WAs the USSR a Russian Empire?

In my latest piece for RT, I discuss whether it’s correct to view the USSR as the Russian Empire 2.0. I note a common effort by pro-Western East European intellectuals to portray the Soviet Union as not ‘Soviet’ but rather an exercise in ‘Russian’ colonialism. The aim thereby is to distance their own countries from Russia and justify a pro-Western vector. However, as I point out in the article, it’s not very good history.

You can read the article here. As always, constructive feedback is welcome.

The Owls Against The Bats: Interview with Argumenty i Fakty

The Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty today published an interview with me on the topic of military intelligence. Those of you who speak Russian can read it by clicking on the picture and enlarging. For those who don’t I have included an English translation below.


The book ‘Military Intelligence’ has been published in Moscow. This is the first research in Russia of the carefully hidden activity of the world’s leading intelligence service.

– Paul, in your opinion, which country’s intelligence services are the most powerful today?

The United States invests more than $80 billion per year in its various intelligence agencies. This gives it the most powerful intelligence apparatus in the world, the largest system of surveillance satellites, a large fleet of drones, the huge resources of the NSA, etc. But this does not mean that the American intelligence services know everything. As we have seen in recent years, in some cases – such as the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 – they have been taken by surprise.

The Americans do not dominate as much as they used to. Other countries are catching up with them, especially China, which has invested significant resources in intelligence over the past few years.

– How would you characterise the state of American military intelligence?

US intelligence provides the military with fairly high-quality information to meet its tactical and operational needs. In the event of a major war, this would give it an advantage. At the same time, it is difficult to say whether US intelligence provides its government with a good strategic understanding of the world. Technical competence is accompanied by a lack of knowledge and understanding of other country’s motives. In other words, U.S. intelligence probably has a good idea of Russia’s military capabilities, but not of what motivates Russian leaders or how they will behave in a given instance.

– Your book doesn’t have chapters on either U.S. or Russian military intelligence. Why is that?

America isn’t included because its intelligence apparatus is so large that it deserves a separate study. And Russia is not discussed because the book is written for a Russian audience to inform it about the outside world.  In addition, it is quite difficult to judge the current state of Russian intelligence, because we do not have sufficient information. In recent years, it has been accused of many sins in the West, including election interference, disinformation, hacking into computer systems, etc. Many of the accusations seem exaggerated. However, there may be something behind them.

– Are there any fundamental differences in how intelligence services in Europe, Asia and the Middle East collect intelligence?

In principle, the methods of collecting and processing information are the same everywhere. Historically, the Americans have been known for their preference for technological methods, while the Russians and Chinese have a reputation for being more committed to old-fashioned “human intelligence.” However, the extent to which these historical habits reflect modern practice seems debatable to me.

– Can you name the country with what in your opinion is the strangest intelligence system?

Israel is probably the most unusual. Its military intelligence agency, AMAN, is more than just a military agency. It plays a key role not only in military but also in political matters, a role that in other countries is usually left to civilian services. Whether this is effective, it is hard to say.

– Which country’s intelligence can be proudest of its agents?

In human intelligence, the best in Europe, perhaps, is the Romanian military. They were able to establish procedures to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is no wonder that the NATO school of human intelligence is located in the Romanian city of Oradea, and that the Americans in Afghanistan used Romanian military intelligence officers.

And which is the most modern?

All intelligence organizations are conservative structures. Military intelligence is doubly so. The modern world is changing rapidly, so intelligence personnel need to adapt and work in a new way. The Swedish MUST is arguably the most ground-breaking intelligence service in the world. It successfully manages to attract civilian specialists, in particular in Russia. The synergistic effect is such that the Swedes, like ants, carry a load that is much greater than their weight.

– How much has the status of intelligence personnel in the world grown or decreased? Do they still have the right to make decisions on their own that will affect the world, or do they carefully coordinate all their actions?

Modern states rely on accurate information when making decisions. The status of intelligence remains high. However, it is not the job of intelligence agencies to make operational decisions; their job is only to advise.

– In your opinion, what 21st century military intelligence operation stands out the most?

One of the most famous intelligence triumphs of recent years was the Americans’ success in finding Osama bin Laden. However, it took so many years to do this that by the time they found and killed him, he was no longer a figure of great importance.

– And what was the most unsuccessful?

Perhaps the most scandalous intelligence failure of the past 20 years was the Anglo-American claim that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. British and American intelligence agencies publicly reported that this was definitely true, a claim that was used to justify the attack on Iraq. As we know today, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. They were 100% wrong.

– Do you have any examples of military intelligence services engaged in covert operations: overthrowing foreign governments, eliminating individuals, conducting propaganda?

