New paper sheds light on Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

Russia Italy Putin ConteA NEW PAPER, PUBLISHED by the United Kingdom’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defence and Security Studies, sheds light the complex relationship between Italy and the West’s two principal adversaries, Russia and China. Italy is a major global economic power. It is a prominent member of the Group of Seven (G7), which collectively account for more than 50 percent of global net wealth. It is also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU).

Despite —or perhaps because of— its central place in the Western alliance, Italy has long been a leading advocate for cooperation and dialogue between the West and Russia. In 2019, it became the first G7 member and the first major European Union power to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Additionally, the Italian private sector has been far more hesitant than those of other Western countries to abandon Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, with only a single Italian company having completely exited the Russian market since February of this year.

According to two Italian researchers, RUSI Senior Associate Fellow Raffaello Pantucci, and Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Italy’s cooperative attitude toward China and Russia has led some to accuse Rome of being a “Trojan horse in Europe”. But in their research paper published by RUSI earlier this week, Pantucci and Ambrosetti argue that the reality is far more complex, especially in the case of Italian-Russian relations. They point out that Italy has, in fact, been a leading voice in favor of the imposition of harsh sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Currently the Italian state is actively seeking to disengage its energy-import sector from Russia.

Strategy of Engagement

The research paper, entitled “Russian and Chinese Influence in Italy”, argues that Italy’s tendency to “hedge between its close transatlantic ties and its longstanding connections with Moscow and Beijing” is not new. In fact it reflects a longstanding Italian strategy, which tends to remain relatively constant and “does not change according to the political color of the government in charge” in Rome. As a result, Italy’s relations with Russia and China “show a roughly consistent pattern” in the post-Cold War era, as Rome is largely oriented “toward engagement” with both Moscow and Beijing. Read more of this post

CIA-JSOC convergence impedes covert action oversight, researcher warns

US Capitol CongressA GROWING CONVERGENCE BETWEEN the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the United States military has been one of the most notable changes in American intelligence after 9/11. Some argue that the resulting overlap between the CIA and the military, in both capabilities and operations, has altered their character —perhaps permanently. The CIA has become more involved than ever before in lethal operations, while the military has embraced intelligence work with unprecedented intensity.

Today, more than two decades after 9/11, joint activities between the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have become customary. JSOC was founded in the aftermath of operation EAGLE CLAW —the failed attempt to free US diplomatic personnel held in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis. Its mission is to bring together the Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements across the US military. In addition to ensuring inter-operability and standardization between these elements, JSOC oversees the operations of elite joint SOF units that perform highly classified activities around the world.

Increasingly since 9/11, the CIA and JSOC have been launching combined counter-terrorism operations and have learned to compete less and collaborate more —though turf wars between them are not uncommon. Today it is not unusual for CIA civilians to gather intelligence on a particular target before hand it over to JSOC, which in turn tasks its military personnel to use lethal force against the target. This type of collaboration may bear fruits in the counter-terrorism domain, but also makes it difficult for the US political leadership, primarily Congress, to exercise appropriate oversight over covert action.

Partial Oversight

In an article published on Sunday, Dr. Jennifer Kibbe, Professor of Government at Franklin and Marshall College, and a specialist on the oversight of intelligence operations, explores the effects of the CIA-JSOC convergence on democratic accountability. The article, “CIA/SOF Convergence and Congressional Oversight”, appears in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security. If features statements from interviews by current and former Congressional staffers with experience in working for the intelligence committees of the US Congress. Read more of this post

Decades after end of Northern Irish conflict, the legacy of spies remains obscure

Northern Ireland Troubles BelfastTHE NORTHERN IRISH CONFLICT was a 30-year irregular war involving the government of the United Kingdom and an assortment of paramilitary groups. By the mid-1990s, when most of these groups had declared ceasefire, over 3,600 people had been killed and over 40,000 injured. The major paramilitary groups that participated in the conflict were the separatist Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and the pro-UK, or ‘loyalist’, Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Although the bloody conflict has been the subject of numerous studies, its intelligence component is still obscure. This is especially so when it comes to the legacy of the spies who —by all accounts— were central to the day-to-day progression of this persistent conflict, which came to be known as “the Troubles”. In an insightful paper, Eleanor Williams, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, and Thomas Leahy, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University, examine this little-studied aspect of the Northern Irish conflict. The article, “The ‘Unforgivable’?: Irish Republican Army (IRA) informers and dealing with Northern Ireland conflict legacy, 1969-2021”, was published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security.

The authors list the substantial number of UK security agencies that had a role in recruiting and running informers during the Troubles. They include: the Security Service (MI5); the Metropolitan Police Special Branch; the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch; and the Northern Irish Police Special Branch. Informants were also recruited by a host of intelligence organizations belonging to the British Armed Forces, such as the Military Reaction Force and the Force Research Unit. Although these agencies coordinated their intelligence activities to some extent, cooperation was not close. Consequently, there were hundreds of informants recruited by numerous UK state elements of the throughout the 30-year conflict. Their exact number remains unknown to this day. Read more of this post

Analysis: The West should not trust Ukrainian spy agencies. Neither should Ukrainians

Volodymyr ZelenskyON SUNDAY, JULY 17, the Ukrainian administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced the most extensive shake-up of the nation’s security leadership since the Russian military invasion. Two key members of Zelenskiy’s inner circle, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova and domestic security chief Ivan Bakanov, were summarily fired. Venediktova was the public face of Kyiv’s war crimes campaign, which was launched in March in response to the Russian invasion. Bakanov, a childhood friend of Zelenskiy, had headed the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) since 2019.

In a subsequent video statement, Zelenskiy said he fired the two officials after he was informed that at least 60 employees of the SBU and the Prosecutor General’s office had defected to the Russians in eastern Ukraine. Last week, in an article for SpyTalk, Kremlin watcher Olga Lautman said Bakanov’s dismissal had been expected for a few days. Regardless, the move has shaken Western observers, and has given rise to legitimate questions about the susceptibility of Ukraine’s security and intelligence services to Russian meddling. Should the Western alliance, and Western intelligence agencies in particular, trust their Ukrainian counterparts? The answer is, invariably, no. In fact, even the Ukrainians themselves are not in a position to trust their own intelligence services.

From the KGB to the SBU

On September 20, 1991, just one week after Ukraine secured its independence from the Soviet Union, the SBU was founded in place of the Soviet KGB. Initially, the new agency handled both internal security and external intelligence functions. But in 2005, the SBU’s Department of Intelligence became a stand-alone agency under the title Foreign Intelligence Service (SZR). Since then, the SZR has functioned as the institutional equivalent of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), while the SBU has performed domestic security functions that resemble those of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

As is the case with the entirety of Ukraine’s state sector, the two agencies are endemically bloated. Intelligence observers report that the SBU’s 30,000 employees make it far larger in size than its British counterpart, the Security Service (MI5). Meanwhile, according to the latest information, the SZR has “double the number of personnel than the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and is larger than Britain’s [Secret Intelligence Service, or] MI6”. By all accounts, even today, more than 30 years after the dissolution of the USSR, the two agencies continue to resemble Soviet-style bureaucracies in terms of size, sluggishness, and corruption. Read more of this post

Gathering intelligence on the world’s largest secret society: the Chinese government

Xi JinpingINTELLIGENCE OBSERVERS OFTEN REFER to the Communist Party of China (CPC) as “the world’s largest secret society”. Barring brief periods of relative openness in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the closed decision-making system of the CPC has presented Western intelligence analysts with cascading intractable enigmas for over half a century. This problem has become even more pressing under the decade-long leadership of Xi Jinping, during which the imposition of rigorous counterintelligence measures have turned China into a text-book hard intelligence target.

How does one manage to monitor developments in the inner sanctum of the Chinese state in the face of such formidable obstacles? According to two intelligence experts, it is still possible to gather and analyze actionable intelligence on China, by adopting the right approach. In their article “Beijingology 2.0: Bridging the ‘Art’ and ‘Science’ of China Watching in Xi Jinping’s New Era”, published on Monday in the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Bjørnar Sverdrup-Thygeson and Stig Stenslie outline the main contours of such an approach. China specialist Sverdrup-Thygeson is Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. Stenslie is Research Director and Head of the Centre for Intelligence Studies at the Norwegian Defense Intelligence School.

From Beijingology to Beijingology 2.0

The two authors explain that the Chinese intelligence riddle is not new. In fact, China-focused intelligence practitioners have long referred to their work as “Beijingology”. The term refers to the art (as opposed to science) of studying the Chinese closed political system, based on widely divergent sources of intelligence. These range from “rumor mills among Beijing diplomats” and speculations on social media, to social-science-based quantitative studies. Sverdrup-Thygeson and Stenslie explain that the two extremes of Beijingology are invariably disconnected from what is actually happening on the ground in China, and are thus of limited value.

The key, they argue, is a well-balanced mixture of approaches, which they term “Beijingology 2.0”. This approach combines traditional Beijingology methods with a host of advanced and innovative tools in social science research, such as discourse analysis and textual analysis of official Chinese government documents. The latter “offer one of very few windows into Chinese elite-level political dynamics” and thus cannot be ignored. Like all bureaucratic regimes, the Chinese political system produces copious amounts of official information in the form of public documents, speeches, and CPC-authorized statements. Such sources include daily editions of the People’s Daily (the CPC’s official media organ) and the People’s Liberation Army Daily. Read more of this post

The secret behind al-Shabaab’s longevity: A formidable spy wing

Al-Shabaab SomaliaMORE THAN HALF OF all terrorist groups fail within a year, while 95 percent of them are extinct within a decade. Yet al-Shabaab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist outfit, has been projecting strength in the Horn of Africa for over 15 years, despite having faced much stronger opponents. Today, with an operational presence in both Somalia and Kenya, the group maintains a force of between 5,000 and 10,000 full-time fighters. Pointing to its longevity, some observers view it as the most successful terrorist group of the 21st century.

What accounts for al-Shabaab’s endurance? According to a recent article by researcher Zakarie Ahmed Nor kheyre, the secret rests with the group’s sophisticated intelligence wing, the Amniyat. Nor kheyre’s article, entitled “The Evolution of the Al-Shabaab Jihadist Intelligence Structure”, was published on Friday in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security. The author argues that counter-terrorism researchers have been focusing on al-Shabaab’s operational, logistical and financial capabilities, to the detriment of its formidable intelligence wing. The latter, Nor kheyre claims, has been a priority of al-Shabaab for years, and is today more efficient that the Somali federal government’s own intelligence agency, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA). He quotes one Somali insider who exclaims that “without Amniyat, al-Shabaab would be nothing”. Read more of this post

An assessment of Russia’s espionage network in Switzerland

Russian embassy SwitzerlandSINCE LATE FEBRUARY, WHEN Russian troops invaded Ukraine, over 500 Russian diplomats have been expelled from Western countries. Even former Russian allies have contributed to the growing list of expulsions —most recently Bulgaria, which ousted a near-unprecedented 70 Russian diplomats last week, citing espionage concerns. Amidst that sea of expulsions, Switzerland remains an island. It is among the few European countries that have yet to officially expel Russian diplomats. Abiding by its centuries-old policy of neutrality, it has resisted calls to take sides in the intelligence war between the West and Russia.

“No-Questions-Asked” Approach to Espionage

Russia has been able to take advantage of Switzerland’s neutrality policy since February. Instead of returning to Moscow, at least some of the expelled Russian diplomats have been reposted to Switzerland. They continue to operate there under a “no-questions-asked” policy, which has prevailed since the days of the Cold War. For this and other reasons (i.e. proximity to prime intelligence targets, safety, advanced telecommunications systems), Switzerland has been a major intelligence hub for decades. According to the Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (NDB), Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service, the past few years have witnessed higher levels of activity by foreign intelligence services than any other period since the Cold War.

Russia’s Intelligence Presence in Switzerland

During that time, Russia has been able to build a pan-European espionage hub in the small alpine state. That is the conclusion of a report by Jonas Roth, which was published last week in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), Switzerland’s newspaper of record. The report, entitled “So Spioniert Russland in der Schweiz” (“How Russian spies operate in Switzerland”), features commentary by several experts and government officials. One source tells Roth that, despite the intense diplomatic pressure Russia has faced globally since February, its espionage structures in Swiss cities like Geneva and Bern “are still intact”.

How many Russian intelligence officers are currently operating in Switzerland? According to the report, at least a third of Russia’s 220-strong diplomatic presence in the country consists of intelligence officers. These 70 or so intelligence officers represent all three of Russia’s primary intelligence agencies, namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces’ General Staff (GRU), and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Officers from these agencies handle an unknown number of informants and agents; these are Swiss or third-country nationals, who provide the Russians with intelligence on a regular basis. Special activities are carried out by Russian intelligence personnel who travel to Switzerland on an ad hoc basis. Read more of this post

Despite expectations, a cyber-blitz has not occurred in Ukraine. Experts explain why

Russian invasion of Ukraine IN THE OPENING STAGES of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a widespread expectation among security experts that the world would witness a new chapter in the history of cyber-warfare: something akin to carpet-bombing in cyberspace. These fears, however, have not materialized. Although cyber-attacks have occurred on both sides, their scale has remained markedly modest. Consequently, their effect has been limited and has had no traceable strategic impact on the conflict.

Why is that? According to two experts, Nadiya Kostyuk, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Cybersecurity and Privacy, and Aaron Brantly, assistant professor and director of Virginia Tech’s Tech4Humanity Lab, the reasons partly relate to how nation-states form cyber-alliances, as well as to Russia’s overall approach to this war. The two experts attempt to forensically analyze this topic in their article entitled “War in the Borderland Through Cyberspace: Limits of Defending Ukraine Through Interstate Cooperation”, which was published on June 29 in Contemporary Security Policy.

Does the Improved Cyber-Defense Argument Stand to Reason?

In their article, Kostyuk and Brantly systematically scrutinize a number of reasons that other experts have proposed to explain the absence of a major cyber-war campaign by Russia. Among them is the view that Ukraine significantly improved its cyber-defenses after 2015, when it began collaborating closely with Western countries —notably the United States and the United Kingdom. Specially designated “cyber-warfare teams” from these countries have been helping Ukraine in tasks ranging from “the synchronization of [its] cyber-related legislation” with Western standards, as well as aligning them with NATO standards, so that Ukrainian cyber-warfare units can make use of advanced technologies and systems. Could it be, therefore, that Ukraine has improved its cyber-security posture enough to be able to defend itself against relentless Russian cyber-attacks?

That is unlikely, say the authors, given that “Ukraine’s cyber capabilities are still organizationally and operationally under- developed” in comparison to Russia’s. That is exacerbated by the endemic corruption and clientelism (the creation of patronage networks) in Ukraine, as well as by the bitter in-fighting between government agencies —notably the Ministry of Defense and the Security Service of Ukraine. It should not go without notice, Kostyuk and Brantly note, that the Ukrainian government sought frantically to develop a “volunteer cyber-army” on an ad hoc basis to defend the nation in the first days of the Russian invasion. That did not exactly instill trust in the country’s level of preparation to withstand a cyber-campaign by Moscow. Read more of this post

Can one ever truly leave the Russian intelligence services? It depends, says expert

Kremlin, RussiaRUSSIANS ARE AWARE OF the phrase “there is no such thing as a former chekist”. The term “chekist” dates from the Bolshevik-era All-Russian Extraordinary Commission (VChK, pronounced “cheka”), which was formed in 1917 as the first Soviet-era state security agency. By the 1940s, intelligence posts had come to be seen as life-long relationships between chekists and the Soviet government, which continued even after one’s retirement. In the words of Joseph Stalin, “[a] chekist has only two paths: toward promotion or to prison”. Is that still the case? It depends on who you ask, says Dr. Kevin Riehle, a 30-year counterintelligence veteran with the United States government, who now teaches at the University of Mississippi’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies.

Riehle, author of Soviet Defectors: Revelations of Renegade Intelligence Officers, 1924-1954 (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), discusses this topic in an article published earlier this month in The International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. The article, entitled “Post-KGB Lives: Is There Such a Thing as a Former Chekist?”, examines this concept with reference to three Russian intelligence agencies, all of which trace their origins to the Soviet-era Cheka —namely the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Federal Protective Service (FSO).

The author explains that the history of chekist organizations is replete with examples of officers, especially those with military backgrounds, who “received post-separation jobs with no apparent obligation to continue cooperation with the [intelligence] service[s]”. However, since the rise of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, the Kremlin has imposed tight restrictions on the post-retirement activities of former intelligence personnel. As of 2019, such former personnel are not permitted to leave Russia for any reason for five years following their retirement. There is another category of Putin-era intelligence retirees, who enter careers in business or politics. Many of them maintain their intelligence contacts and “continue to fulfil service requirements” while displaying a sense of pride for their government service. This often results in business or political advantages, notes Riehle. Read more of this post

Analysis: HUMINT insights from the Muller/Cherkasov case

AIVD HollandAT A TIME WHEN dozens of countries are routinely expelling record numbers of Russian intelligence officers, news of the unmasking of yet another Russian spy is barely newsworthy. However, the case of Sergey Cherkasov/Victor Muller is different. That is because, unlike the vast majority of Russian spies with blown covers, he did not operate under diplomatic protection. This is not necessarily uncommon —in fact, there are probably dozens of Russian case officers operating internationally without diplomatic cover. What is unusual is that one of them has been publicly unmasked. What is more, the case offers some interesting pointers for those interested in contemporary human intelligence (HUMINT).

The Facts

According to the Netherlands General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), which publicized the case last week, a man using a Brazilian passport attempted to enter Holland in April of this year. His passport had been issued under the name Victor Muller Ferreira, allegedly born to an Irish father and a Spanish-speaking mother in Niteroi (near Rio de Janeiro) on April 4, 1989. However, according to the AIVD, the man’s real name is Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a citizen of Russia, who was born on September 11, 1985. Based on the information released by Dutch intelligence, Cherkasov is an intelligence officer of the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, which is commonly known as the GRU.

The AIVD claims that the reason for Cherkasov’s visit to the Netherlands was to join the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, as a paid intern. He eventually planned to transition into full-time employment in the ICC, where he “would be highly valuable to the Russian intelligence services”. The AIVD reportedly notified the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service, which detained Cherkasov upon his arrival at Amsterdam’s Airport Schiphol. The Dutch government declared the alleged GRU officer persona non grata and promptly expelled him back to Brazil “on the first flight out”.

Cherkasov’s Cover and Legend

Cherkasov arrived in Holland with a cover, a term that refers to a fake operational identity used for purposes of espionage. It is unlikely that his cover was natural, meaning that he is probably not Brazilian by birth —though it is possible that at least one of his parents was/is not Russian by birth. What is more likely is that Cherkasov’s cover is contractual, meaning that it was crafted especially for him by the GRU after he was hired as an intelligence officer. This likely happened as many as 10 years ago, when Cherkasov was in his early 20s. Read more of this post

Analysis: What We Are Likely to See in the Coming Weeks in Ukraine

Ukraine Russia war“THERE ARE DECADES WHERE nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. These words by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin offer a fitting description of the cataclysmic events witnessed since February 24. In the early hours of that day, the largest country in the world launched a strategic ground offensive against the largest country in Europe. What began as a “special military operation” has now escalated into the most extensive military conflict in Europe since World War II. It is clear that Russia’s original plan for this war collapsed within hours of the initial attack. But the correlation of forces continues to overwhelmingly favor the Russian side. Moreover, the bulk of the Russian forces are heading for Kyiv. This could result in the largest and most deadly urban battle since World War II.

Russia’s Original Strategy

The Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine was premised on a rapid military campaign, which was designed to trigger the collapse of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration within about a week. The original plan appears to have rested on quickly introducing non-conscript military units inside Kyiv, in order to force the government toQ Quote 1 flee to Lviv. At the same time, elite formations from the Main Directorate of the Armed Forces’ General Staff (GRU) and Spetsnaz (special operations forces) were sent to the Ukrainian capital to assassinate leading government figures.

Based on that assumption, Russia’s original strategy was to avoid engaging in clashes in major urban centers, barring those that are located along key transportation routes. That is because urban terrain heavily favors the defender and tends to result in mass invader casualties. The Russians can’t afford too many of those, given that the Russian expeditionary force of about 150,000 non-conscript troops is grossly insufficient to conquer—let alone occupy—a country the size of Ukraine, with a largely young population of well over 40 million. Read more of this post

Analysis: A Western-supported anti-Russian insurgency in Ukraine is unlikely

Ukraine RussiaAS THE FULL-SCALE invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces continues to unfold, some Western commentators have begun to speculate about the possible launch of an anti-Russian insurgency by the Ukrainian population. This kind of speculation is not unreasonable. Indeed, given their enormous disparity in size and might, a symmetric confrontation between the two belligerents seems unthinkable. One simply cannot imagine that a direct military confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian military forces could result in anything other than a resounding victory for Moscow. However, although the rise of an armed anti-Russian insurgency in Ukraine is possible, it is unlikely to be large in scale, and even more unlikely to succeed.

On first glance, Ukraine seems like a textbook case for a possible insurgency. Russia aside, it is Europe’s largest country by landmass, with a population of nearly 50 million. Even under the most favorable conditions, the Russians would find it difficult to occupy and control it without the consent of the local populace. Moreover, Ukraine shares borders with seven countries, including Russia, four of which—Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Poland—are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The geographic proximity of a host of NATO bases would easily allow Western intelligence agencies to provide the local population with war materiel, including advanced military hardware and other supplies. Lastly, due to the protracted war in Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian military has amassed significant experience in insurgency over the past decade.

However, as Brown University visiting professor Lyle Goldstein cautions in a recent article, things are never simple in war. Although no fewer than four NATO states border Ukraine, the military alliance and its leading patron, the United States, will need to exercise immense caution. In using these states to arm Ukrainian insurgents, Western powers will need to ensure a maximum degree of plausible deniability. Should Russia determine that Western countries are using these NATO powers as front-line states in a new Cold War, it could be tempted to launch military operations against them—an act that could spiral into an out-of-control multi-state war. It is also likely that these front-line NATO member-states will resist calls to be involved in this conflict, in order to avoid being dragged into a wider regional war.

Moreover, although numerous regions of Ukraine appear to be under fire at the moment, it is doubtful that the Russian military will seek to occupy the entire country. Moscow is thus unlikely to try to extend its control past the largely pro-Russian regions of eastern and east-central Ukraine. Such a strategy would ensure that Russian troops would be able to operate in a largely friendly environment. It would also make it difficult for Ukrainian insurgents to operate effectively anywhere east of Kiev. Lastly, the Russian Armed Forces have amassed substantial counter-insurgency experience in the post-Cold War era, having fought in large numbers in Chechnya and Syria, as well as in various regions of Africa through the Wagner Group.

In short, unless the Russians over-play their hand and try to take over the entire country, Western powers are likely to find it difficult to organize, support and sustain a concerted armed insurgency on Ukrainian soil. This does not mean that the ongoing Russian military campaign in Ukraine will inevitably be successful. War is inherently unpredictable, so anything can happen in the coming weeks and months. However, defeating the Russians in any military context will require many years of extremely brutal, bloody and fierce war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 February 2022 | Permalink

Director of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency replaced following much speculation

Inter-Services Public Relations PakistanTHE DIRECTOR-GENERAL OF Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) directorate, which is one of the country’s most powerful institutions, has been replaced, following weeks of speculation. On Wednesday, a press release issued by the Pakistani military announced that Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed would step down from his post of director of ISI, and will be replaced by Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed Anjum. General Hameed will now assume charge of Pakistan’s elite Corps XI in Peshawar, according to the press release.

As F.M. Shakil notes in The Asia Times, General Hameed’s removal from the top post at ISI had been speculated about for some time. His leadership in the ISI was marked by the spy agency’s increasingly close relations with the Afghan Taliban, as the group prepared to take back power in Afghanistan. Hameed’s activities in Afghanistan were strongly supported by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who is believed to have fought to retain him as ISI director until the dust from the Taliban’s takeover settles in Kabul. The fact that Khan’s wish did not materialize is interesting, especially since, under Pakistani law, it is the prime minister’s office that appoints the director-general of the ISI.

Shakil suggests that Khan may have faced pressure from two fronts. First, from China, which is arguably Pakistan’s most important international ally. Beijing has been notably unhappy with the inability of the ISI to stop a string of armed attacks against Chinese workers, who are employed by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as well as other projects throughout Pakistan. These attacks have angered China, and have prompted strong calls for more security around Chinese-funded building projects in Pakistan. Beijing is believed to have asked for Hameed’s replacement as a result.

Second, the Pakistani military leadership saw Hameed’s relationship-building program with the Afghan Taliban as having gone a few steps too far. The issue is not so much the relationship-building itself —on the contrary, the Pakistani military wants to be in a position to influence Afghanistan’s new masters. But Hameed stands accused of having maneuvered too visibly. As Shakil notes, the ISI strongman visited Kabul just days after the Taliban takeover and was photographed “sipping green tea [next to Taliban leaders] with a triumphant smile”. That angered the Americans and caused some Pakistani military leaders to believe that Washington might even impose sanctions on Islamabad.

The argument, therefore, is that Hameed’s replacement pleases the Chinese, the Americans and the Pakistani military. The only side that did not get its way is that of the prime minister. Time will show what this means for the future of civilian rule in the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim-majority nation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2021 | Permalink

Analysis: Turkey and Qatar emerge as Taliban government’s main envoys to the West

Turkish embassy in Afghanistan

TURKEY AND QATAR, TWO countries with a growing diplomatic and intelligence network inside Afghanistan, are emerging as significant envoys to the Western world for the new government of the Taliban. Their newfound role in the Central Asian country puts them in direct competition with China and Russia, which have kept their embassies in Kabul open throughout the dramatic events of the past month. Three other countries with historically close ties to the Taliban, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also important players amidst the new reality in the war-torn country.

As a recent article by the BBC points out, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries to recognize the Taliban government in the 1990s, when the group last held the reins of power in Kabul. But they quickly cut diplomatic ties with it following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Their contacts with some of the older Taliban leaders remain strong, however.

In contrast to the older generation, some of the younger leaders of the Taliban see Qatar and Turkey as important mediators and conduits of communication with the outside world, and especially with the West. It is no accident that the Taliban entrusted the restoration of the —undoubtedly soon to be renamed— Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to technicians from Turkey and Qatar, who were hurriedly flown to the Afghan capital last week for that purpose.

In establishing relations of trust with the Taliban, Qatar is relying on a lengthy record of facilitating diplomatic connections between the militant group and Western powers. It should be recalled that it was in Doha that American and Taliban representatives negotiated the terms of Washington’s exit over several meetings spanning several administrations in the White House. In the past month, the Qataris used their links to the Taliban to assist numerous Western nations, including the United States, in evacuating their citizens from Afghanistan. Read more of this post

Afghanistan chaos could revive CIA’s counterterrorism mission, say observers

US embassy in Afghanistan

THE RAPID TAKEOVER OF Afghanistan by the Taliban, and the potential descent of that country into an even deeper chaos, could force the United States Central Intelligence Agency to revive its counterterrorism mission, which it has been trying to put on the back-burner in recent years. This is discussed in an insightful article published last Friday in The New York Times by Julian Barnes, Adam Goldman and Mark Mazzetti (author of The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth).

The three reporters cite anonymous “current and former officials” who claim that the spiraling instability of Afghanistan “could draw the CIA back into a complex counterterrorism mission for years to come”. This comes as American officials are “reworking plans to counter threats that could emerge from Afghanistan’s chaos”, according to the report. Their ultimate fear is that Afghanistan could emerge as a beehive for militants of all backgrounds and stripes, just as Syria did in the 2010s, and before it Afghanistan in the 1990s. Even if the Taliban want to stop this from happening, the CIA has no faith in their ability to do so, the authors note.

But what can the CIA do in that regard? The spy agency has lost its extensive system of stations and outposts throughout Afghanistan. Its networks of agents inside the war-torn country have crumbled, and it doesn’t even have access to a US or other Western diplomatic facility from which to operate in-country. It will therefore need to negotiate with neighboring countries in order to establish facilities that can allow it to run agents and operations inside Afghanistan. This will not be easy, given the influence of Pakistan, Russia and China in the broader region.

The article cites a number of “senior US officials” who argue that the CIA’s priorities will not necessarily change after what happened in recent weeks in Afghanistan. Yes, there may be more urgency on counterterrorism following the victory of the Taliban, they say. They note, however, that US intelligence agencies are perfectly capable of handling “multiple priorities at once”. But the article also quotes Don Hepburn, who served both in the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who says that focusing on both state and non-state actors with the same intensity is not necessarily as simple as it sounds: “The agency is being drawn in many, many directions”, he cautions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2021 | Permalink

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