Will Putin Fall Victim to One of History’s Classic Blunders?

From Napoleon to Bush, there's good precedent on why it's a bad idea for Russia to invade eastern Ukraine.

As eastern Ukraine descends into a state of chaos and seeming anarchy, the specter of an invasion by Russia ticks ever upward. President Vladimir Putin has demanded a neutral and federated Ukraine, one that would be vulnerable to the Kremlin's coercion and might one day be partitioned. But with masked, armed pro-Russian demonstrators occupying government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv -- and tens of thousands of Russian troops just across the border -- the ante has been upped considerable.

But for all the justifiable fear that Putin is contemplating sending Russian troops into Ukraine, doing so would be a monumental blunder. As it is, Russia's annexation of Crimea is proving costly. Single-handedly, Putin has put the shaky Russian economy at peril; brought down international scorn, suspicion, and shame; awakened Europe from its strategic coma; revived NATO's fortunes; and boosted foreign competition for one of the few commodities Russia can produce and sell: natural gas. If Putin thought seizing Crimea would make the rest of Eastern Europe deferential to Moscow, the opposite is occurring, as anti-Russian/pro-NATO sentiment surges throughout the region.

And yet, Putin seems not to have intuited this lesson. Or perhaps he thinks he's already paid the price, and that taking eastern Ukraine now is worth suffering a bit more opprobrium. But this would be a major strategic misstep -- it would bring much greater harm to Russia's people. The problem is that Putin shows all the signs of following in the footsteps of history's most infamous blunderers, and the decision-making traits he exhibits are both familiar and ominous.

Leaders who make big strategic mistakes are often afflicted with excessive hubris. Both Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 had gained a string of decisive battlefield victories which gave them a sense of invincibility, if not destiny. Both, of course, invaded Russia and lost massive armies. Putin's hubris is not based upon a string of military victories, however, but upon a conviction that he knows how to intimidate Russia's neighbors. He has occupied two provinces of Georgia, directed cyberwarfare against Estonia, threatened Poland with nuclear missiles, manipulated the dependence of customers on Russian gas, and sought to provoke unrest among Russian minorities in other countries. He appears to think that the seizure of Crimea is a great success -- ignoring the self-harm it will do -- which reinforces his belief that he is in control, and that he can write a script in which others will meekly play their assigned roles. Such unwarranted confidence is a classic cognitive flaw that correlates strongly with a potential to commit blunders.

Leaders who make bad strategic decisions often are driven by grievances they feel need to be rectified or by messianic visions of future gains to be won by military might. Hitler sought vast space in the East for Germans to live and farm, which led to the invasion of the Soviet Union. As Japan entered World War II, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo believed in its divine right to rule much of Asia. Likewise, the Argentinean generals in 1982 thought they could recover what they saw as sacred territory in the Falklands conflict, so they attacked. In 1979, the Soviet Union overextended itself to militarily protect nascent communism in Afghanistan. Each of these flawed visions led not only to defeat, but to the eventual demise of the guilty party.

Putin carries a long list of grievances: NATO enlargement; Western interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya; U.S. abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and what he sees as Western interference in Russia's domestic politics. His vision is to reassemble as much of the old Soviet Union as possible -- short of producing war with NATO. This combination of hubris and grievance could compel him to take further risks with Russia's future.

Blundering leaders also typically underestimate the will, capabilities, and options of their adversaries, as well as the operational difficulties their forces will face. Hence, they are confident that success will come quickly. The list is almost endless: Napoleon misjudged Russian tactics in 1812, expecting them to engage in an early climactic battle near the border rather than drawing him deep into Russia, and total defeat. The German General Staff completely underestimated America's will and ability in 1917 to enter World War I before Great Britain could be starved into submission by U-boat attacks on neutral shipping. Hitler thought the rotten Soviet state would collapse if he just "kicked in the door." China invaded Vietnam in 1979 expecting quick success, ignoring the fact that the Vietnamese had outlasted and defeated France and the United States in the preceding decades. The Argentinean junta ignored the possibility that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would dispatch a military force to retake the Falklands. And, of course, the United States in 2003 miscalculated the duration and cost of occupying Iraq. Putin is similarly capable of underestimating the West's response (or domestic partisans) to an invasion of Ukraine.

Blunders also occur because leaders see short-term opportunities without weighing the long-term consequences of pursuing them. Japan's leaders believed they could create hegemony throughout East Asia before the United States recovered from the destruction of its fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Soviet Politburo was confident it could stabilize Afghanistan without considering the possibility that military intervention would have the opposite effect. And the United States sought short-term victory by invading Iraq and disregarded warnings about prolonged, bloody, costly insurgency. Putin may see a window of opportunity in Ukraine today, but does he understand the lasting damage to Russia that tougher Western sanctions could cause?

Strategic risks are sometimes taken to solidify personal authority at home. The Argentinean junta thought attacking the Falklands would make them heroes and assure their longevity; in fact, it hastened their removal. Putin's popularity -- despite the success of the Sochi Games -- was at a low point before he annexed Crimea; it has risen significantly since then. Any politician should know that the trend cannot last: But will he now overreach in an effort to ride the wave of Russian nationalism? Will Putin place a boost in his immediate political fortunes against the harm that could come to his country?   

From Napoleon's and Hitler's invasions of Russia to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, from China's attack on Vietnam to the U.S. adventure in Iraq, history provides a lesson -- not just of tactical or strategic failure, but of foresight: to think through what could have gone wrong. Likewise, Putin may reckon that the West fears getting involved or that Ukraine's regular military forces are no match for Russia's, but that is not the end of the story. Ukrainians could well fight an unconventional war, reminiscent of the one Afghans fought against Soviet occupiers. NATO may not send troops to defend Ukraine, much as it did not send troops to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland during the Cold War. But an invasion of Ukraine will stimulate Western defense spending that Russia, with its much smaller economy, cannot remotely match.

And there's one more dangerous analog. In virtually every blunder we have studied, the advisors, commanders, and institutions surrounding the decision-maker were unwilling or unable to speak truth to power -- whether out of awe (for Napoleon), fear (of Hitler), intimidation (by Japanese generals), group-think (the Soviets), or loyalty (Bush). Silencing dissent, discouraging debate, dismissing doubt, showing who's in charge, and displaying decisiveness are frequent ingredients in strategic mistakes. Putin and his small, submissive entourage fit this pattern.

The recipe is there for all to see. And there are enough parallels between the great historical blunders and Putin's intentions today to make one anxious. One hopes that Putin and those around him will learn from the mistakes of others and refrain from an attack on Ukraine. Doing so could isolate Russia and impoverish its people. And Putin may think that he can change history, but the past has a funny way of informing the future.



Spies Like Us

A former spook tells us why "The Americans" is filled with more intrigue than real espionage.

The big bad bear from Moscow is back, and not just in Crimea. FX's The Americans, about deep-cover KGB "illegals" living in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s, is now midway through its second season. There's much to like about the show, from top-notch performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, to their reliance on clunky, retro-spy technology, to the clever manipulation of a common fear felt, no doubt, by most children at one point or another that their parents have secret identities (it ain't paranoia if it's true).

But I was in the intelligence business too, and a fundamental part of the series irks me. Even though the CIA hired me after the 9/11 attacks to fight a new menace -- terrorism and Islamic extremism -- the corridors at Langley still echo with the footsteps of old timers who recall the protean fight against the Soviets. And regardless of how that conflict is portrayed in Joe Weisberg's captivating series, it was not a sequence of increasingly lethal encounters between U.S. and Russian intelligence services.

To be sure, much about the show is based on reality. The premise -- that Russian spooks were living double lives in the suburbs -- was inspired in part by a real-life network of Russian illegals (made famous by the bombshell Anna Chapman) that was busted by the FBI in 2010. Then there is the series of background events -- the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig's controversial statement that "I'm in control here" -- that situate the drama on an authentic historical timeline.

