News / Europe

After Crimea, West's Spies, Armies to Raise Russia Focus

FILE - A man walks under an umbrella during a snowfall in Red Square in central Moscow March 31, 2014.
FILE - A man walks under an umbrella during a snowfall in Red Square in central Moscow March 31, 2014.
Reuters
As Western states enter a new era of potential confrontation with Moscow, they face an awkward reality.
 
A quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the level of expertise on Russia in intelligence agencies, armed forces and governments has diminished drastically.
 
Rising concern over Russian government espionage - including increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks and computer spyware - had sparked some modest renewed interest in recent years, primarily in counterintelligence.
 
But the way Washington and its allies were so blindsided by President Vladimir Putin's military seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, is seen demonstrating a dramatic need for renewed focus.
 
The bottom line, current and former officials say, is that with the post-September 11, 2001, focus on Islamist militancy and the Middle East and later the rise of China, the former Soviet Union was simply not seen a career enhancing specialty.
 
Compared to the Cold War era, when most of Russian territory was off-limits to Westerners, regional specialists say there is no shortage of expertise among academics and in the business community today. But it has so far gone untapped.
 
“There is a good supply of Russia experts out there - people who have lived there with lots of good experience - but the demand has just not been there from government,” says Fiona Hill, U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia in 2006-9 and now director for the Center for the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
 
“The Pentagon in particular has lost a lot of its Russia expertise, as has the White House,” says Hill.
 
More of those outside experts are now likely to find work in defense ministries and intelligence agencies, current and former officials say. But in an era of constrained budgets, focusing on Russia is likely to mean redeploying resources from elsewhere.
 
Until the Ukraine crisis that did not seem a natural choice, people with knowledge of internal discussions say.
 
“The main problem is one of capacity at a time when counterterrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Arab awakening have taken up so much energy,” said one former Western intelligence officer on condition of anonymity.
 
Russia is primarily a threat to its immediate neighborhood only, officials and analysts say, but still one requiring greater vigilance than over the last two decades.

Those who know most worry
 
Capacity alone is far from everything. The West's legions of Soviet specialists, with few exceptions, missed the warning signs of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
 
Still, officials and analysts say there is a growing feeling that the West should have done more to increase its Russia focus particularly as Moscow's defense spending rose some 30 percent after its 2008 war with Georgia.
 
“The people who know the most about Russia's defense capability have tended to take it the most seriously,” says former Pentagon official Elbridge Colby, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
 
Some central and east European and Nordic states have long focused much if not all of their intelligence and defense resources on Russia. Poland and Sweden in particular are seen leading the pack. Others are now catching up.
 
One reason Washington and its allies were so surprised by events in Crimea was that during Russia's military build-up in the region, there was little or no signals chatter indicating an imminent takeover, intelligence sources say.
 
Still, Moscow had very publicly mobilized its forces several days earlier ostensibly for an exercise. That such obvious clues were missed, some say, suggests analysts had lost their edge in assessing and predicting the actions of the Russian leadership.
 
While U.S. officials are now monitoring closely a Russian troop buildup along Ukraine's eastern border, Western experts differ over whether Putin plans to invade the region.
 
Spy ring, spyware
 
For the United States, two espionage incidents in the last decade helped draw counterintelligence attention back to Moscow's suspected activities.
 
The first was the 2008 discovery of sophisticated spy software dubbed Agent BTZ that infected Department of Defense computers after apparently entering from a USB drive later found in the car park of a U.S. military base in the Middle East.
 
Pentagon officials spent months cleaning systems and the attack is still seen one of the most serious breaches of U.S. government IT security. Although Washington never officially laid blame for the intrusion, several U.S. officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Moscow was the prime suspect.
 
Much higher profile was the 2010 arrest and expulsion of 10 “deep cover” spies in the United States including Anna Chapman, who became a Russian television presenter and celebrity. That followed information from a Russian defector and a major FBI investigation. There is little evidence the spies were hugely successful.
 
In Britain, security agencies began paying more attention to Russia after the 2007 death of Putin opponent Alexander Litvinenko from radioactive poisoning.
 
Until recently, however, military intelligence specialists were simply too busy with operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
 
Russia's Crimea annexation may revive military specialisms such as tank and submarine warfare neglected during the decade-long campaign in mountainous, landlocked Afghanistan.
 
“Antisubmarine warfare is something that has been far too sidelined for the simple reason that the Taliban do not have submarines,” said one former senior European officer.
 
Some of the problems in understanding Russia, however, may be societal rather than military.
 
“For a country that is so patriotic, we can be highly intolerant of others' patriotism,” former Pentagon official Colby said of the United States. “We just don't see their patriotism as particularly legitimate.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs