Dangerous failures of Humint

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Recent revelations by American media show once again how the lack of proper human intelligence concerning Russia and Russians plays a central role in the world’s growing tension and lack of trust.

In 2018, as in 1991, the West, and especially the Americans who lead it, continues to believe that Russians dream to live according to Western and norms but are prevented from doing so because of President Putin’s corrupted and repressive regime. Nothing seems to deter Westerners from the conviction that it is just a question of identifying the proper person to back, a “new leader for a new generation”, usually selected according to his or her capacity to say what we want to hear about people’s “real” feelings in Russia. To accelerate the change of guard in the Kremlin, efforts are made to corrode the country and Putin’s regime from inside while isolating Russia on the international scene.

These quasi-religious convictions rely on extravagant claims by instant experts who pretend to have “inside sources” in the “immediate entourage” of Putin himself and on the demonisation of those who propose other visions. The media coverage of the ‘Russiagate’ since the coming to power of Donald Trump provides a revealing inside view of the way this machine of auto-persuasion works and leads to awkward political decisions.

Nevertheless American quality newspapers can provide alternative interpretations such as those published lately in the International New York Times, which say more about the way Washington circles function than about those of the Kremlin.

The most extravagant example concerns FBI and Justice Department’s attempts to recruit the oligarch Oleg Deripaska as an informant. It developed in different stages, between 2014 and 2016, when US, and then EU, sanctions were enforced and enlarged to punish Russia for its Ukrainian adventures.

Short of speaking openly about regime change, the sanctions were intended to weaken the “corrupt Putin’s regime”. Based on ‘inner sources”, Westerners were convinced that the population, hit by price increases and shortages, would turn against the regime and join the opposition; and that the country’s oligarchs, suffering from isolation and faced with the collapse of their fortunes, would turn against Putin and look for a better defender of their interests.

Any arguments to the opposite by Russian or foreign analysts were brushed off as signs of naivety or worse. But this is precisely the picture that the FBI received from Deripaska when he kept repeating that the American intelligence agencies had a wrong and simplistic vision of the inner life of the Russian power system. Simply he said “it does now work like that”.

Not alone

Deripaska was not the only target of the FBI. Quoting American officials, the New York Times writes that the attempt to recruit Deripaska was part of a broader, clandestine American effort to consider the possibility of gaining co-operation from roughly a half-dozen of Russia’s richest men.

Deripaska was seen as particularly vulnerable because his company, the aluminum giant Rusal, is a truly international company – and because his relations with Putin have had heights and lows. He was also supposed to provide information concerning the role of Paul Manafort as a link between the Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. Manafort had a brief contract with Deripaska with ended badly, with the oligarch suiting for millions of dollars.

Predictably, the recruitment went nowhere, even if the FBI had tried to soften Deripaska by allowing him to enter the United States on a diplomatic visa while he was already on a black list and, in consequence, cut off from his US operations. In retortion, Washington declared new sanctions against Rusal, almost forcing it to halt production after international banks froze the accounts of companies it controls regardless of the currencies held. The Treasury and Justice departments then entered the fray, accusing Deripaska of extortion, bribery and even murder.

His name appeared also in the Manafort inquiry for his alleged role in helping contacts between members of Trump’s electoral campaign and “the Kremlin”. When in mid-September, Manafort pleaded guilty and agreed to co-operate with Robert Mueller on the special investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, this U-turn was saluted as a big blow to Trump.

Revelations by Manafort are expected to provide information about a Trump-Russian conspiration. But Americans are confident he knows a lot about the Russian oligarchs because he worked for the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich and his party. Since Yanukovich is portrayed as a “pro-Russian’ president, it means he was backed by Russian oligarchs close to Putin. Manafort should know a lot about, allowing the image of Russian kleptocratic regime and providing a basis for new sanctions.

Complex situation

This is again a short-circuit in a complex situation in both Russia and Ukraine. Yanukovich, like all Ukrainian presidents including Poroshenko today, depended on the help of Ukrainian oligarchs, some of them having links with Russian partners. However, the FBI and other American agencies have a lot more information than Manafort because they descended en masse on Kiev after Maidan 2. They were given free access to archives and official documents seized from the previous regime, supposedly to help Kiev to fight corruption by tracing black money and corruption – an excellent way to obtain compromising information on thousands of Ukrainians; and to help restructure Ukrainian services including intelligence.

The difference is that they cannot go public on large scale, whereas Manafort’s revelations will be open to everybody. But they could be more damaging for those in power, or close to it, in Ukraine, a few months before presidential elections in Russia.

A further under-appreciated risk is that Manafort’s testimonies will shed full light on the role and influence of extravagantly paid public relations companies. These do not simply organise electoral campaigns and create new parties, they also introduce their clients into circuits which matter, setting up interviews for quality Washington newspapers, select philanthropic activities, etc.

Hundreds Manafort-like rushed to former communist and Soviet states, where the new republics wanted to project themselves on the international scene. Exposing their tactics, lies and fortunes will allow public opinion to discover the growing influence of non-state actors in foreign policy – a dark side of democracies.

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