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More than six months after the war on Ukraine started, the worldwide fracture it set off is hardening.
Russia’s invasion has encountered recent setbacks, with Ukraine retaking some territory in a recent counteroffensive.
The US and its NATO allies, meanwhile, are preparing for a drawn-out conflict, and US diplomatic, military and intelligence leaders all alluded this week to a long-term future of US opposition to Russia with a fortified Ukraine in the middle.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced more aid to Ukraine during a surprise stop in Kyiv this week, and later, during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, said the conflict “is likely to go on for some significant period of time.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr reported this week on planning at the Pentagon for how to support Ukraine in the long term, even after the war with Russia has ended.
Key lines: The analysis is being conducted in conjunction with the Ukrainians and if approved by President Joe Biden it could lead to years of future arms sales and the establishment of a long-term military training program by the US. It would be presented to Kyiv as an assessment, but it would provide a clear road map showing how the US believes it should develop its military.
“Russia is going to pay a very heavy price, I think over a long period of time,” CIA Director Bill Burns said at a cybersecurity conference in Washington on Thursday, arguing the weakness of Russia’s military has been exposed and its economy has been hurt.
I went to Steve Hall, the former CIA chief of Russia operations and a CNN contributor, for his take on what’s happening both in geopolitics around the world and specifically in Russia.
Our phone conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below.
A Cold War minus communism
WHAT MATTERS: We had the Cold War and then we had the period in between. How do you view this period we’re entering now?
HALL: This was to some extent in place before, but I think now it’s really coming into stark relief. When you’ve got things like Russia going to Iran and North Korea to help them arm their military, when you’ve got (Russian President Vladimir) Putin traveling to meet with the Chinese (president) and both of them sort of overtly actually saying we are joining forces to fight the cause of liberalism spreading across the world led largely by the United States.
It’s almost like it’s another Cold War, but minus the communism element that made it so nice, in retrospect. In the era of the Cold War, you could say, well, the bad guys, it’s all the “commies,” and then there’s the rest of us good guys.
I still think to a certain extent that’s right, because now you can substitute communism for authoritarianism and dictatorships. Nevertheless, the world is dividing itself up into more or less liberal Western camps and more authoritarian camps.
It’s not just Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. It’s Venezuela, Cuba. It’s other places as well, perhaps the Philippines, depending on who’s president these days. I think that’s kind of how things are shaping up for the foreseeable future.
Is the US waging proxy war on Russia as Russia alleges?
WHAT MATTERS: The Russians have said that the US and NATO are essentially waging proxy war on them. Is that how Americans should view it?
HALL: First of all, I think any time anybody inside of Russia, especially if they’re associated with Putin or the Kremlin, says anything, you’ve got a prima-facie case for questioning the veracity of it and also questioning whether or not it’s more of a disinformation operation – and I think that’s what this is.
A lot of it depends on how you define proxyism. I think there’s a lot of important differences that the Russians don’t want to raise. It’s the same sort of theme when you talk about things they like to talk about, like NATO expansion. There’s this idea that the United States is this world hegemon and can just boss other countries around and tell them what to do.
Part of that is just disinformation on the part of the Russians. But it’s also, I think, stylistically, that’s kind of what they would like to be able to do.
Russia is a waning power, of course. They’ve got a lot less left on the table, right? China certainly has more strength, as we’ve seen a number of other countries being put in a very difficult position vis-a-vis China – where it’s like, well, we’re going to continue to fund, you know, these infrastructure projects or whatever, but in response, you have to be against Taiwan and support Chinese positions.
It’s something that these autocratic countries like China, like Russia, like to say, which is that the United States is waging these proxy wars. In the case of Ukraine, the one big exception I have, at least in terms of the way I think of proxy warfare, is the Ukrainians basically asked for this support in the face of being invaded by Russia. If that’s what you mean by proxy war, yeah.