Some of them probably do that. Intelligence services also manage special operations forces and perform tasks in the field of internal security and counterintelligence. But these things are not military intelligence functions. For this reason, our publication does not address these issues.

– How have the methods of conducting intelligence changed with the advent of the Internet and other technologies. What new methods have appeared, and what has remained the same? Or is all the intelligence now done by computer?

Modern information technologies have significantly increased the amount of information available to intelligence services. This includes, for example, the billions of phone calls, emails, and social media messages that are produced every day. In addition, more and more intelligence today can be obtained from open and publicly available sources. On the one hand, this opens up great opportunities for intelligence services – if they can find the necessary information, they have a chance to detect things that previously could not be detected. On the other hand, a huge amount of information creates enormous problems – how to find an important message in the middle of so much material? The need to do this has led to a shift to quantitative methodologies and computer-based analysis.

– Can we say that because of new technologies, intelligence agents have become more vulnerable?

With the help of modern technology, it is relatively easy to identify intelligence agents and track their movements and activities. Of course, this makes them more vulnerable, at least until they find ways to improve their operational security.

– When compiling the book, were you not afraid for your life?

We don’t reveal any secrets. Everything in this book is based on information in the public domain. However, this information has not previously been collected in one place. By doing this, we help readers better understand what’s going on in the world around them, what the secret springs are, and why they sometimes work.

– There is an intriguing chapter in the book, “The Battle of The Owls and the Bats”.  Is this about the rivalry between Russian and Ukrainian military intelligence?

The approval in 2016 of the new emblem of Ukrainian military intelligence – an owl that penetrates the territory of Russia with a sword, with the motto on the shield: Sapiens dominabitur astris (“The wise will rule over the stars”) was a symbolic step. The emblem refers to the informal symbol of Russian military intelligence – the bat – and its motto: “Above us – only the stars.”

The new emblem and slogan of the Ukrainian military intelligence directly point to Russia as the main enemy. Ultimately, however, any serious conflict between Russia and Ukraine will be resolved by military force, not intelligence.

– Does the real work of intelligence officers resemble that shown in films?

As a former intelligence officer in the British Army, I can say that real intelligence work has very little to do with James Bond.

– Do you have a favorite film or book about intelligence agents?

I’m not sure about films, but there is a book: Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana. It tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba in the 1950s who is recruited by British intelligence. Not having any access to secret information, but wanting to get money from the British, the salesman sends them drawings of supposed secret installations which he bases on bits of dismantled vacuum cleaners. While this is obvious farce, it’s not that far from the truth – unfortunately, agents often do that kind of thing! Intelligence reports should always be treated with caution.

Bombs Away, Applebaum!

There’s no war so badly lost, it seems, that someone can’t be found to say that it was all a good idea and the problem was not that the war was fought but that it wasn’t fought hard enough. This was once perhaps the purview of conservatively-minded national security types. But since the end of the Cold War it’s been increasingly the opinion of the keyboard warriors in the democracy-promoting intelligentsia who want nothing more than the bomb the world into oblivion for the sake of liberalism and human rights.

So we should hardly be surprised that the debacle in Afghanistan has brought the liberal interventionists out of their closets to argue that America’s never ending wars aren’t the problem – the real problem is that Westerners are lilly-livered softies who are too decadent to stand up and fight against the forces of evil that surround them, and that if we don’t step up the bombing then democracy, liberalism and all the rest of it will collapse in a tsunami of assaults from the liberty-hating Russians, Chinese and Islamists, who together have formed common front designed to destroy us all.

And so it is that Anne Applebaum (who else?) has stepped up to the plate with a little piece in The Atlantic with the catchy title “Liberal Democracy is Worth a Fight.” Of course, the rotten regime that just fell in Afghanistan was hardly a “liberal democracy,” but I guess it was more liberal and more democratic than the Taliban are likely to be, so we’ll let that one slip. The point is clear: liberal democracy is in peril, and Applebaum wants to issue a call to arms: We must fight. Fight, fight, fight. If not, we’re doomed!

Continue reading Bombs Away, Applebaum!

What we need to do post-Afghanistan, but won’t

In my last post, I mentioned the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Nobody who’s been reading his reports for the past dozen or so years could ever have had any doubt about the folly of American policy in Afghanistan. But one can give the Americans credit for something: their political system not only allows, but actually employs someone who has the specific mandate to spend his time revealing all his employer’s follies.

This doesn’t mean that anybody will be held account for their mistakes , but at least the American system provides for a certain degree of transparency, without which learning lessons from past errors is impossible. Unfortunately, we’re not nearly as transparent here in Canada, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be. Overall, all the countries involved in the Afghan fiasco need to engage in some serious reflection, which in turn requires a fair degree of openness and a willingness to listen to unpleasant truths.

So, let’s think about what now needs to be done but, of course, almost certainly won’t be.

The first thing that is needed is that serious reflection I mentioned. A failure on the magnitude of the American/NATO mission in Afghanistan requires a major effort to discover what went wrong and learn appropriate lessons. This might seem to be blindingly obvious, but it needs reiterating. For too often, in the face of disaster, the response of our leaders takes the form of what one might call “let’s move on-ism.” As Tony Blair said after the Iraq war had gone horribly wrong: “I know a large part of the public want to move on. … I share that view.” Rather than reflect on the past and draw appropriate lessons, the tendency is to pretend that it was all a bad dream and that nothing happened. It’s not surprising that we keep repeating the same mistakes.

Reflection alone, however, is not enough. One has to reflect on the right things. The danger is that people will insist on learning not just the wrong lessons but the wrong type of lessons – in other words, they will seek tactical and operational lessons, but strategic ones; they’ll try to learn how to do things better, not consider whether they ought to be doing them at all.

This is a particular issue for military people, as they are by nature ‘how’ people not ‘why’ people. Give them a problem and their natural reaction is to ask ‘how do I do this?’ not ‘why am I doing this?’ or even ‘Should I be doing this in the first place?’ But it’s not just a military problem. In his book The Origins of the Third World War, American sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed a finger of blame at what he called “crackpot realism.” This, he said, was the prevailing mode of thinking of the “power elite”, who are in essence technocratic incrementalists. That’s to say that they are very good at fiddling with existing systems in an effort to improve them; but they never stop to consider the system as a whole.

As I think I’ve said before, crackpot realism is like the inverse of a Monet painting: that’s to say that whereas a Monet painting makes no sense close up but perfect sense from a distance, crackpot realism is utterly logical close up, but crazy when viewed from afar. It’s like Mutual Assured Destruction – theories of strategic nuclear war were perfectly logical, with each step following logically from the last; but when you stood back and looked at it as a whole, it was, quite literally, MAD.

So, we need to avoid crackpot realism, that is to say avoid thinking about fiddling with the system rather than tackling the system itself. When considering “lessons learned” from Afghanistan, we shouldn’t therefore be thinking in terms of how one should conduct such interventions better. We should be considering the fundamental assumptions that lie behind such interventions. Do we have the power to change the world in accordance with our desires? Does intervention makes things better or worse? Should we base our foreign policy on ideology, human rights and all the rest of it? In short, should be we even be doing this stuff? And beyond that, we need to ask questions such as whether a “liberal” international order is an objective that we should be pursuing.

Such questioning will inevitably meet fierce resistance. To face it, we need accountability, which in turn, as I said above, requires openness. Every country involved in the Afghan debacle should do a thorough investigation with the aim of answering key questions. These include: Why did the government get involved? Who gave ministers what advice? Who, in other words, suggested to them that this could work? Who were the journalists, think tankers, and pundits who backed the war in the pages of the press and on TV? Were ministers, generals, political advisors, aid workers, journalists, and others honest with the public? Or did they cover up the true situation in order to win public support for the mission?

In an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen, defence correspondent David Pugliese notes that the Canadian government was repeatedly warned, from an early date, that the mission in Afghanistan was likely to end in disaster. But our political and military leaders chose to ignore the warnings. Pugliese reports how when Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said that, “We are hurtling toward a Vietnam ending,” then Brigadier General (later Chief of the Defence Staff) Jonathan Vance rebuked him for his “uninformed” opinion. Senior officials and generals lined up to say that the Taliban “were on the verge of defeat”. Pugliese notes:

“Over the course of the war, the Canadian public, as well as citizens of other countries, were subjected to one of the most intense government propaganda campaigns since the Second World War. The message pushed the claim that Afghanistan was a success story. … Embedded journalists produced thousands of positive articles. Editorials supported the war effort. A few … raised questions about the mission. They were called traitors.”

Pugliese points our attention to an important fact. A fiasco like Afghanistan doesn’t just happen. It’s made possible by a host of facilitators who fashion public support for it. And that brings us to the final thing we need to do: question how this is possible. How is it that in supposedly democratic societies, with a “free press”, governments can manipulate the media in such a fashion?

These questions force us to consider the makeup of the media, its independence, and its diversity. And here we need to face a harsh reality. In the current climate of fear generated by talk of “disinformation,” “fake news,” and foreign “influence operations,” we are being led to believe that more must be done to clamp down on independent voices. But the problem we face is not that there are too many people out there challenging the “truth” but rather that there are far too few. Critics often scoff at RT’s motto “Question More”, seeing it as encouraging cranks to muddy the waters and create a “post-truth” world. But, we do need to “question more”, and to do it we need more diversity in our media, not less.

To summarize, the Afghan debacle requires us:

  • To reflect.
  • To reflect about strategy not tactics, about fundamentals not superficialities.
  • To expose the truth
  • To hold those responsible to account; and finally:
  • To reform our media landscape.

What’s the chance that we’ll do any of that?

What’s the chance that I’ll win the lottery?

I think you know the answers.

Latest SIGAR REport

With impeccable timing, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued his latest report today. As regular readers will know, I’m a big fan of SIGAR, so rather than comment myself on his report, I’ll just cut and paste the summary his office sent to me. I think that it says all that nearly all that needs to be said – the only thing I’d change would be the last paragraph, which in my opinion, rather than ‘let’s do this better next time’, should say instead ‘don’t do this kind of thing ever again’.

Here goes:


Today, SIGAR released its 11th lessons learned report, What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan ReconstructionThe report examines the past two decades of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, drawing on SIGAR’s 13 years of oversight work.

Key Points:

— Twenty years later, much had improved, and much had not in Afghanistan. If the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that could sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture in Afghanistan is bleak.

— There is no doubt, however, that the lives of millions of Afghans had been improved by U.S. government interventions, including gains in life expectancy, the mortality of children under five, GDP per capita, and literacy rates, among others. Despite these gains, the key question is whether they were commensurate with the U.S. investment or sustainable after a U.S. drawdown. In SIGAR’s analysis, they were neither.

— The U.S. government continuously struggled to develop and implement a coherent strategy for what it hoped to achieve in Afghanistan. No single agency had the necessary mindset, expertise, and resources to develop and manage the strategy to rebuild Afghanistan.

— The bureaucratic disarray over who should and would ultimately own the strategy made it more likely that senior U.S. officials would struggle to address basic challenges in that strategy. The most fundamental of questions were continuously revisited, including who America’s enemies and allies were, and exactly what the U.S. government should try to accomplish. The ends were murky, and grew in number and complexity.

— The U.S. government consistently underestimated the amount of time required to rebuild Afghanistan and created unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritized spending quickly. These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.

— U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve. U.S. officials created explicit timelines in the mistaken belief that a decision in Washington could transform the calculus of complex Afghan institutions, powerbrokers, and communities contested by the Taliban.

— Many of the institutions and infrastructure projects the United States built in Afghanistan were not sustainable. Over time, U.S. policies emphasized that all U.S. reconstruction projects must be sustainable, but Afghans often lacked the capacity to take responsibility for projects. In response, the U.S. government tried to help Afghan institutions build their capacity, but those institutions often could not keep up with U.S. demands for fast progress. Billions of U.S. reconstruction dollars were wasted in Afghanistan as projects went unused or fell into disrepair.

— Counterproductive civilian and military personnel policies and practices thwarted the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The U.S. government’s inability to get the right people into the right jobs at the right times was one of the most significant failures of the mission. It is also one of the hardest to repair. U.S. personnel in Afghanistan were often unqualified and poorly trained, and those who were qualified were difficult to retain.

— Persistent insecurity severely undermined the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The absence of violence was a critical precondition for everything U.S. officials tried to do in Afghanistan—yet the U.S. effort to rebuild the country took place while it was being torn apart.

— At several points over the last two decades, rising insecurity forced policymakers to accept problematic compromises in the development of the country’s official uniformed security forces.

— The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly. Ignorance of prevailing social, cultural, and political contexts in Afghanistan has been a significant contributing factor to failures at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.

— U.S. officials rarely had even a mediocre understanding of the Afghan environment, much less how it was responding to U.S. interventions. Many mistakes were borne from a willful disregard for information that may have been available. In many cases, the U.S. government’s very purpose was to usher in an orderly revolution that would replace existing Afghan social systems with western or “modern” systems. If the intention was to build institutions from scratch, understanding and working within the country’s traditional systems was unnecessary.

— U.S. government agencies rarely conducted sufficient monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to understand the impact of their reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Unless and until agencies are permitted to dramatically increase their staffing levels for program oversight and M&E, the only way to ensure that sufficient time and attention is dedicated to M&E would be for agencies to significantly limit the scale and complexity of the programming they undertake.

— There will likely be times in the future when insurgent control or influence over a particular area or population is deemed an imminent threat to U.S. interests. If the U.S. government does not prepare for that likelihood, it may once again try to build the necessary knowledge and capacity on the fly. As seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing so has proven difficult, costly, and prone to avoidable mistakes.

Full Report: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf

Interactive Report: https://www.sigar.mil/interactive-reports/what-we-need-to-learn/

More on Afghanistan and Western Foreign Policy

In my latest piece for RT (here), I contrast the Western flight from Afghanistan with the relative calm being displayed by the Chinese and Russians. I always like to be positive and find a silver lining somewhere. In the instance of Afghanistan, the fact that the country now has peace for the first time in about 45 years is one such lining. There are some indications that the Taliban may be rather more pragmatic and interested in good governance and positive relations with their neighbours than they were when they first took power in 1996. If that is so, the Russians and Chinese may be well placed to take advantage. As I conclude:

Somewhat strangely, therefore, the rise of the Taliban provides certain opportunities for Afghanistan’s development that were not previously available. It’s far from certain that the Taliban will want to make use of these opportunities, but the Russians and Chinese seem to be willing to give it a shot. If they do, they may well reap considerable benefits.

Meanwhile, you can watch me discuss Afghanistan, NATO, and Western foreign policy with James Carden in this interview for the American Committee for US-Russia Accord.

Explaining Afghanistan’s Collapse

News reports from Afghanistan on Saturday indicated that Taliban forces had advanced as far as Maidan Shar, a town 40 kilometres from the capital Kabul. On Sunday, they were said to be on the outskirts of Kabul itself. This followed a remarkable week in which the Taliban captured the majority of the nation’s provincial capitals, including the second and third largest cities in the country, Kandahar and Herat. The collapse of the Afghan government has been extraordinarily rapid.

As I point out in an article published yesterday by RT (read here), the government collapse compares very unfavourably with what happened after Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989. Then, the government defeated the initial mujahideen offensive and held onto power for a little over 3 years, until the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin cut off the supply of aid. When it comes to building a strong Afghan regime, it seems that after 20 years of effort, America and its allies have managed to do even worse than the Soviets.

How do we explain this?

Continue reading Explaining Afghanistan’s Collapse

NATO: Solution or Problem?

On Tuesday, I gave a talk to the Group of 78 in Ottawa on the topic of ‘NATO: Solution or Problem?’ You can watch it below.

Along the way, I discuss some of the reasons for the dismal failure of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Events have already overtaken me, as the Afghan government collapses like a pack of cards. I will write up a piece on that topic for later today or tomorrow.

Sergei Kovalyov and the Tragedy of Russian Liberalism

Sergei Kovalyov, who died this week, was a controversial figure. A Soviet dissident who became Russia’s first Presidential Human Rights Commissioner, Kovalyov provoked intense reactions. To his admirers he was a principled defender of human rights and democracy, a man of enormous courage who faced down first the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and then the post-Soviet government of Boris Yeltsin. To his detractors, he was a Westernizing zealot devoid of any patriotic feeling who betrayed his country and its soldiers by taking the side of Chechen terrorists. In a sense, Kovalyov embodied the triumphs and tribulations of Russian liberalism, and as such his life deserves a closer look.

Sergei Kovalyov
Continue reading Sergei Kovalyov and the Tragedy of Russian Liberalism

Revolution Is Out; Evolution Is In. The Shifting Strands of Russian Liberal Thought

Simplifying things somewhat, one can identify various strands of Russian liberal thought, each of which has a different view of what is wrong with Russian society. According to these various viewpoints, the problem is alternatively:

a) The Russian state has been hijacked by a small band of ‘crooks and thieves’ who enjoy no popular support. Street revolution is the solution – all you need to do is cut off the rot at the top and all will be well. (Navalny is typical of this, but until recently it was a view that went well beyond him).

b) The problem lies deeper; it’s rooted in the socio-economic system created under Yeltsin, and the solution requires a fundamental restructuring of property relations. (This is the Yabloko/Yavlinsky view.)

c) The problem lies deeper still; it rests in the ‘slave psychology’ of the masses and the solution lies in lustration, decommunization, rewriting of history, and so on, in order to extirpate Homo Sovieticus (the ‘Sovok’) from Russian society. (A popular view among RPR/PARNAS types).

In an article published today in RT (that you can read here), I discuss a potentially important shift in thinking from type a) thinking towards something a little closer to type c), albeit with a crucial difference, namely that rather extirpating the Sovok, author Vladimir Pastukhov says that it’s time for liberals to compromise with him. In the process, he abandons the idea that the Russian government lacks popular support, and abandons also the hope that it will be overthrown by revolution. The way forward will be some sort of compromise, which changes parts of the existing system but also retains many of its elements.

Revolution is out, in other words. Evolution is in.

Happy reading.