Commentary: There Is still the Need to Debunk the Yarn of Trump as “Russian Federation Spy”

The current director of the Russian Federation’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Sergey Naryshkin (above). US President Donald Trump’s adversaries have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties, which has been akin to seeking long shadows at high noon. Some in the opposition Democratic Party have gone as far as to offer dangerous fantasies that Trump and officials in his administration are operatives of the Russian Federation. The notion that Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers would not only approach, but even more, attempt to recruit Trump, is daylight madness. No one knows that better than Naryshkin and the directors of the other Russian Federation intelligence services. It is more than likely that in the 2020 US Presidential Election, the outcome will go Trump’s way. Unfortunately, many of the ludicrous allegations, having been propagated for so long and with prodigious intensity by his adversaries, will likely stick to some degree for some time.

From what has been observed, critics and detractors, actual adversaries of US President Donald Trump, within the US news media and among scholars, policy analysts, political opponents, and leaders of the Democratic Party, have exhibited a practically collective mindset, determined to find wrong in him as President and as a person. His presidency was figuratively born in the captivity of such attitudes and behavior and they remain present among those same circles, four years later. Trump’s adversaries have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties, which has been akin to seeking long shadows at high noon. Many of those engaged in such conduct have garnered considerable notoriety. Specific individuals will not be named here. When all is considered, however, those notables, in reality, have only left a record littered with moments of absolute absurdity. That record might break their own hearts, if they ever took a look over their shoulders. In developing their attacks on Trump, his adversaries have built whimsy upon whimsy, fantasy upon fantasy. One stunt that became quite popular was to make an angry insinuation of Trump’s guilt in one thing or another, and attach the pretense of knowing a lot more about the matter which they would reveal later, in an childlike effort to puff themselves up. Ita durus eras ut neque amore neque precibus molliri posses. (You were so unfeeling that you could be softened neither by love nor by prayers.)

Of the many accusations, the worst was the claim, proffered with superfluity, that Trump and his 2016 US Presidential Campaign were somehow under the control of the Russian Federation and that he was the Kremlin’s spy. The entire conception, which developed into much more than a nasty rumor, a federal investigation to be exact, was daylight madness. (It is curious that anyone would be incautious enough to cavalierly prevaricate on hypothetical activities of the very dangerous and most ubiquitous Russian Federation foreign intelligence services in the first place.) Before the matter is possibly billowed up by Trump’s adversaries again in a desperate effort to negatively shape impressions about him, greatcharlie has made the humble effort to present a few insights on the matter that might help readers better appreciate the absolute fallaciousness of the spy allegation.

With regard to the yarn of Trump as Russian Federation spy, his adversaries sought to convince all that they were comfortable about accusing Trump of being such because they had the benefit of understanding all that was necessary about the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of the Russian Federation’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU, and, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. However, it was frightfully obvious that the whole subject was well outside the province of those self-declared experts. Whenever they made statements concerning how Russian Federation foreign intelligence services operated, no doubt was left that they did not have a clue as to what they were talking about. It actually appeared that everything they knew about it all was gleaned from James Bond and Jason Bourne films, as well as streaming television programs about spying. That fact was made more surprising by the fact that Members of both chambers of the US Congress who were among Trump’s political adversaries actually can get facts about how everything works through briefings from the US Intelligence Community. They even have the ability to get questions answered about any related issue by holding committee hearings. Those on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in particular, can get themselves read-in on a good amount of available intelligence on an issue. The words and actions of many political leaders leaves open the real possibility that they were intentionally telling mistruths about Trump with the goal of deceiving the US public. That would simply be depraved and indefensible. As one should reasonably expect, there are stark differences between the banal amusements of Hollywood and the truths about spying.

Imaginably as part of their grand delusion, Trump’s adversaries would claim the reason why Russian Federation foreign intelligence would want to recruit him would be to establish an extraordinary, unprecedented level of access to, and influence upon, US policymaking, decisionmaking, and top secret information. In considering how Russian Federation foreign intelligence senior executives and managers would likely assess Trump as a recruitment prospect, purely out of academic interest, one of the first steps would be a genuine examination of his traits. Among the traits very likely to be ascribed to Trump that would obviate him as an intelligence recruitment target would include: his extroverted personality; his gregarious, talkative nature; his high energy; his desire to lead and be in command at all times; his oft reported combustible reactions to threats or moves against him, his family, or their interests; his strong intellect; his creativity; his curious, oftentimes accurate intuition; his devotion to the US; and his enormous sense of patriotism. To advance this point furthrr, if Russian Federation foreign intelligence senior executives and managers were to theoretically ruminate on just these traits while trying to reach a decision on recruiting him, they would surely conclude that an effort to get him to betray his country would fail miserably. Indeed, they would very likely believe that an attempted recruitment would more than likely anger Trump. They would also have good reason to fear that he would immediately contact federal law enforcement and have the intelligence officers, who approached him, picked up posthaste. If any of the lurid negative information that his adversaries originally alleged was in the possession of the Russian Federation intelligence services–all which has since been totally debunked–were used by Russian Federation intelligence officers to coerce him, Trump might have been angered to the point of acting violently against them. (This is certainly not to state that Trump is ill-tempered. Rather, he has displayed calmness and authority in the most challenging situations in the past 4 years.) Whimsically, one could visualize Russian Federation intelligence officers hypothetically trying to coerce Trump, being immediately reported by him and picked up by services of the US Intelligence Community or federal law enfiecement, and then some unstable senior executives and managers in Yasenevo would go on to publicize any supposed embarassing information on him. That would surely place the hypothetical intercepted Russian Federation intelligence officers in far greater jeopardy with the US Department of Justice. They could surrender all hope of being sent home persona non grataCorna cervum a periculis defendunt. (Horns protect the stag from dangers.)

Perhaps academically, one might imagine the whole recruitment idea being greenlit by senior executives and managers of the Russian Federation foreign intelligence services despite its obvious deficiencies. Even if they could so recklessly throw caution to the wind, it would be beyond reason to believe that any experienced Russian Federation foreign intelligence officer would want to take on an assuredly career-ending, kamikaze mission of recruiting Trump and “running” him as part of some magical operation to control the US election and control the tools of US national power. As a practical matter, based on the traits mentioned here, no Russian Federation intelligence officer would have any cause to think that Trump could be put under his or her control. Not likely having a truly capable or experienced officer step forward to take on the case would make the inane plot Trump’s adversaries have speculated upon even less practicable. Hypothetically assigning some overzealous daredevil to the task who might not fully grasp the intricacies involved and the nuance required would be akin to programming his or her mission and the operation for failure. (Some of Trump’s adversaries declare loudly and repeat as orbiter dictum the ludicrous suggestion that Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin was his intelligence “handler.” No one in the Russian Federation foreign intelligence mens sana in corpore sano, and as an existential matter, would ever suggest that Putin should involve himself in such an enterprise. The main reason for that being because he is Putin, and that means far more in the Russian Federation than outsiders might be able to comprehend.) One could go even a step further by pointing out that in order to make his adversaries’ notional plot work, Russian Federation foreign intelligence senior executives and managers conceivably involved would need to determine how to provide Trump with plenty tutoring along the way given that Trump had no experience whatsoever with the work involved in the sort complicated conspiracy as his adversaries have envisioned. Such notional work would require the impossible, Trump’s “obedience,” and even more, plenty of covert contact, thereby greatly increasing the chance that any Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers involved would be noticed and caught.

Politically, for Russian Federation foreign intelligence service senior executives and managers, there will always be a reluctance to make new problems for the Kremlin. If proper Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers under this scenario were actually caught attempting to recruit Trump, US-Russian relations would be put in a far worse place than where they were before the theoretical operation was executed. If the matter of recruiting Trump were ever actually brought up at either SVR or GRU headquarters, it would imaginably be uttered only as an inappropriate witticism at a cocktail reception filled with jolly chatter or during some jovial late night bull session with plenty of good vodka on hand. Even under those circumstances, experienced professionals would surely quiet any talk about it right off. Unquestionably, few on Earth could be more certain that Trump was not a Russian Federation operative than the Russian Federation foreign intelligence services, themselves. For the Russians, watching shadowy elements of the US Intelligence Community work hard to destroy an innocent man, the President of the US nevertheless, must have been breathtaking.

