermine the political system of the US. But, according to Barsky, “Besmenov was a fraud” and the KGB has been consistently overestimated.
“I don’t have proof positive, but I have enough knowledge of what the KGB was capable of doing; I have enough knowledge of what they knew and didn’t know. I was one of their best, and the people that trained me were people that had lived in the United States under diplomatic cover, and they were completely clueless, they didn’t understand how American society works. So how do you undermine something that you don’t know how it works? There was phenomenal ignorance.”
“The United States has always overestimated the capability of the KGB, but they were just as flawed as any bureaucracy,” Barsky continues. “There was a lot of dead wood, a lot of ignorance, a lot of politics. The KGB was not 10 feet tall.
The philosophers behind Putin Read more “We had some good agents, but our biggest successes in the United States came from defectors”. As for Vladimir Putin, “he would have learned the basic stuff: how to keep a secret, how to manipulate people, but I can’t imagine he was one of the best graduates of his class because he was launched in East Germany, a vassal state, a friendly country. If you have a dozen graduates, who do you send to East Germany and who do you send to West Germany?” Barsky asks, suggesting that the most impressive spies would be sent to the most adversarial countries. “But he was known as a good organiser,” Barsky admits. When Putin became prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, he cleaned up the mess - “the country had become ungovernable”. He was a good networker and as a former agent, he had access to people who became politicians or oligarchs.
“China has its own vision of the future. At the moment, this is a marriage of convenience. But I don’t see this alliance developing into something as strong as NATO.”
But beyond his organisational and networking skills, Putin is also a visionary. And even if part of his vision is to “Make Russia Great Again”, it looks like there is a broader plan of developing an anti-Western alliance with China and other powers. Barsky admits that this might be part of what Putin would like to see happen - the birth of an anti-NATO alliance. But he’s not convinced that it’s within Putin’s means, at least in the short-run, and he thinks Putin knows that. “He’s not stupid, he knows his limitations.” A potential alliance with China would not be straightforward or easy, says Barsky. The two countries share a long border, and that there has been a history of tensions and hostilities. “China has its own vision of the future. At the moment, this is a marriage of convenience. But I don’t see this alliance developing into something as strong as NATO.”
Who’s going to win the war?
At the same time as the war on Ukraine, Russia is waging an energy war on Europe, limiting the supply of oil and gas, with Europe seemingly left powerless. Is Putin holding all the cards when it comes to this proxy war and is his blackmail going to be effective in reducing Western support for Ukraine as energy and food prices soar? Barsky isn’t convinced this strategy is going to work. The shortage of oil and gas that Putin can create can largely be covered by oil from the Middle East.
“This war is not really winnable. Even if Russia occupies a large chunk, or even all of Ukraine, the war will not stop.”
“The question becomes, who can last longer? There is a lot of damage being done to the Russian economy. They’re not getting parts, expertise, a lot of companies have closed shop altogether, to the extent that Russia can’t manufacture. There’s no clear winner at this point. It will all depend on the West’s stamina to continue with the economic sanctions.”
Speaking of stamina, the biggest question remains: who will win the actual war? Russia has gained some ground and appears determined to stick it out for the long haul. So will its military superiority ultimately grind down the Ukrainian fighting spirit – something that came as a surprise to the entire world, including Russia?
Barsky was baffled by why Russia would ever have thought Ukrainians wouldn’t fight back as “there is a deep-seated hatred among Ukrainians towards Russia’s state”. But even he was surprised at the extent of this hatred, which meant that swathes of the population were willing to become soldiers to fight off the invader. Ultimately it is this hatred of Russia by Ukrainians that will determine the outcome, he says. “This war is not really winnable. Even if Russia occupies a large chunk, or even all of Ukraine, the war will not stop. It will be very similar to what happened to the United States in Afghanistan.”
Eventually, there will have to be a settlement, a negotiation. What is needed is a mediator who can speak to both sides. There is no other exit strategy for either Russia or Ukraine, says Barsky.
A Western fantasy is that if only Putin was out of the picture, Russia would no longer pose a threat to its neighbours and the West. Lindsey Graham, a US Senator, called openly for Putin’s assassination. What does Barsky make of this line of thinking – if Putin and his megalomania were out of the way, would peace return to the region?
To answer this, Barsky reaches back into history, and in particular to Nazi Germany. Germany in the 1930s was one of the most civilized countries in Europe, he says, with a largely educated population. But in just over 10 years, Hitler was able to infuse Germans with his ideology. Putin has had 22 years and he’s dealing with a much less educated population. The Russian nation is by this point highly contaminated, according to Barsky, and no matter who is in charge there won’t be much change.
The idea that removing Putin is all that’s needed, or that that is even possible, is a daydream. Hitler survived 22 assassination attempts. This is going to be a long war.