Russian President Vladimir Putin is a notorious former KGB spy, who became the president of Russia in 2000. Ever since then, his country invaded Georgia, annexed Crimea, created a deadly chaos in eastern Ukraine, and is now bombing U.S.-trained rebels in Syria.
How strongly does Putin rely on his spies and Russian intelligence to wreak havoc in the world and yet remain unpunished?
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“Human intelligence is still Russia’s forte. It is darkly obvious that they know the real balance of power. They know who’s strong, who’s weak. Their understanding of American politics is very fine-tuned,” Jonathan Haslam, a British historian and a professor at Princeton’s School of Historical Studies, told U.S. News.
Haslam claims that the Russians have been studying the U.S. “to death” for over 30 years, and the end of Cold War, in which the U.S. believes it won, actually enhanced Russia’s studying of America, not reduced it.
The U.S., meanwhile, has lost a lot in terms of knowledge of Russia, because the Americans think they won the Cold War, the historian said, and added that “there is an asymmetry here.”
Putin knows how far he can go
“When Putin makes decisions about what to do abroad, Ukraine or wherever, it looks like folly. But actually if you take into account their reading of what we’re likely to do, they’re not wrong, are they? He’s got it right,” Haslam said in the interview.
However, the dangerous thing is that the more Putin gets it right, the more he is convinced of his own better judgment, which results in even higher risks that he’s willing to take, according to Haslam.
To prove the point, the expert reminded of Russia’s recent invasion into the airspace of Turkey, a NATO member, the move which could have unleashed a war between Russia and NATO.
But Putin “knows the Americans won’t shoot down his forces,” Haslam said. “He knows exactly how far he can go.”
It is also believed that Putin might be creating a false impression of having military might that is more formidable than it actually is. And that’s where Putin’s spies come in handy.
Putin has repeatedly vowed to modernize Russia’s military sector for the total cost of $400 billion. But since the Russians are unlikely to afford such a thing in the nearest future due to Russia’s economy suffering from Western economic sanctions, Putin has shifted his focus to covert operations and espionage.
Putin’s covert operations and espionage
“Covert operations are cheaper than major operations. You’re going to see the same in Syria. They’re about to send in hundreds [more] little green men to go around and do things in a more efficient way than the Assad regime can manage,” Haslam said. “And the Russians do this without a great deal of concern about casualties.”
He added that when people start disappearing, Putin believes it is justified if he can help the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody regime survive and continue wreaking havoc in the Middle East.
Putin believes that U.S. President Barack Obama as an indecisive and a “reluctant to commit forces” President, according to Haslam. “So when the Russians look at Washington, they feel that these people make verbal commitments to do things, like getting rid of [the Islamic State group], sending in air strikes, blah, blah, blah, but actually there aren’t really results. Whereas Putin, what does he see? He doesn’t see a best option here.”
From Putin’s point of view, the worst possible scenario is the death of the Assad regime and as a result, the dominance of ISIS terrorists in the Middle East. And while Putin used to think that the Americans would be capable of wiping ISIS from the face off the earth, he has now realized that he is the one who has to get his hands dirty.
“He’s realized that no one else is going to do this,” Haslam said.
Putin: U.S. forces won’t touch us, they won’t push back
As for Russia’s military and their support for Putin, it seems rather ambiguous. From one point of view, there have been objections to Putin’s aggressive policy, according to Haslam.
A number of military officials have openly voiced their concern in the press saying that the ongoing military operation in Syria is dangerous and that it could turn into another Afghanistan for Russia. However, “Putin is doing this against some of the best advice from his military,” the expert said.
Haslam also believes that some of the military were concerned about Putin’s invasion in Crimea, too, saying it was too risky. Despite Russian military objections and concerns that U.S. special forces might go in and take Russian troops out of Crimea, Putin still “went in and did it and succeeded,” the expert noted.
With his successful operation in Ukraine, Putin has made a point, Haslam said, describing how Putin’s mindset works: “The Americans won’t touch us. The Americans won’t push back. And so in Syria,’ he tells his military, ‘You just don’t have the nerve. We can do it. It won’t be an Afghanistan.’”
ValueWalk recently reported that a greater war between the U.S. and Russia is inevitable, as said by a U.S. political analyst Linda Chavez. In her op-ed published in Citizen-Times, Chavez wrote that Obama’s hesitancy has led to Russia having 30 warplanes that launch airstrikes against U.S.-trained rebels in Syria.
Chavez also noted that there soon may be Russian troops on the ground in Syria – the so-called ‘volunteers’ – like the ones Russia deployed in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Along with the air campaign in Syria, Russia is firing its most sophisticated cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea a thousand miles away and targets not ISIS as it claims, but the U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels in Syria, according to numerous reports.