Information that may appear to be evidence for those with preconceptions of a subject’s guilt very often turns out to be arbitrary. One would not be going out on shaky ground to suggest that a far higher threshold and a more finely graded measure should have been used by the US Intelligence Community to judge the actions of the President of the US before making the grave allegation that the country’s chief executive was functioning as a creature of a hostile foreign intelligence service. Initiating an impertinent federal investigation into whether the US President was a Russian Federation intelligence based primarily on a negative emotional response to the individual, and based attendantly on vacuous surmisals on what could be possible, was completely unwarranted, could reasonably be called unlawful, and perhaps even be called criminal. Evidence required would imaginably include some indicia, a bona fide trail of Russian Federation foreign intelligence tradecraft leading to Trump. The hypothetical case against him would have been fattened up a bit by figuratively scratching through the dust to track down certain snags, hitches, loose ends, and other tell-tale signs of both a Russian Federation foreign intelligence operation and presence around or linked to him.

To enlarge on that, it could be expected that an approach toward Trump by Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers under the scenario proffered by his adversaries most likely would have been tested before any actual move was made and authentic evidence of that initial effort would exist. Certain inducements that presumably would have been used to lure Trump would have already been identified and confirmed without a scintilla of doubt by US counterintelligence services and law enforcement as such. To suggest that one inducement might have been promising him an election victory, as his adversaries have generally done, is farcical. No reasonable or rational Republican or Democrat political operative in the US would ever be so imprudent as to offer the guarantee of an election victory to any candidate for any local, state, or national office. Recall how the good minds of so many US experts failed to bring victory to their 2016 Presidential candidates, to their 2018 midterm Congressional candidates, and to their 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates. Anyone who would believe that the Russian Federation Intelligence Community would be more certain and better able, to put a candidate into national office in the US than professional political operatives of the main political parties would surely be in the cradle intellectually. Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher in What Is Called Thinking? (1952), wrote: “Das Bedenklichste in unserer bedenklichen Zeit ist, dass wir noch nicht denken.” (The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.)

Trump came to the Oval Office somewhat contemptuous of orthodox ways of doing things in Washington. He referred to those elements of the system in Washington that were shackled to traditional, politically motivated ways of doing things as “the swamp.”  Trump said he would do things his way and “drain the swamp.” To an extent, as US President, that was his prerogative. Trump was new to not just politics in general, but specifically national politics, new to government, new to foreign policy and national security making, and new to government diplomacy. (This is certainly no longer the case with Trump for he has grown into the job fittingly.) For that reason, and as their patriotic duty, directors and senior managers in the US Intelligence Community should have better spent their time early on in Trump’s first term, developing effective ways of briefing the newly minted US President with digestible slices of information on the inherent problems and pitfalls of approaching matters in ways that might be too unorthodox. More effective paths to doing what he wanted could have been presented to him in a helpful way. With enormous budgets appropriated to their organizations by the US Congress, every now and then, some directors and senior managers in the US Intelligence Community will succumb to the temptation of engaging in what becomes a misadventure. If money had been short, it is doubtful that the idea of second guessing Trump’s allegiance would have even glimmered in their heads. Starting a questionable investigation would most likely have been judged as being not worth the candle.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s superlative sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, had occasion to state: “To a great mind, nothing is too little.” It should be noted that Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services almost certainly have kept their ears perked hoping to collect everything reported about the painstaking work of elements of the US Intelligence Community first to prevent, then to bring down, Trump’s Presidency. Indeed, they have doubtlessly taken maximum advantage of the opportunity to mine through a mass of open source information from investigative journalists, various investigations by the US Intelligence Community, the US Justice Department, and varied US Congressional committees, in order to learn more about how US counterintelligence services, in particular, operate. Strands of hard facts could be added to the existing heap of what Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services had already collected about the deplorable enterprise. Previous analyses prepared in the abstract on other matters were also very likely enhanced considerably by new facts. Indeed, Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services very likely have been able to extrapolate, make inferences about, and more confidently conceptualize what was revealed to better their understanding of the activities of the US Intelligence Community in their own country, both past and present. Sadly, that may have helped to pose greater challenges and dangers for US intelligence officers, operatives, and informants.

The illustrious John Milton’s quip, “Where more is meant than meets the ear, “ from “Il Penseroso” published in his Poems (1645), aptly befits the manner in which words and statements are often analyzed in the intelligence industry. When those senior executives and managers formerly of the US Intelligence Community who were involved in the plot against Trump and are now commentators for broadcast news networks, offer their versions of the whole ugly matter on air, there is always something for Yasenevo to gain. Despite the best efforts of those former officials to be discreet during their multiple on air appearances, there have doubtlessly been one or more unguarded moments for each when a furtive tidbit that they wanted to keep concealed was revealed as they upbraided Trump. Moreover, their appearances on air have surely provided excellent opportunities to study those former officials and to better understand them and their sensibilities. Such information and observations doubtlessly have allowed Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services to flesh out psychological profiles constructed on them over the years. (Although it seems unlikely, some could potentially return to government in the future. It has been said that “Anything can happen in cricket and politics.”) Moreover, Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services have also likely been allowed to use that information and observations, to put it in the bland language of espionage, as a means to better understand specific US intelligence and counterintelligence activities that took place during the years in which those errant US senior executives and managers involved in the plot against Trump were in their former positions.

To journey just a bit further on this point, Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence additionally had a chance to better examine specific mistakes that they respectively made in their operations versus the US, using revelations from investigations into the plot against the Trump administration. That information would have most likely inspired audits in Yasenevo to better assess how closely its foreign intelligence officers, operatives, and informants have been monitored and how US counterintelligence has managed to see many Russian Federation efforts straight. Whether these and other lessons learned have shaped present, or will shape future, Russian Federation foreign intelligence operations in the US is unknown to greatcharlie. Suffice it to say that there were most likely some adjustments made.

Trump has absolutely no need to vindicate himself concerning the “hoax” that insisted he was in any way linked to the Russia Federation for it is just too barmy. Trump has the truth on his side. Nothing needs to be dressed-up. He has been forthright. Regarding the Russian Federation, Trump has stood against, pushed back on, and even defeated its efforts to advance an agenda against the US and its interests. Those who have tried to suggest otherwise are lying. The normative hope would be that Trump’s adversaries actually know the truth and for their own reasons are acting against it. In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad wrote: “No man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” It seems, however, that Trump’s adversaries, refusing to accept reality, have replaced it with a satisfying substitute reality by which they may never find the need to compromise their wrongful beliefs. In the US, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, has a right to due process, and upholding the rights of the citizen is paramount. For the most part, US citizens understand these ideas and are willing to defend those rights. As such, there has actually been a very poor reaction among US citizens toward the aggressive posture Trump adversaries have taken toward him. It is more than likely that in the 2020 US Presidential Election, the outcome will go Trump’s way. Unfortunately, the many abominable, false stories of his wrongdoing will likely stick to him to some degree for some time. Opinionem quidem et famam eo loco habeamus, tamquam non ducere sed sequi debeat. (As for rumor and reputation let us consider them as matters that must follow not guide our actions.)

Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 NBCNews.com report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.

Assessment

On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.

Putin Vows to Annihilate Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi will provide an excellent opportunity to showcase his resurgent Russia in the best light possible.  However, much has happened to prevent that goal from being achieved. Within Russia, concerns have mounted over the cost for hosting the Olympic Games, with some estimates stating it has surpassed $50 billion.  Outside of Russia, there has been a significant, negative reaction to Putin signing a law in June 2013, banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposing fines on those holding gay pride rallies.   Several world leaders have responded by declining to attend the Games, including US President Barack Obama, whose relationship with Putin remains less than congenial.  However, both in Russia and worldwide, all with interest in the Games, are concerned with security at the event given the most recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd, some 690 km northeast of the Sochi Olympic Park.  Of all of the issues that have arose, Putin has been most responsive to the attacks.  In his televised New Year address, Putin stated, “We will confidently, fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.”  For the Russian people, any statement less forceful than that from Putin would have been unexpected and unacceptable.  There is an issue, however, over the degree to which Putin will actually retaliate for the attacks.  Moreover, it is uncertain that any action against the terrorist group allegedly responsible will prevent new attacks before or during the Games.  Perhaps a key factor in the organization of a significant response by the Russian government is timing.

