“Probe with a bayonet; if you meet steel, stop! If you meet mush, then push.”
– Vladimir Lenin.
“Blowback” is a term that originated in the Central Intelligence Agency to explain the unintended consequences and unwanted side-effects of its covert operations. The classic example of “blowback” was the covert military support for the Mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s that led to the strengthening of fundamentalist Islamic groups that fought the United States and allowed the Taliban to take back control of Afghanistan. Covert actions in the Congo against Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected president in the Congo, led to the emergence of the worst tyrant in Africa’s modern history, Joseph Mobutu. The plot against Salvadore Allende in Chile, also democratically-elected, led to the dictator Augusto Pinochet. There are other strategic examples of CIA failures and “blowback.” What I can’t find are strategic successes for covert action.
“Blowback” can also be applied to U.S. propaganda, particularly the CIA’s “black propaganda” that was designed for an overseas audience, but found its way back to U.S. media and U.S. domestic politics. The CIA’s efforts in Europe to blame the Kremlin for the assassination attempt against the Pope in 1981 were highlighted by the New York Times, and then widely distributed throughout the mainstream media. The disinformation campaign to charge the Soviet Union with non-existing efforts to build a naval base on the island of Socotra off the coast of South Yemen even found its way into a presidential briefing by the newly-appointed Gerald Ford.
But the most dangerous long-term example of “blowback” is rooted in the efforts of the U.S. intelligence and national security communities since the end of World War II to systematically exaggerate the power and influence of the Soviet Union and now Russia in order to justify greater defense spending and military deployments. As a result, we are placing economic sanctions on Russia that will not deter Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, but not considering weapons transfers that would raise the costs and possibly deter him. In any event, the economic sanctions are doing nothing whatsoever for Ukrainians.
Experienced presidents were not taken in by the exaggerated appraisals of Soviet military power, but our naive presidents were easily duped. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ignored the Gaither Report, which focused on a non-existent “bomber gap.” President John F. Kennedy, however, accepted the non-existent “missile gap,” and initiated a new and unnecessary cycle in the nuclear arms race. The Ford administration, led by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and White House chief of staff Dick Cheney, created a Team A/Team B exercise at the CIA in order to paint the Soviet bear as ten-feet tall. Harvard Professor Richard Pipes was one of the leaders of this effort.
President Ronald Reagan even had his own Dr. Strangelove—again Richard Pipes—who believed that the Soviet Union could fight and win a nuclear war. The greatest increase in defense spending during peacetime occurred in Reagan’s first term with the assistance of disinformation from CIA director William Casey and deputy director Robert Gates. Gates’ directorate of intelligence failed to notice that the Soviet Union was actually on the way to dissolution throughout the 1980s. Former CIA director Stansfield Turner and former secretary of state Colin Powell correctly called this a “corporate failure.”
The intelligence community exaggerated the Soviet threat throughout the Cold War and even during the period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s detente with the United States. The CIA exaggerated the rate of Soviet strategic force modernization, particularly the number of warheads deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles as well as the rate of deployment of most Soviet weapons systems. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency was even worse in terms of strategic misinformation. Many of the CIA and DIA errors were due to an analytic bias, an unwillingness to accept that the Soviets would actually slow some weapons programs in order to conform to arms control limits.
Once again, the U.S. culture of secrecy finds President Joe Biden’s national security team indulging the phony picture of Russia as ten-feet tall. Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of this weakness by warning the United States against any escalation of the war in Ukraine as he conducts a horrific campaign in Ukraine. He even orchestrated the threat of nuclear weapons, conducting a nuclear exercise prior to the invasion, threatening European states the first day of the invasion with “consequences such as they have never seen in their history,” and then enhancing the status of nuclear forces in the first days of the fighting by announcing a “special regime of combat duty.” There are no intelligence indicators that suggest any change in Russian nuclear forces. No nuclear weapon is merely “tactical,” and no Russian nuclear weapon can be used on a battlefield where there are two hundred thousand Russian forces.
The U.S. response has been worse than feckless, giving the Russians carte blanche in Ukraine. On a daily basis, we assure the Russians that we will not get involved militarily in Ukraine regardless of Putin’s actions. Every assurance of no effort to escalate the war, which is risible in view of Putin’s brutal escalation, simply opens the door wider to the horrors of Russia’s invasion. Currently, the Russians may be preparing to use chemical weapons in Kiev, but apparently there is no possibility of a U.S. military response. The day after the bombing of a maternity hospital, the Pentagon’s press spokesman, John Kirby, refused to state that Moscow was committing war crimes, saying that the investigative process must be carefully followed. Pathetic!
The presidential message to Ukrainians has been particularly feckless, telling them over and over we will not seek a wider war and that nothing can be done for a country outside the boundaries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Pentagon blocked any effort to consider the transfer of MiG fighter jets to Ukraine because it was “not tenable.” No real explanation was offered. Biden’s State of the Union address was particularly pusillanimous as he awkwardly moved from praise for Ukrainians to why we would take no action on their behalf. It was cringe-worthy!
Russia is a country in enormous decline, and the invasion of Ukraine—regardless of the outcome—will only further its descent. Russia has always been a second-rate military power, and the invasion has only magnified its failings in trying to mount a combined-arms offensive. Russia cannot compete with the West, and must accept its secondary role in its ties to China. There are three states in the United States—California, Texas, and New York—with bigger economies than Russia’s. It is a kleptocracy under the guidance of a delusional leader and former KGB operatives, who have no solution to the serious demographic and social problems that are beyond their ken.
Nevertheless, we hold on to our propaganda and refuse to consider options against a weak Russian state that could not win a war with NATO. Sanctions against the Russian state and its oligarchs will not change Putin’s thinking and will not help Ukraine. Only the transfer of weapons can raise the stakes for Putin, particularly the introduction of drone aircraft and a sophisticated air defense system such as the Patriot. The Patriot would require nearly 100 U.S. soldiers to operate the system, and Ukrainians currently could not operate the system. In addition to learning the transfer of MiG-29s from Poland would not take place, however, Ukraine learned that Poland received two batteries of Patriot systems last week.
Ukraine is having great success with Turkish-provided TB-2 drones, but they are as stealthy and slow-moving as a Cessna crop duster. U.S. Predators and Reapers require only one pilot and two sensor operators. The Predator carries two Hellfire missiles; the Reaper carries eight laser-guided missiles.
We should also support the creation of a humanitarian zone by the UN General Assembly in western Ukraine. I would favor a humanitarian no-fly zone in the western half of Ukraine as well. Offensive weaponry could not be introduced into a UN humanitarian zone, but it would offer help to displaced Ukrainians. The United States refuses to help Ukraine win this obscene war, but weapons transfers could stave off defeat and save innocent lives. It’s time to make Putin think about U.S. initiatives that raise the costs for his forces. And it’s time to stop saying “if only Ukraine were a member of NATO.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is doing what the Pentagon does best—using a dangerous international crisis and bipartisan congressional support to lobby for additional funding and weaponry. Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord is already making the rounds of various defense conferences to make the case for an additional billions beyond the record-setting defense budget of $782 billion. Former secretary of defense Robert Gates is lobbying for more weapons systems, and various defense officials are supporting a 500-ship Navy. The fact that the defense spending of the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia significantly outspend the rest of the world somehow gets lost in the discussion.
The shame of the West in this war is leaving an indelible stain. I would never expect Russians to accept the conditions of moral war, and their lack of success in trying to conduct a complex modern warfare has led to their barbaric actions. We must divorce ourselves from our own propaganda, and accept a greater level of risk to stop Russian immorality.