The Future is Now?

There is no doubt that the situation in the Ukraine where Russian political and economic interests are pitted against those of Western Europe, and by extension to the U.S., is the most serious confrontation with Russia since the war in Kosovo.

I am amused, however, by the dust-up during the first week in March about whether the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) provided adequate and timely warning that Putin would insert military force into the Crimea.  A vague sense of history coupled with “breaking news stories” should have told anyone even casually following events in Kiev that once Putin’s cohort President Viktor Yanukovych  was pushed from power there was a strong likelihood that Russia would use military force to “stabilize” the situation in what it believes is its sphere of influence.  Russia’s modern history of military intervention in its near abroad, whether under the Brezhnev Doctrine or otherwise, is long and undistinguished:  Hungry (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1980) Afghanistan (1979), Chechnya (1994 & 2000), and Georgia (2008).

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that the IC didn’t warn; to the contrary, I agree completely with DNI Clapper’s observation that we have all seen real intelligence failures and the IC’s coverage and warnings regarding developments in the Ukraine were timely and appropriate (http://www.wtop.com/215/3577171/Clapper-Ukraine-intelligence-not-a-failure).  Moreover, policy makers and military commanders did not have to rely on intelligence reports only as there were also plenty of warnings about Russia moving against Crimea in the media.  How many of you without access to classified intelligence reporting were surprised by Russian forces showing into Crimea without resistance?

Given the “common wisdom” of both the intelligence and open source reporting about the Ukraine and the Crimea, if I were the J2 at EUCOM I hope that I would have detailed an analyst or two to ferret out the indicators that the Russians would not move militarily into the Ukraine to make sure that the CoCom’s intel team could provide the staff with a balanced view of events and options based on intelligence empiricals.  If any intelligence service was surprised, though, it appears to be Putin’s who failed to see the strategic direction that political events in the Ukraine were taking.

Nonetheless, any controversy about U.S. IC warning performance post-Yanukovych’s departure just diverts attention from the hard problems facing the IC on the Ukraine.  There are at least two parallel but related issues I believe policy makers need immediate accurate intelligence on.  The first is who are the likely new political leaders in Kiev and are they capable of governing?  There is also the question of what form any “opposition” will take in the new Ukrainian government.  The second is what is Putin likely to do next?  Is the annexation of Crimea by Russia now inevitable?  If it is, what does that mean for the region?  If it is not what can be done to prevent the Crimea from becoming Russian territory again? Following close behind the importance of political developments in Kiev and the Crimea will be salient intelligence regarding the views of allies, neutrals, and adversaries in the region.  What policy makers won’t need is IC inputs on Putin’s potential course of actions, but rather insights from unique intelligence sources (i.e. real secrets) regarding what actions he is likely to take and the reactions they will cause in Kiev, Moscow, Brussels, Berlin, Ankara, Tehran,  Beijing, and whatever cave Ayman al-Zawahiri is operating from.

As the IC rallies to provide predictive intelligence on the Ukrainian situation it should be able to slew remote technical collection to the region, but the IC will find its tactical focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 means it won’t have collectors or analysts as familiar with their targets as they would like or need to be.  The IC will need to accept the reality that there is no “fast forward” button for experience.  Certainly we won’t have the HUMINT capability in place to provide its unique perspective on unfolding events – - – particularly who’s in and who’s out in Ukrainian domestic politics. Additionally the “rebalance to the Pacific” of US national security policy is at least a short term casualty as Defense, State, and the IC focus on the Ukraine while we continue working the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

Ironically, Russia introducing forces into the Crimea 72 hours before the release of the President’s Defense Budget for FY 2015 served to make the budget look as if it is detached from reality and un-executable.  Secretary of Defense Hagel’s position is that the budget assumes prudent risks now (i.e. cuts in force strength) so that the U.S. military can be a more balanced, capable, and ready in the future.  Current events in Crimea, along with China’s maritime aggressiveness in the South and East China Seas, North Korea’s continuing threat to stability in East Asia, Al Qaeda’s resurgence, and Iran’s unclear nuclear ambitions, however, are all shouting “the future is now.”

That’s what I think; what do you think?

One comment on “The Future is Now?

  1. Bacevich opined the US doesn’t need a large Army, but what’s the first thing Putin did? Mass 175k ground forces on the Ukrainian border. Not the Russian fleet keeping NATO and Ukraine at bay.

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