There were two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  On December 29th, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a crowded railway station, killing at least 17 and wounding many others.  On December 30th, another bomber detonated explosives on an electric trolleybus, killing 14 and critically wounding several more.  An Investigative Committee spokesperson stated identical explosives were used in both bombings, establishing a link between them.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  While nobody claimed responsibility for the December attacks either through a message or manifesto to authorities, the violence underscored Russia’s vulnerability to insurgents more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term.  The insurgents suspected, from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, the group’s Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Games.

While the Games will go on as planned and nations will send their teams to compete, the Volgograd attacks have still had a strong effect on the psyche of the Russian people and on Putin himself.  Given the increased sense of patriotism and nationalism found among the Russian people, most are proud of the fact the Games are being held in Russia and are hoping for a successful event.  However, those hopes have been moderated by fears that more attacks will occur before the Games start.  They are relying on Putin’s reputation for being a strong leader and very capable of responding firmly on security issues.  They are relying upon him to guarantee the Games will be a glorious occasion for them.  Putin, himself, is certainly unintimidated by terrorists from Russia or anywhere else.  However, having dedicated a great amount of government resources, especially from the security services, to the Games, and being fully aware of his reputation as a strong leader, for Putin, the attacks were a personal affront.  The attacks appear to discredit his effort to prove Russia is on the rise again and suffering the fate of lesser states.  For that, he will be unforgiving.  With the leaders of other world powers absent, at Sochi, Putin would have the spotlight to himself on the world stage.   What a tragic figure Putin would be, if he had to stand alone at the Olympic Park, explaining a devastating terrorist attack.

Under the circumstances, Putin must thoroughly respond to the attacks.  To some degree, the security services have acted.  When cars, stores, homes, and marketplaces are bombed, Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  It has been said that those troops have bombed homes when relatives have refused to turn suspects over.  After the Volgograd attacks, 4000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind.”  Over 1,500 buildings were searched and more than 1,000 people were searched.  Several dozen have been detained for resisting arrests for not having documents allowing them to carry weapons.  The internal troops (VV) of the Ministry of Interior have already been heavily engaged in operations in North Caucasus.  Those VV units that genuinely conduct operations are from the ten Independent Special Designation Brigades (OBrON).  These specialized forces fight local rebels and control protests.  The short-term, specific operations OBrON carry out differentiate the VV forces from the regular army, which is trained and equipped to fight long-term conflicts.  Such services provided by the VV are not without cost.  Whenever people have been arrested and interrogated, policemen are often killed in retaliation.

Putin is dedicated to preventing any further terrorist attacks.  It is uncertain that any response against the group allegedly responsible will prevent future attacks before or during the Games.  The raids undertaken, although significant, were not as robust as might have been expected given the likely desperation and paranoia felt among security service officials over a possible Sochi attack.  However, federal district wide, large scale operations weeks before the Games will mar them, and erase any impression that Sochi is safe to visit.  Putin’s entire investment of Russia’s resources would be wasted.  Moreover, a full-scale attack upon terrorist groups now may lead to a full-scale nihilistic response from them.  That type of conflict, regardless of whether Russian authorities might destroy the terrorist groups in the process, could lead to a drastic decision by the International Olympic Committee to cancel, postpone, or relocate the Games.

It is very likely sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going.  Hitting those groups may disrupt those monitoring efforts, by destroying leads before they yield their potential. That would be counter-intuitive.  Losing lines into to those groups now would create major security problems.  (If the attackers in Volgograd were completely off the radar, that likely created a conundrum for Russian security officials.  The attackers operations would have been pre-planned.  They would have been set up to move independently on specific dates, times, and locations without the communication of orders.  To defeat such attacks, anti-terrorism efforts must peak just before the Games begin and remain heightened until they end to defeat lone operatives.)