But I don’t think that’s what’s implied here. What the Russians are implying is that we can reach out to anybody that we think owes us in the world and tell them, hey, do this, that or the other, and they’ll go off and do it. That’s my idea of a proxy war, and I think Ukraine is not a particularly good example.
However, the Russians will continue to pump that as a sort of disinformation game for as long as they can.
Beware of triumphalism
WHAT MATTERS: In the Western media, you read headlines about how well the Ukrainians are doing, how many casualties the Russians are suffering and how poorly this war is going for them. It’s my impression the Russians are seeing very different headlines. Do you think any of the difficulty of this war is piercing into Russia?
HALL: I do agree with what I think you were implying, which is that on occasion the liberal West does have a sort of triumphalism when it reports on what’s going on in Ukraine.
I think we’re still struck by the fact that what was before considered a significant military force, the Russians – we thought when they attacked Ukraine it was going to be over very quickly. And I think Russia thought that too.
I think we have to be maybe more balanced and more careful. When you start reading people who have been following Russia, Ukraine and the Central Eurasian region for a long time, that’s when you do start hearing more cautionary tones.
Yes, the Ukrainians have performed above expectations and done a much better job than anybody, to include the Russians, would think. But nevertheless, I don’t disagree with Blinken and other intelligence and analytical folks who are saying just because Ukrainians are doing better than expected doesn’t mean it’s all gonna be over by Christmas, or really any time in the near future.
I do think it is a long-term thing, and you’re absolutely right, Russian citizens are not hearing that. And of course that’s because some things never change in Russia, and one of them is the Kremlin’s dominance over what information reaches its citizens. That’s eroded a little bit in the internet age, but not a whole bunch.
The other thing that the Russians are projecting is that oh, these horrendous sanctions that were supposedly going to sink the Russian economy – well, not so much. We’re really doing much better than anybody expected.
I’m not an economist, but I do think over the longer term, Russia’s falling off the world stage as a major power is going to be accelerated by Western sanctions. The Russians aren’t hearing any of that because the Kremlin controls most of the information.
Putin may fear his inner circle and a coup more than his people and an uprising
WHAT MATTERS: I’ve seen your argument that change in Russia likely won’t come from an election or an uprising, but from the people around Putin. (Hall has written about this in The Washington Post). Explain that. Is that something we should be looking for as this war progresses?
HALL: The thing that I think happens in the West – and this is part of a general tendency we have to look at Russia through a sort of a Western lens. Democratically elected countries are always a little uncomfortable with regime change because it sounds anti-democratic.
What people have a tendency to go to very quickly is, well, once these young Russian soldiers start coming home in body bags, the Russian people are going to take to the streets. You still see it almost every day in the press. You see somebody writing about the domestic problems that Putin might face if X, Y or Z happens.
I don’t think that’s how things work in Russia. Whenever there’s a serious threat to Putin, like a (jailed Russian dissident Alexey) Navalny kind of threat, what he will do is he will simply repress.
Whether it’s attempting to poison somebody or send them away for a long period of time, like he’s done with countless dissidents. Whether it’s working to penetrate those dissident organizations inside of Russia – they’re expert at that. … And I know that the Western press gets pretty excited when there seem to be demonstrations across Russia. And that’s definitely worth monitoring because Russia has experienced revolutions before. It’s been over 100 years, but that is something to watch.
I think what’s more likely to happen is this group of close advisers to Putin, the siloviki – these are the current and former chiefs of the intelligence service guys. Those are the type of people who, as they look around and see the system that they participate in, and the system that they support in Russia, they see that start to fray around the edges significantly. Then they might say, we just can’t do this anymore. We can’t let the entire system come apart.
We were just talking about (former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev) a few days ago because of his death. He was subjected to a coup when his version of the siloviki felt the Soviet Union coming apart. They waited until he was on vacation and conducted a coup, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
I think that’s something that Putin remembers very directly. I think it’s also something that his close advisers – if they decide things have gone too far, that’s much more likely than there’s some sort of successful uprising in the streets of Russia by Russian citizens. I just don’t see that happening short of some truly horrific event happening in Russia.
We probably would not see a coup coming
WHAT MATTERS: What are the things that you would look for, in terms of what we hear out of Russia, that would suggest that there would be movement?
HALL: It’s a good question to be asking. I think we’re beginning to see indications of things that could cause the powers that be in Russia, the siloviki plus the Putin guys, things could be going poorly enough across the board – in Ukraine, economically for Russia long term – there are already some precursors of the thinking of, well, let’s get rid of Putin sooner rather than later.
Those are already there to some extent. I think things have to get worse before anybody actually contemplates serious action.
But I think the beginnings of that are already present with how badly things have gone in Ukraine and the long-term economic output.
But the second half of that is the really tricky part. The guys who would at the end of the day say, look, we have to stay to manage Putin’s exit … are experts at doing things in secret.
For the large part, they are former intelligence guys. They understand the very grave consequences if they were thinking about a coup and were found out. It’s a very Byzantine situation in Moscow. Putin definitely keeps his intelligence channels open to spy on his own close associates to make sure that’s not happening.
So the problem is that while a lot of the precursors are there for these guys to be upset with Putin, us in the West trying to predict and understand when that’s going to happen is going to be really difficult.
Just as it was when Gorbachev all of a sudden woke up in house arrest in Sochi. I don’t think anybody in the West saw that coming either.
Sharing intelligence is something the US will probably keep doing
WHAT MATTERS: You talked about how the powers in Russia are good at keeping things secret. The one thing that has marked the US involvement in Ukraine and Russia so far is an openness with intelligence on Russia. Do you see dangers in continuing with that strategy, despite its success so far?
HALL: As a former intelligence officer I’m always a bit nervous when any administration decides to make more public use of intelligence. It’s built into intelligence officers’ DNA about protecting sources and methods, especially if you’re a HUMINT (human intelligence) guy, like I was. You’re really worried about spies on the streets in Moscow or other places in the world.
I think every intelligence person also understands that it is up to the administration how to use this intelligence. Ideally, it doesn’t end up in the basement of your house after you leave the presidency. But by the same token that’s why we collect the intelligence – for the use of policymakers …
I’ve actually been surprised at how well it’s worked. It’s been very effective at undermining Russian disinformation, which they were so successful at during the Trump years. I think it’s a reasonable approach, and we’ve got to be really careful with it. But you know, it seems to be working. So I think we’re gonna have to keep doing it.
Western democracy fantasy syndrome
WHAT MATTERS: People in the Russian opposition have criticized the blanket pullout of US businesses from Russia. Specifically, looking at the tech sector, the Russian opposition wants more active help to get information into the country. I wanted to get your read on that. Is it better to do an embargo, or is it better for these companies to stay open in Russia?
HALL: It’s a very difficult and nuanced question. I generally side with the idea that those companies need to do less business in Russia.
I think of the impact, both economic and of the worldwide perception of Russia as a bad place and led by bad people. There’s an important political point to be made when companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks leave Russia, or even if it’s Facebook or Twitter. I think they make a very, very strong point when they say, look, we can’t have anything or very much to do with this regime.
There is a counterargument that you were just alluding to, which I’ve also heard for many, many years about Cuba, which is if you completely wall them off, then they’re never going to get true information.
I think that presupposes this Western fantasy that if we just had enough good information flowing into Russia, all of a sudden light bulbs would go off across hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens inside of Russia saying, oh my God, we have to rise up and do something.
It’s a nice fantasy, but I honestly don’t think it would work. The Russian intelligence services, specifically the FSB, spend so many resources – magnitudes upon magnitudes of what the FBI has – on just one particular center in the FSB, which is dedicated to identifying and penetrating dissident organizations. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years in Russia, and they know how to do it.
I certainly feel badly because I wish Russians had more true information. And I wish there were ways that they could more easily access facts.