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

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs