The Bear Is Growling: Former CIA Chief's Report From Russia - OZY | A Modern Media Company


 Because Russians are talking about war — with the U.S.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The author, deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004, teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Whoever wins the Oval Office on Tuesday — and however strong his or her mandate — the new U.S. president will begin by dealing with a Russia that is hostile, aggressive and tightly controlled by President Putin. That is what came through over the course of the week that I and several colleagues spent in Russia, Ukraine and Latvia. During our travels, we had dozens of off-the-record conversations with Kremlin officials, members of Ukrainian and Latvian governments, and leaders of private organizations.

What we learned leaves no doubt that Russia will be in the top rank of the next administration’s foreign policy threats. Below, I’ve shared some of the reasons why.


The rift between the U.S. and Russia is already enormous — and it’s widening. Kremlin and foreign ministry officials expressed resentment of U.S. actions and no hesitation about resuming a Cold War–like struggle with America. Their narrative is practiced, uniform and unyielding.

It reflects bitterness over matters such as the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders, U.S.-supported economic sanctions, U.S. deployment of missiles in Europe, the evolution of the humanitarian mission in Libya to regime change — and what they portray as a broken American promise to separate Al-Qaida-related terrorists from U.S.-supported moderate rebels in Syria.

There are rebuttals of course for all these charges, but the Russians brush aside contrary facts, no matter how compelling, obvious and well- documented. They accept no responsibility for the deterioration of the relationship.

Putin’s control is unchallenged

This is no exaggeration. His circle of advisers is small, and he reportedly meets with them on Fridays to plot steps ahead. Outsiders espousing contrary views are unwelcome and, indeed, risk banishment to the political wilderness for voicing them. Most of the media toe the official line to the point of sycophancy. Meanwhile, even many independent intellectuals speak of Putin with grudging admiration for his success in raising Russia’s profile and exploiting perceived U.S. weaknesses.

Putin has few domestic vulnerabilities

His popularity continues to hover around 80 percent, and in the September parliamentary elections, his party won its first absolute majority. Those who do speak out against Putin or his policies are either not well-organized or increasingly blocked by restrictions on assembly and foreign contacts, and by a tightening internet.

… we are only one miscalculation or accident away from sliding … into a potential military confrontation.

If Putin has a weakness, it lies in the irony that he desperately needs the U.S. as an adversary to unite his supporters and to distract from worsening domestic problems. In fact, he even attributed his parliamentary majority to voters’ rejection of “attempts at external pressure on Russia … and efforts to destabilize Russia from within.”

The Possibility of a U.S.–Russia War

If you just looked to the Russian state-controlled media, you would have to say that armed conflict is quite possible. Government organs feature talk of a possible nuclear attack by the United States and warnings for citizens to prepare bomb shelters.

Presumably this is mostly bluster, intended to further cement support for the regime. But we should not minimize the chances of conflict. Russian and American fighter jets are sharing tight Syrian airspace, and Russian jets are buzzing American warships and aircraft to within a couple meters in the Black Sea, Baltic and elsewhere. In that sense, we are only one miscalculation or accident away from sliding past tough talk into a potential military confrontation.

Should military confrontation happen, both sides will face ugly choices. Although the Moscow–Washington hotline still exists, day-to-day official contacts between Russia and the United States are now handled by mid-level Russian officials and are more tightly constricted, less frequent and more consistently fractious than in recent years. Conflict-resolution mechanisms are scarce and not well-practiced.

What is to be done? 

The new administration will need a Russia policy with four elements: clarity, deterrence, communication and a way forward. 

Clarity: The administration must be clear about two sides of an equation: what we want in the relationship and what we are prepared to recognize as Russia’s legitimate interests. Presumably we want a Russia that plays by accepted international norms, stops interfering in our domestic affairs and those of its neighbors, and poses no threat to our allies. At the same time, we must be realistic enough to know that Moscow will always pay close attention to and hold strong views about events in its border regions, just as all countries do. And as Putin has shown in Syria, Russia will compete with us for influence elsewhere.

As Churchill remarked, “To jaw, jaw is always better than to war, war.”

Deterrence: Deterring Moscow from actions we oppose will require firmness applied with greater agility than we typically display. Putin can make decisions on his own and, unlike U.S. leaders, does not have to consult elected officials or allies. Historically, when Russia encounters weakness or hesitation, it pushes further, then blames the opponent for escalation when the opponent responds — then calls for discussions, which it uses to consolidate its gains. One of our Latvian counterparts cautioned against this, arguing that with Russia, we must move quickly enough to prevent it from creating ambiguity or “gray zones” — as it did with its “little green men” in Crimea. And presumably we want to do all of this without crossing the line into war that can escalate to nuclear “chicken.” A fine line.

Communication: Official communication with Russia is today more limited in scope and frequency than during the early years of Russian independence in the 1990s, and even during the Cold War. Change will take time and patience, and there is no guarantee that more frequent discussions will resolve many problems. Still, as Churchill remarked, “To jaw, jaw is always better than to war, war.”

The new U.S. president should, early on — and with no publicity — send a trusted senior envoy, someone with unquestioned stature and influence here, to have a quiet off-the-record talk with Putin about where this relationship is going.

A Way Forward: The U.S.–Russia relationship is burdened with such deep mutual distrust that it will not improve quickly and may get worse before any improvement is possible. Probably the best that can be done is to start with so-called confidence building measures (CBMs) — engagements that, though politically sensitive, may be more technical in nature and less complicated than, say, Syria. There are probably opportunities for this sort of engagement in arms control. For example, a Russian counterpart widely recognized for arms control expertise suggested a new engagement on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Each side suspects the other of fielding missiles more capable than claimed, suspicions that if unfounded, should not be that hard to allay. 

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories