Russia's Spies Are Critical To Putin's Operations In Syria, Ukraine

LONDON, England -- Russia has invaded Georgia, retaken Crimea from Ukraine, supported separatists fighting the Ukraine government and is now taking military action in Syria to bolster the brutal regime of Bashar Assad and to counter advances from the Islamic State group.

How important is Russian intelligence to Putin's global adventures? 

To find out, U.S. News contributor Thomas K. Grose recently talked to British historian Jonathan Haslam, currently a professor at Princeton's School of Historical Studies, and author of the newly published book "Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence." Excerpts:

You write that human intelligence is where Russia has historically excelled. Is that still its strong point? 

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.

The Russians have been studying America to death for over 30 years, and the outcome of the Cold War has enhanced that, not reduced it.

Whereas, in the West, our knowledge of Russia has been gravely reduced because we think we won.

So there is an asymmetry here.

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.

And unfortunately, the more he gets it right, the more he's convinced of his own better judgment, so the higher the risks he's willing to take.

He's willing to risk overflying Turkey, which is a member of NATO, in order to bomb Syria.

He knows the Americans won't shoot down his forces.

He knows exactly how far he can go.

In Ukraine, Russia is relying on asymmetrical warfare – special ops.

Are there historical parallels for its use of this type of warfare? 

Special operations were used by the Soviet Union against prewar Poland.

So special operations, or war by other means, was very much a feature of the 1920s, which was also a time of relative Soviet military weakness.

Asymmetrical activities with covert operations was a substitute for not having the use of direct military power.

How likely is it that Putin is also using these tactics to give a false impression of having a military that's stronger than it really is? 

They are revamping their military in terms of divisions and equipment, but this will cost a fortune and Russia's economy is suffering.

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.

And the Russians do this without a great deal of concern about casualties.

These operations will take place, come what may.

And if people disappear, from Putin's point of view, it will be justified if he can sustain Assad's regime 

Sounds risky. 

From the Russian point of view, America has a president who is not decisive and who is reluctant to commit forces.

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.

To him, the worst option is the collapse of Assad's regime and the dominance of Syria and the Near East by a fanatical, fundamental Islamic terrorist outfit.

So he sees himself as having to get his hands dirty there, to do what he thought the Americans might possibly do for him.

He's realized that no one else is going to this.

Does his military support him? 

From the military, there have been objections to such a policy.

They have been voiced openly in the press, saying, 'This is too risky, this could be another Afghanistan for Russia, this is how we got into Afghanistan, you're not listening to us.'

So Putin is doing this against some of the best advice from his military.

I would guess some of the military had objections to his invasion of Crimea, too.

They said it was too risky:

What if American special forces go in and take our little green men out?

And Putin said, "No, you people don't have strong nerve."

And he went in and did it and succeeded.

I know Ukraine looks like a diabolical mess from the Western point of view.

But from Putin's point of view, he's made a point.

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.'

Source: US News and World Report