But The Americans' fidelity to fact often ends there: The KGB certainly ran significant intelligence gathering operations during the Cold War -- and even carried out "dirty tricks," like organizing a racist letter-writing campaign, purportedly by American white supremacists, against African diplomats at the United Nations, and desecrating American synagogues and Jewish cemeteries to stir up discord and prove that the United States was a lousy place to live. At the end of the day, however, the KGB never actually killed anyone in America. Washington was a violent place back in the Reagan years, but not because Russian spies were murdering folks left and right.

After all, killing people -- like the security guards, former assets, and random civilians that bite the dust in The Americans -- in pursuit of intelligence is fraught with danger. Political murder would not only have focused America's domestic security apparatus onto Soviet affairs like a laser, it would have also threatened bilateral relations -- with potentially devastating consequences. For instance, when U.S. government contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two thieves on a Lahore street in 2011, the incident touched off a massive diplomatic row that threatened to upend an already-strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship. If the Soviets had behaved similarly on the streets of Washington during the height of the Cold War, they could have set off a massively destabilizing tit-for-tat escalation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Cold War espionage involved more dead drops, covert meetings, and brush passes than brazen assassination attempts. In fact, there's only ever been one assassination of a Soviet defector in D.C. -- in 1941 at the Bellevue Hotel, and it may have actually been a suicide. If Stalin's genocidal People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, could only muster one possible killing in America, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov's KGB would not have dared.

So what were these Soviet illegals actually doing in the suburbs? Probably not too much, according to retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, who wrote in his memoirs that the deep cover agents were the "least productive" of the KGB's branches working in the U.S. capital. The most recent batch of busted Russian deep-cover agents apparently only managed to collect open-source material during their stay in America -- information that could have been discovered by anyone with Internet access. In fact, the U.S. Justice Department didn't charge any of them with espionage because they never actually sent any classified information back to Moscow. It wasn't exactly the stuff of a Robert Ludlum thriller.

Nor were American spies the kind of cowboys portrayed in The Americans. Spoiler Alert: Much of the first season revolves around how the members of an FBI counterintelligence unit begin to take their jobs so personally that they try to kill a top KGB official at the Soviet Embassy, spurred purely by revenge. Even more incredibly, an American assassin manages to take out a KGB general in his Moscow apartment. Sure, there was plenty of skullduggery in the 1980s, but killing diplomatically protected individuals in America is a bridge too far. And sending assassins to Moscow to kill KGB officials is pure lunacy.

The reality is that it's far more practical to swap compromised assets for American human assets caught behind enemy lines. After all, that's what the FBI has traditionally done, monitoring real-life illegals like Anna Chapman before arresting and swapping them for compromised Russian personnel that were secretly working for the United States.

Finally, there was an unspoken understanding about reciprocal behavior between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially during the era of The Americans. Even abroad in hot wars like 1980s Afghanistan, there were general rules about taking lives. As Steve Coll noted in his book Ghost Wars, "The CIA and KGB had settled during the 1980s into a shaky, unwritten gentlemen's agreement that sought to discourage targeting each other's salaried professional officers for kidnapping and murder." This went beyond professional courtesy: Intelligence officials understood that the tables could be turned in another battlefield. Whacking KGB officers in Kabul could get CIA personnel bumped off in, say, Managua.

As such, even though the United States funneled all manner of high-tech weaponry and explosives to the Afghan mujahidin, the CIA refrained from sending certain night-vision goggles or sniper scopes that could be used to target specific individuals for assassination. The agency also refused to provide satellite imagery that would have revealed where specific Soviet officials lived. So even in a very ugly war, there were some limits.

With U.S.-Russia tensions on the rise over Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere, the bogeyman from Moscow in The Americans feels ripped from today's headlines. But by portraying an increasingly baroque series of killings as a proxy for effective intelligence gathering, the series stays firmly in the world of entertainment. To be fair, Weisberg has always been open about his disappointment with the banality of real intelligence work. A CIA employee for a brief period in the 1990s, he decided he'd rather write about spies than be one. For those of us with experience in the shadowy world of intelligence, however, The Americans is a little too good to be true.

Photo courtesy of FX; illustration by FP