On Wednesday, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released its unclassified Russian Military Power report. This publication depicts a Russia increasingly wary of the United States. In the wake of continued reports on Russian interference in the U.S. electoral process, readers might be bemused that DIA states that Moscow’s "deep and abiding distrust of U.S. efforts to promote democracy around the world and what it perceives as a U.S. campaign to impose a single set of global values.
"The Kremlin is convinced the United States is laying the groundwork for regime change in Russia, a conviction further reinforced by the events in Ukraine."
So what’s going on here? Its clear that much of Russia’s activity in the last several years — its invasion of Georgia, multiple cyberattacks, to say nothing of Ukraine/Crimea rightfully perceived as aggressive by the West, is viewed differently by the Russians themselves.
Part of being a good Humint (human intelligence) collector is to understand the mindset, culture and behavior of your adversaries/targets. One doesn't have to agree with them, but has to be able to visualize the world through their eyes. This separates average officers from the outstanding ones. It’s also the strength of any good diplomat — or champion poker player, for that matter! Great insight into foreign mindsets is displayed in the book "The Revenge of Geography."
Author Robert Kaplan visualizes our global future looking through the prism of geography and culture. Kaplan’s assessments and predictions (written in 2007) have been prescient — and after years of field operations in many of the worlds hotspots, I have seen close-up what he accurately describes.
Americans have a tendency to mirror image — to believe that our various adversaries think as we do — and that simply isn't the case. Intel agencies fail to learn this at their peril. Although "mirror imaging" is a human tendency, I suggest we suffer from it more — due to the fact that our Western, English-speaking culture dominates the world.
Our adversaries often thus have a better understanding of us than we of them; and though their view may be distorted (Rambo or Beyonce, anyone?) they retain a baseline understanding we often lack. This reality means that western intelligence has to compensate by learning languages, reading, and spending time in these cultures playing catch-up. Taking advantage of the talents of naturalized Americans is also a boon to effectiveness.
Many contend that when it comes to understanding Russians, their geography has gone even farther to shape their character than their history. Knowledge of both is critical to analyzing Russian behavior/thinking — as is done by DIA in their report or anywhere else we encounter them.
Russia, the world’s pre-eminent land power, encompassing 11 Time zones, under Putin’s leadership has continually "punched above its weight" on the world stage — but at the same time displays the perennial insecurity of a land-based power. Unlike the U.S., or Great Britain, both classic sea powers protected on their flanks by oceans or channels, Russia has few natural, defensible borders.
Bereft of warm water ports as well as protective mountain ranges, Russia throughout history has been beset by invading armies. An obsession with "buffer states" and expansionism has been seen by Russia as a necessity — for if Russia cannot expand, it can expect to be conquered itself. This view is that of a culture that endured a humiliating occupation by the Mongol Golden Horde lasting for six centuries — prompting it to miss the Age of the Renaissance in Europe.
The Mongols helped instill in Russians a cultural "tolerance for tyranny" that echoes through the Czars, Stalin, and to the present day. The perpetual threat of invasion forged a militaristic tendency also seen (previously) in Germany — another country lacking in natural borders. In addition to the above cultural "scars." Russia’s intense cold and rugged landscape also helped forge the Russian character.
A capacity for suffering, fatalism, as well as communalism were necessities to deal with a short growing season that required interdependence amongst the peasantry. The most prevailing emotion in the Russian character, however, is that of insecurity. This was formed both by the geography and the privations historically endured by the Russian people (some being self-inflicted).
The Russian emotion of insecurity is both physical insecurity (fear of invasion) as well as cultural. Having missed the Renaissance, Russia and Russians often have felt inferior to Europe — and with that comes self-incrimination and overcompensation that anyone who has endured a high school bully can understand.
While what I discuss seems theoretical and "ancient history" — make no mistake that these character traits have been passed down the centuries to form the quintessential Russian character. Russians themselves are well aware of these strains and it is often
fodder for discussion.
Understanding such nuances can spell the difference between failure and success in the diplomatic, business, and intelligence worlds. Former President Obama’s utter lack of understanding such Russian nuances (let alone Iranian ones!) are some of the reasons why bilateral relations have become so problematic.
President Trump’s negotiating acumen, as well as his consulting with the proper advisors, will allow the president to avoid the pitfalls Obama blundered into when dealing with Russian officialdom. The president’s first opportunity to meet Putin will come next week at the G20 Summit in Hamburg.
A relationship based on mutual respect, cultural understanding and "trust but verify" is possible — indeed it is necessary if we are to deal with our significant bilateral problems. Having done it I have myself, albeit on a smaller scale, I wish the president the best of luck.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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