This year, the war in Ukraine has dominated news headlines and been on everyone’s mind. At the heart of it is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began his career as a spy with the KGB. To understand a former spy, you need a former spy. Doug London is fluent in Russian and spent nearly 40 years with the CIA, as an operations officer and station chief in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. On this episode, he discusses Putin’s background, mindset, and strategies for the United States and others to address Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
Paras Shah: Hello and welcome to the Just Security podcast. I'm your host Paras Shah.
This year, the war in Ukraine has been on everyone’s mind. And behind it all is one man: Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Last month, Putin and his top officials threatened to use nuclear weapons in the war. It’s scary stuff. Which begs the question, what exactly is going on in Putin’s head? Putin started his career as a spy with the KGB. And it still influences the way he thinks.
But to understand a spy, you need a spy, or at least a former spy. Doug London spent nearly 40 years with the CIA. As an operations officer, he helped recruit foreign agents from around the world. Over the years, he helped to track and thwart KGB agents like Putin.
So, Doug understands a thing or two about how Putin thinks.
Doug, take us back to Russia of the 1970s, when Putin was an intelligence officer with the KGB, what was he up to?
Doug London: Well, if you take yourself back to the seventies, it's a different era and it's certainly one free of the technology we have today. So the KGB went out and recruited their candidates to come in to be intelligence officers, and they usually spotted young gentlemen, generally on college campuses and in communities, often doing work for the Communist Party. So the vetting procedure started at the outset. They came to you, in terms of bringing you into the service, and they were looking for those that they believed would be very reliable, true believers in a system.
So, when Putin came in, he was the cream of the crop. He was the elite. Which meant he was a believer. He had worked for the party. He was probably informing on those with whom he went to school before the service would even take him in. And then they nurtured that spirit, of course, by telling them you are indeed the elite, you are the vanguards of communism, and nurtured these young recruits on the propaganda of the greatness of the Soviet Union and its legacy and where it differentiated from the elitist West.
Putin's overseas assignment was with the first chief directorate, which would've been the foreign intelligence site. That means he would've gone through an additional vetting because he would've been living overseas and the Soviet Union had to be sure that their people overseas weren't going to defect or work for the West.
From what we know of his early assignments – and some of it was written on by Catherine Belton who writes for the Post and wrote a book on Putin's people – it seems his early assignments were in East Germany and that he was focused on these left leaning, activist groups, terrorist groups like by Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigade, providing them support.
So you have to imagine through his eyes, he goes out to East Germany in the eighties believing the Soviet Union is the key and the elite. And then he sees all that crumble around him in 1989 while he's still out there in East Germany. So that must have left quite an impression on him and certainly some scars I think we see from which he acts today.
Paras: And how does Putin's KGB background affect his view of the world today? And as far as we can tell, what are his motivations?
Doug: So he's been nurtured, if you would, to have a significant ego. And any case officer, any intelligence officer who recruits and handles agents has to have a high degree of confidence leaning on ego. So he already thinks he's, you know, the center of the universe, so his outlook is generally that he could continue to exercise moral superiority, intellectual superiority, and that he is always in the right and that those against whom he's working or targeting are inferior and weaker than him.
He believes that Russia is the center of the universe but that Russia has been wronged and primarily by the West, by countries that have treated it as backwards, not on par with them, inferior to them.
And he has a chip on his shoulder, from all that. So, he believes he's out to right wrongs of the past, even though the rules of the world order that he complains about were agreed to by his predecessors, including those in the Soviet Union, the treaties, international conventions, United Nations agreements that he has not respected, clearly the agreement when Ukraine got its independence in the nineties of respecting its territorial borders, yet Putin rails about Ukraine being a part of Russia. Having been nazified, having been swayed by the influence of the immoral West, which is doing this simply to conquer Russian territory, exploit its resources.
So he feels he has scores to settle, and he believes ultimately that his people, Russia himself, are more willing to suffer because they've suffered in the past than the West. And he can challenge that weakness, by raising this high game stakes of brinkmanship, which we've seen him do with his threats.
Paras: So let's talk about the threats a little bit more. Last month, Putin threatened to use a nuclear weapon, and recent reporting from the New York Times indicates that senior Russian military officials had discussed deploying a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. And you note in your Just Security piece that, based on his background, Putin might actually use a nuclear weapon, so walk us through that.
Doug: When I see opinions and thoughts on whether or not Putin would use nuclear weapons, much of it as I see in the West is based on logic, but our logic. You know, the consequences for Russia, the consequences for Putin, the lack of military value, even in using nuclear weapons, even the tactical nuclear types. But, Putin has been pretty consistent and predictable in that he's prioritizing his own position, his own position of power, a position that he's worked very hard on, not just the last 20 years over which he's ruled Russia, but the years he's struggled to get to be where he is and how these opportunities – I don't believe there's anything more important to him than his own future. He’s not concerned about the future of his people. He's not concerned about what it does for them. It's what it does for him.
And he does want a legacy of being known as one of Russia's greatest leaders, on par with Peter the Great, he even romanticizes the likes of Joseph Stalin. We've seen him pushing back on previous freedoms that some of the NGOs in Russia trying to document the history of abuses under Stalin's rule are being pushed back from their freedom to write to this history or even do their research.
So, his determination to preserve his power will mean he's only constrained by consequences, and if he believes that there are no significant consequences to him in using these weapons, and that on the other hand they will allow him to demonstrate power, force, intimidate the West, intimidate his own people, and perhaps subdue Ukraine, I see him being willing to do that despite the lack of military value, the impact not just on the Ukrainians, but even on his own people. So for Putin, the idea is to escalate to de-escalate, to continue to raise the stakes and to be serious about standing behind some of his banter to show he will go as far as it takes to keep himself where he is.
I think the flip side for the West is seeing what is so important to Putin staying in power. What can we do to threaten that by showing him those would be the consequences of him resorting to weapons of mass destruction?
Paras: As far as we can tell, what are the internal dynamics in the Kremlin?
Doug: We've seen very limited evidence of popular protests against Putin, and you know, it's a country of 144 million people. So while we in the West celebrate when we see a few hundred people on the streets or even thousands of arrests, that's not going to threaten him. In the near term, his greatest threat is probably from inside. It's probably within his royal court. It could be the military, but I think more likely his own closest advisors and henchmen within the Kremlin. Those who would think that they're tagging along to a sinking ship. Those that are working with him or with him because they've profited from supporting him.They've advanced their position. They've advanced their power.
And power and position is more important in Russia because you can get wealth once you have power and position. If you don't have power and position, as we've seen from some of these fallen oligarchs, the money doesn't mean anything. It's Putin's blessing that they prevail. So I believe that there is a risk, as we do see fissures growing, some divisions growing that are getting some public attention. We see Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s chef, the man behind Vogner mercenaries, very publicly going after the defense minister Sergei Shoigu.
That's really unprecedented under Putin's rule to see any daylight between any of the insiders there. Fissures like that could lead some of these people to think, I'm not going down for sinking ship. I'm going to look for a lifeboat. I'm going to look for an alternative who might be willing to join some cabal against him or otherwise undertake actions that allow him to fall at the hands of others or perhaps even the military.
Paras: Has Putin faced any domestic backlash for the war in Ukraine?
Doug: You know, Putin was genuinely popular in the sense that he had a social contract with the masses, and, and largely I'm talking about the middle class, the upper class, people with some means to allow them to live their lives, to have money in their pockets, to be able to buy a car, to be able to travel, so long as they stayed out politics, and that was working.
I think he is genuinely and understandably worried about breaking that social contract and the consequences when we see some press reports talk about not just thousands, but hundreds of thousands of young Russian men fleeing the country because they don't want to go to Ukraine.
They don't want to fight. It's not a war that they believe is worth their lives. That doesn't capture the national imagination, despite Putin portraying it as an existential threat. But I don't think we've yet seen it come to a point where that negative, that beginning of negative opinions of Putin is turning into an uprising of any sort or it in something more in terms of support for, for others.
Paras: So given what we know about Putin's background, how should the United States and other Western countries think about responding to him?
Doug: Well, in line with strategic goals, which would seem to be resisting Putin's aggression, supporting Ukraine in that resistance, making Putin pay, I think we heard some statements early on, months ago and the US officials saying it's, about rolling him back even, it would appear that the choices that the United States has made have been fairly effective.
I think the United States began by trying to see was there any way to deter Putin from launching his attack that began on February 24th, sending director of CIA Burns there. Basically to outline the intelligence we had, which Putin knew was accurate, that we knew he was, he was coming, but at the time, Putin probably doubted the resolve of the West, as well as the ability of the Ukrainians to resist. He made some choices based on calculus that turned out to be flawed. The choice that the Ukrainians would not have the will to fight was flawed, that his modernized armed forces would have an easy day of it, and that the West would perhaps put some limited sanctions as they had some rhetoric but not really galvanize. The United States used a great messaging program that really reached to the grassroots of Western Europe and central Europeans that in turn placed pressure on their governments to join the United States in taking a serious stand against Russia through some very consequential economic sanctions as well as significant military support and redoubling of the defenses along NATO's border with Russia.
To that point, and to those goals, that has been very successful. I think the United States has been determined to not get into a land war with Russia in Ukraine unless Ukraine is only the start of it and Russia does in fact cross borders and threaten NATO, at which I would expect the United States to respond directly to Russia and any Russian attacks.
It's really about calling his bluff and increasing the pressure. There's always talk about giving him a face saving way out. Putin will find an out when he has no choice. He's not as reckless as maybe he wants us to think he is, he's been consistent, he has parameters, and those parameters are what will threaten my seat in power. He knows he can't win a conventional war with NATO, which speaks to why he's not just made nuclear threats, but the idea of nuclear first use became an official part of Russia's strategy in 2020, and it’s documented as such, and I take it seriously that if Putin felt that Russia was being overwhelmed by a conventional attack, he would use nuclear weapons again to preserve his position.
He does not see an end for him that includes him leaving his job peacefully or otherwise. So I think what the West needs to do is understand that to reach Putin's practical side is to continue to apply the pressure until he sees enough is enough and he's the one that offers the outs, which ideally would be withdrawal from Ukraine in some sort of negotiated strategy, but unfortunately, I think Putin believes a lot of, what he's put out in terms of propaganda and believes that the United States and the West will begin to crack, particularly with elections coming.
He's seen a right wing government taking over in Italy. He sees the likelihood that the GOP will win in the United States. And the Republicans have been very clear about their determination to cut aid to Ukraine. That whole America First idea of missing the point that protecting America means doing it forward in this case and preventing the likes of Putin from rolling on and continuing to accrue power where he'll begin threatening more and more of our national interests, including our NATO partners.
So I think he’s prepared to stay the course through the winter, hoping that at best they'll become a stalemate. And how long he was thinking, will the Ukrainians be able to sustain that and even will the West be able to sustain even a decreased amount of support. So I think it's, it's increasing the pressure as much as we possibly can and making sure he understands that there is no daylight between the United States and its allies. All issues that might be problematic with elections coming soon.
Paras: Anything else you'd like to add?
Doug: What I fear is that those who are making decisions or deciding on what to vote for, are not seeing Putin through his outlook on the world. It's not just saying, oh, he's evil, he's this. He's practical. He has a different moral compass and his drive is quite simply to preserve and advance his power. So he will continue to follow a line of his own way of increasing pressure on us, thinking that we'll eventually back down. And if we start offering concessions or compromises or even ideas of negotiations or face saving way out, he will see that as weakness. It will feed into his KGB 1970s era outlook on the inferiority of the West, and it's a cautionary tale for us if we go down that road.
Paras: Doug London, thanks very much.
Doug: Thank you.
Paras: Hey. I learned so much from this episode and talking with Doug about the world and how spies think, so I had to pick up a copy of his book, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence. It has his best stories. And now I can't put it down. We'll drop a link to it, and to his Just Security piece, analyzing Putin's mindset in the show notes.
The Just Security podcast is produced in partnership with NYU’s American Journalism Online program. This episode was hosted and produced by Paras Shah with editing and mixing by Ben Montoya. Our music is the song, “The Parade” by Hey Pluto!
Special thanks to Clara Apt, Justin Cole, Viola Gienger, Alex Kapelman, Katie Rice, and Pooja Shah. If you enjoyed this episode, please give us a five star rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.