A CIA Cold Warrior on the Intelligence War Over Ukraine

Burton Gerber, former chief of the CIA’s Soviet section, worries America has publicized too much of what it knows – or thinks it knows – about Russia’s war plans

A CIA Cold Warrior on the Intelligence War Over Ukraine
Burton Gerber / Tim Leedy / MediaNews Group / Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Yesterday, at a prerecorded meeting of Russia’s Security Council, President Vladimir Putin sat listless and slumped in his chair, far away from his gallery of boyars, pretending to weigh their counsel before launching a pre-scripted war against Ukraine. He was not impressed when Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, stammered and flubbed his lines, confusing the present and future tenses. “Speak clearly, Sergei!” Putin admonished him.

Then Naryshkin got ahead of himself, and everyone else, by saying he supported incorporating the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas, east Ukraine, into the Russian Federation. “That’s not what we’re discussing!” Putin snarled. “We’re talking about whether to recognize their independence or not.”

Naryshkin is meant to be an integral member of Putin’s war party, one of the trusted siloviki, or security strongmen, who believe the West is in terminal decline, Russia is once more a great-power-in-the-making, and sanctions are a badge of honor. But here he was, quivering before the tsar on international television.

It was a strange spectacle in its own right. Imagine the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev publicly humiliating KGB chair Yuri Andropov in front of the Politburo on the eve of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a war Andropov was quietly against but dared not tell the boss. The spectacle was made even stranger by the fact that the current crisis unfolding in Eastern Europe is one that has largely been shaped and prefigured by spymasters like Naryshkin.

The United States and United Kingdom claim to have detailed intelligence of Putin’s war plans, right down to a rough timetable for when he intends to attack his neighbor with the apparent goal of regime change. In the “worst-case scenario,” now thought by U.S. officials to be the likeliest, Russia will rain rockets down on Kyiv and a full-scale military occupation will take hold in Ukraine’s major cities, turning them into Madrid in 1936 or Stalingrad in 1942, with street to street (and house to house) fighting. Lists are said to have been drawn up of patriotic Ukrainians marked for assassination, disappearance or deportation to camps. Washington has encouraged Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to relocate his government westward, to Lviv, near the Polish border, even as the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has already crossed over that border into safe NATO territory.

The strategy of forecasting an apocalyptic war with the aim of preventing it or, at the very least, rallying allies to support the maximum of nonmilitary responses to it, is unprecedented. So is seeing one the architects of a looming confrontation — possibly a massive land war in Europe — made to look like a dog who’s just gone through a carwash with the top down.

To try to make sense of this surreal psychodrama, I rang up an old spymaster.

Burton Gerber is a former CIA case officer, former station chief in Moscow and the former head of Langley’s Soviet section. He is widely credited with overhauling the philosophy and mechanisms by which the U.S. recruited Soviet agents during the end of the Cold War, an ethos encapsulated by Gerber Rules. Any offer to spy for the West coming from the other side of the Iron Curtain, these stipulated, should be chased up in earnest — the antithesis of the ouroboros of paranoia that destroyed the Agency when James Jesus Angleton ran his obsessive mole-hunts.

“He was an institution,” recalls John Sipher, himself the former head of Russia operations at the Agency. “We really weren’t 100% professional in working in denied areas. Gerber brought rigor and professionalism.”

Now retired, Gerber, in his late 80s, lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches human intelligence operations at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. The last time we spoke, he reminds me with an old case officer’s attention to detail, I was living in Los Angeles. He waits for me to offer my opinion of the city that convinced me I’m an inveterate New Yorker before venturing his own. “When we were last there,” he says, referring to his late wife Rosalie, “we came away thinking L.A. has a civilization all its own. Not really American.” He congratulates me (again) on my choice of a spouse, a fellow Midwesterner — Gerber grew up in Ohio — and Michigan State alum.

Our hourlong conversation, which began with the Russia-Ukraine crisis, veered pleasantly at times into ancient history. “The worst thing Whittaker Chambers ever did,” Gerber says, “was translate that god-awful book ‘Bambi’ from German into English. Now look. We’re overrun with deer at the expense of my beloved wolves.”

Gerber developed a legendary fascination with wolves when he was a case officer stationed overseas. Was it the predatory nature of intelligence work that drew him to the lupine? No, actually. “For balance, I had to have an interest that consumed me when I wasn’t doing intelligence work. Well, I’d always liked and had dogs. But everyone studies dogs. So I hit upon the idea: What about wolves? I began to formally study them, belong to wolf organizations, and create a library. You always have to have something that takes your mind off your work in this trade.”

He had another hobby, similar to Matt Damon’s ship-in-a-bottle tinkering in “The Good Shepherd”: He built scale models. “I’d build houses and put curtains in with tweezers. When you’re doing that, you’re not thinking about what you’re going to do with an agent tomorrow — you’re thinking about putting curtains into a tiny house with tweezers. I had a brothel, a railway station, the whole shebang. You have to have something that consumes you.”

I ask Gerber what he thinks Putin is doing, consuming the attention of the rest of us. “He may not know himself at this stage because I think that what he’s trying to do, his tactics, are heavily influenced by what he sees on our side. He fundamentally believes, as many Russians do, that Ukraine is Russia and therefore the separation is unnatural.”

Putin sees NATO, according to Gerber, as an “anti-Russian organization” and Ukraine’s tropism toward Europe and the U.S. as intolerable. Though he may have underestimated his adversary.

“When Putin went into it,” Gerber tells me, “he may have calculated that we have a dysfunctional country and dysfunctional Congress and a weak president. Has every reason to believe, like [former CIA director and defense secretary Robert] Gates said, that Biden has been on the wrong side of every national security decision for the last 40 years. He may have thought that with Biden as president he could bamboozle him. But Biden has done certainly better than I expected him to, and probably better than Putin expected. He’s rallied NATO.”

Well, up to a point.

Gerber is still unsure where the Germans will fall should Russia press ahead with a “full-scale” invasion as opposed to a “limited incursion.” Today, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Nord Stream 2, Russia’s prized natural gas pipeline in Europe, will not be “certified” as a result of Moscow’s recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Scholz further stated that he is ordering a complete reassessment of Germany’s energy security.

All well and good, but Gerber believes the Germans, whom he knows well, “have an almost mythical approach toward Russia that goes back to the late Middle Ages.” Economic ties with Russia, he fears, may be too entrenched to fundamentally alter German foreign policy. “Nord Stream 2 is not an incidental thing. It means a lot to the Germans, and Biden’s problem with NATO is not over because Putin is sort of playing this, ‘Will I, won’t I?’ game with respect to war. Biden and his gang are constantly taking public positions that the Russian are getting ready to invade today, tomorrow, the next day. But if Putin doesn’t — then what?”

Gerber sees the former KGB officer using an old-school playbook of strategic ambiguity combined with what the Germans would call Zersetzungsdienst, or “decomposition” units whose goal is subverting and demoralizing the enemy. A prolonged, slow-boil conflict that never quite boils over but keeps everyone guessing will eventually make them grow tired of doing so.

“What I see is that Putin wants to keep the world, particularly the Europeans, on edge. He likes it that way. He’s the center of everything, his preferred state. And they are wholly reactive. By leaving the threat of war lingering, he waits until people get fed up with waiting and their avowed support for Ukraine begins to flag. This is how he creates seams within NATO. Maybe it leads to another stab at diplomacy, eating away at the resolve we’ve seen so far. If this sentiment becomes strong enough, Putin wins because he can outlast NATO in negotiations. Maybe the alliance doesn’t have 30 different viewpoints, but it has at least four or five. He will exploit them.”

Gerber is skeptical that Putin really wants a big war at all, despite the enormous buildup of forces all around Ukraine’s border — 190,000, at the last U.S. estimate, including troops from Rosgvardia, the Russian National Guard, which could certainly play a major role in occupying a hostile foreign nation.

“Putin wants success and that is not necessarily the same thing as war and occupation,” Gerber says. “Success can come in pieces without invading Ukraine all the way to the Polish border. Once he’s formally taken over the Donetsk and Luhansk republics and sent in his so-called peacekeepers, he’s got a really good foothold to chip away at more of the country. There are sympathizers throughout Ukraine. Russia has plenty of experience as an intelligence collector recruiting people, and it’s not hard for Russia to recruit Ukrainians. Then he uses covert action and guerilla warfare to advance his agenda. How did they take over Czechoslovakia — not in ’68 but in ’48? They did it with a coup.”

What Putin and his general staff really have to worry about is partisan warfare, which the Americans are said to be training up Ukrainians for and will underwrite. “Suppose they had a coup and took over tomorrow. What happened after World War II in Ukraine? There was a resistance movement by Ukrainian nationalists, supported by a certain organization I know, and it lasted for years. In the ’50s, what were the Soviets doing? They were killing Ukrainian resistance leaders in West Germany, the ‘wet affairs.’ During my time there they killed two. One was Stepan Bandera.”

And what of the Biden administration’s bold information strategy of leaking everything it gets its hands on from the Russian side, including, according to The New York Times, the Russian military’s plan of attack?

“From where I’m sitting, this looks more like the White House’s policy than the intelligence community’s policy. And Putin may not care because he could be the author of some of these leaks himself. If he knows where his regime is compromised, he may be planting these threats for our side to pick up. I don’t know what the Americans’ capabilities are. I’m sure they have assets in Russia. But they may not be as good as they appear to be if Putin is, in effect, cooperating with them and churning out disinformation. Again, what’s the result of these leaks? The world is at peak anxiety and that is a benefit to Putin, because that’s a world he can more skillfully manipulate. I think our side has said too much.”

Do Gerber Rules still apply to Russia after the collapse of communism, when a Popov or Penkovsky could be recruited in large part because they needed money or resented a system with ideological fetters on their career advancement? Now Russian elites freely travel abroad, park their children in expensive boarding schools and breezily spend in the West what they steal at home. “Absolutely, they do,” Gerber says. “Our job was always to find bodies who can be turned and manipulate them. There are always those who realize what their country is, and if they’re working for the government, how evil it is.”

Would Naryshkin, given his visible mortal terror yesterday, be a good target for CIA cultivation and recruitment? Gerber laughs. “There are a number of Russians, certainly not a majority, who believe Russia was going to take a different course once the Soviet Union collapsed, and they’re not happy with what Putin and his gang have done. I think there may be even more opportunities to recruit in Russia today than there were in my time. Because a society that has loosened for a certain extent and then doesn’t progress in that loosening creates more disappointment.”

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