Donald Trump's current situation vis-à-vis Russia is in some ways reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev's situation 25 years ago, as he sought to fundamentally transform the USSR's relations with the West and the U.S. in the face of intense political opposition at home, including intelligence assessments that militated against this move.
In a fascinating interview, which aired on Russia Today TV on December 21, 2016, Yuri Kotov, a veteran senior KGB official, bitterly recounted historical episodes from his service that illustrated how USSR leaders disregarded the intelligence provided to them. One of the most instructive episodes concerned Gorbachev's perestroika and "new thinking" towards the West. The interview went as follows:
Yuri Kotov: "During and following the dissolution of the USSR, I was an intelligence officer in a country that I cannot name. This was in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. I used to come from where I served, and naturally, I felt what was going on in Moscow, and in the leadership in the various state institutions, including the Committee for State Security – the KGB.
"In my view, the country's top leadership, especially Mikhail Gorbachev, were under the influence of the intoxication that began in the late 1980s, when various agreements were signed with Western countries, such as the reunification of East and West Germany. Back then, Gorbachev was full of praise for the Western leaders. The word perestroika became a well-known international term, and Gorbachev, in particular, became famous worldwide. For many Soviet politicians, especially Mikhail Gorbachev, a new era had begun – an era of false cooperation, rather than confrontation.
"Gorbachev publicly declared that the USSR no longer had any rivals in the world, but only partners. That was the situation. It reached the point that Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB at the time, would inform Mikhail Gorbachev of top secret information, obtained from important intelligence sources, pointing to anti-Soviet plans and intentions of the United States. Despite the external [façade] of affection, the U.S. never stopped its policy of conflict and sabotage against us. The Americans wanted to make further inroads, to weaken the USSR, and to prevent it from developing. Therefore, Kryuchkov's information was essential to our leadership, and should have led to resolute political positions.
"Once, after Kryuchkov had placed grave documents on Gorbachev's desk, the latter realized that they contained information pointing to the fact that the Americans were deceiving [us], and doing the opposite of what they say. The head of the KGB told him that the source was completely trustworthy, and that he personally knew the person who had divulged this information."
Interviewer: "Kryuchkov brought it to Gorbachev?"
Yuri Kotov: "Yes, he brought this secret information. At that moment, Gorbachev shouted: 'Don't try to drive a wedge between the Americans and me. Take this information with you. I have no need for it.' Can you imagine that?"
Interviewer: "How terrible."
Yuri Kotov: "Nobody knows about this."
(To view the entire interview, click here.)
A quarter of a century later, an American president may be in the same situation.
President Trump is interested in turning over a new leaf and collaborating with Russia in certain areas, but American intelligence is purportedly trying to dissuade him from doing so, because Putin seeks to harm the U.S. and its interests. These warnings come from partisan Obama administration holdovers in the intelligence community, but may also be seconded in the coming days by Trump appointees. Their intelligence will be correct, since Russian state organs undoubtedly continue to work against the U.S., while Putin himself desperately needs and desires cooperation with it. Leaders always hedge their bets, and in Putin's case, he wants to secure his interests, goals, and status in the event that collaboration with the U.S. fails. Therefore, we can assume that continued Russian actions against American interests are not against Putin's will but that they may be directed by him, even personally.
This does not differ from what the Americans did during Perestroika. The U.S. wanted a new non-antagonistic relationship with the USSR, but KGB head Kryuchkov saw, correctly, that at the same time American intelligence and security agencies were continuing their activities against Soviet interests, likely with U.S. presidential approval. American presidents also hedge their bets and proceed along at least two contradictory tracks, in order to keep all options open and to avoid playing the sucker should the preferred policy fail.
Much of the debate on Trump and Russia, like Kryuchkov's comments on Gorbachev, seems to be grounded in the quaint idea that states make policy based on the intelligence community dimension alone or that democracies should only deal with fellow democracies. Politics is always messy and international politics only more so. In 2015, the well-respected Gen. Petraeus floated the idea of using Al-Qaeda against ISIS. The U.S. has also cooperated with the Islamist regime in Sudan against Al-Qaeda, while the Obama administration even warmed up relations with the Castro regime, whose aggressive security apparatus has been targeting Americans for decades.
These historical similarities highlight the gap between intelligence and statesmanship. It is understandable that the statesman must weigh the intelligence he receives and must not disregard intelligence that clearly contradicts his grand design, the success of which is not assured. The question that remains is to what extent can a leader tolerate the cognitive dissonance inherent in trying bring about change in international relations, and at what stage he must jettison this grand design in the face of intelligence that suggests that it may not succeed.
First of all, it should be obvious that in a democracy, determining when to pursue and when to abandon a grand design is the leader's prerogative; it is the leader who will pay the price for its failure if he misses the moment to abort.
In the non-democratic Soviet Union, that same KGB head, Kryuchkov, was among those who plotted to depose Gorbachev in 1991 for what was believed to be the latter's sellout of Soviet interests. (History was to show that the conspiracy achieved the opposite of its aim, because the one who came to power was Boris Yeltsin – who proceeded to dissolve the USSR.)
To what point should a leader pursue his grand design against all intelligence warnings and when should he heed his intelligence agencies and drop it? The writer, whose background combines intelligence and counsel to two Israeli prime ministers from two different parties, has closely witnessed such dilemmas. He does not presume to offer a confident answer, but does suggest that two main criteria be constantly examined.
First, the leader must constantly monitor the extent to which the interests of both sides are genuinely compatible. Secondly, he must assess the extent to which his opposite number can deliver at the moment of truth.
What a statesman should avoid, however, is being distracted by evidence of two-track policies on the other side. He must remember that the other side knows that he himself is maintaining a two-track policy – and rightly so. This is because a statesman, while trying to work with an adversary, such as Russia, towards a shared goal, must always put the interests of his own country first – and this principle applies to both sides.