A better time for the security services to strike against suspected terrorist groups would be just days before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Communications must be destroyed or disrupted.  There must be confusion and chaos within the leadership.  The groups must stand rudderless.  The strikes must be of sufficent strength to prevent the groups from resurrecting themselves enough to conduct any operations during the Games.  Strikes of this nature would likely be executed swiftly and covertly against terrorist elements being monitored.  Very capable special service troops would most likely be called upon to carry out such a task.  Of the many special service groups established in Russia, the most well-known and respected are Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel).  Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB.  It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings.  Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad.  The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations.  During the Soviet era, Alpha Group acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts.  In Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013),  Matthew Levitt recounts different versions of how Soviet authorities used Alpha Group in response to the 1985 kidnappings of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, Lebanon.  After one of the Soviet hostages was shot and dumped near a stadium in West Beirut, Alpha Group sought the help of Druze informants to identify the kidnappers, their clans, and their families. One account has Alpha Group kidnapping a relative of the hostage taking organization, cutting off his ear, and sending it to his family.  In another account, Alpha Group abducted one of the kidnapper’s brothers and sent two of his fingers home to his family in separate envelopes.  A third version has Alpha Group kidnapping a dozen individuals tied to the kidnapping group, one of them being a relative of its leader. The relative was castrated, shot in head, had his testicles stuffed in his mouth, and shipped to the group with a letter promising a similar fate for the eleven other captives if the Soviet hostages were not released.  That same evening, the three diplomats, in bad condition, appeared at the gates of the Soviet embassy.

There is also the possibility that Russian authorities may utilize their most capable assets in response to the terrorist attacks.  In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs discusses Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group not officially recognized by the Russian government.  Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow.  Galeotti explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell.  In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and would likely be ordered to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.  As part of Putin’s full court press on security for Sochi, Zaslon has likely already been included among those special services units called in to provide both anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism capabilities.  An outstanding scholar at the University of Utrecht, Ralph Ladestein, shared a picture with greatcharlie.com in November 2013 that, as he explained, showed Russian special service troops in Syria.  The picture is below.

Are these Zaslon troops operating in Syria? The message written on the wall of the structure in the background (translated by Ladestein) reads, “Syria for Assad!”

By the end of the Games, it is possible that so much information will have been gathered as a result of the concentration of security resources to the anti-terrorism effort that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could simply be conducted by MVD and FSB.  Necessity could lead to the consideration of innovative approaches toward blunting the capabilities of the terrorists perhaps by using precision strikes with military firepower and directed attacks by special service troops.  Some new ideas may come as a result of Russian security officials working closely with foreign security officials from participating states.  After examining the situation in the North Caucasus, those foreign security officials may likely offer suggestions on how lessons from their own experiences in counter-terrorism to could be applied to reduce or defeat any security threats.  Additionally, with the Games over, Putin will have the flexibility to respond to the terrorists on a far larger scale if he chooses

If after the closing ceremonies, Sochi is known for being the Black Sea resort on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were superbly organized, the Russian people will be very satisfied.  If after the Games, an impressed world audience has a sense that Russia is a world power on the rise again, with great capabilities and possibilities, Putin would be elated.  However, if a terrorist attack is attempted or successfully carried out in Sochi, for Russia, it will be a disaster.  Russia will be viewed as a questionable choice by the International Olympic Committee for the Games and the country’s reputation for being stifled by authoritarianism, insecurity and uncertainty will endure.

Despite personal or political views of Putin and his decisions regarding the Winter Olympic Games, no one should have any interest in seeing Sochi struck by a terrorist attack.  Anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Russian security services should be supported by all states, including the US.  While security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may liaise and provide some assistance, everything possible should be done to prevent an attack, including the supply of personnel and technical resources.  A secure and successful event would not only be in Russia’s interest, but also the transnational interest.