Former CIA spy who spent significant time in Russia says Putin's inner circle could turn on him
Former member of CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Steven Hall, who spent significant time in Moscow, talks about the risks facing President Putin and his Inner Circle – including the risk that Putin’s inner circle could turn on him.
The Cipher Brief: Both the actions and threats – including nuclear threats – from Russian President Vladimir Putin, have prompted mass speculation about his mental state. Is the world witnessing an escalation by Putin and what do you think indicators of an escalation might be?
Hall: I think the reason that we are seeing this interesting behavior from Putin, and I usually preface this by saying that you must be careful because it’s always been a difficult challenge, intelligence or otherwise, to see into Putin’s mind or try to figure out what he’s up to, just by the nature of the system. So, with that caveat, I think it’s worth noting the strange things we’ve been seeing in Putin’s recent speeches, which have sometimes turned into rants. That, along with some of the other behaviors that he has displayed, does indicate that, whether it’s because of COVID or whether it’s because of the Ukraine crisis or whether it’s because he’s aging, he does appear be more and more isolated inside the Kremlin.
At least one of the reasons why we’re seeing some of these unique behaviors from him is that I really do think he is extremely concerned about the siloviki, (translates as ‘people of force’ and is used to describe the political elite that came from the Russian military or security services) or the military elites. I think he’s worried about a coup. He’s worried that what happened to Gorbachev in 1991, could happen to him. And that of course is going to cause him to go a little crazy because he’s got to be wondering about that day and night. It’s also going to cause him to be looking over his shoulder at the siloviki.
A lot of people think the oligarchs will be the ones to overthrow him, or that there will be mass protests and uprising in the streets, but I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to happen. If something happens internally in Russia, it’s going to come from people like Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. It’s going to come from his intelligence chiefs. That’s what he’s worried about. I also think that’s what accounts for some of the strange behaviors that we’ve been seeing from him recently.
The Cipher Brief: We did see public tension between Putin and his intelligence chief during the national security council meeting that really launched this war. What we know about his inner circle and what is the likelihood that some of his inner circle might turn on him?
Hall: I think the dressing down of the SVR chief, Sergei Naryshkin, was an excellent example of two things. First, of Putin acting in an uncharacteristic fashion, not only to a member of the security elite, but also in the presence of his inner circle. Everybody saw that humiliation and if they didn’t see it directly, they certainly heard about it afterwards. That is indeed a good example. But I think when we’re assessing probabilities and the likelihood that there could be some sort of coup, it’s worth looking to history. The closest historical event we have is the attempt on former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Some people are quick to say, “Well, it could never happen because it was the military back then.” And the military was involved with some of the security services, KGB specifically. But more importantly, when you’re comparing the two situations, I think there is a lot more that they have in common than they have as differences.
The primary motivating factor for the siloviki in 1991 to attempt a coup against Gorbachev was that they believed the Soviet Union at the time, was collapsing and that the whole system was going to go down. And they said, “We can’t stand for that. We have to do something to save the Soviet Union.” Fast forward to today, and look at what’s happening to Russia right now, in terms of economic sanctions and in terms of the isolation that it’s experiencing. Consider the ruble, which as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, is worth less than one penny.
The Russian stock exchange has been closed for the entire week. All these things are happening to Russia and are showing no signs of letting up. I believe the siloviki, these days, have got to be thinking, “It’s entirely possible that Russia as we know it could implode.”
When the people who are capable of conducting a coup against Putin are arriving at that conclusion, then I think that dramatically increases the likelihood that they are at least considering, “Okay, do we actually have to think the unthinkable? Do we have to get rid of Putin because he just becomes so isolated and so cornered that there could be a worst-case scenario.” At some point he could say, “I’m going to use the nuclear option.” And I think when they start thinking along those lines, that increases the likelihood that they would say, “We got to do something to make this stop.”
The Cipher Brief: It’s hard to understand how Russia wouldn’t implode under the current sanctions and their wide-spread effects. It’s not just the things you mentioned regarding the economy and the value of the ruble, but Western companies are abandoning operations, Russians are losing their jobs. I can imagine what those unemployment lines are going to look like, and people will be looking to the government for help. Let’s game it out for a second, what might happen if you saw these internal economic pressure moving Russia closer to an implosion?
Hall: In the United States, we have three branches of government. In Russia, you kind of have three branches of government, too. It’s Putin, and the siloviki, and then the oligarchs. So, the question for most Westerners is, “What about the man on the street? We’ve seen some significant protests.” This is where it gets interesting, because things can, and they almost certainly will, continue to deteriorate in Russia. You’re going to see more people on the streets. You’re going to see more people who are impacted because the company that they worked for has closed, or they can’t buy some of the basic necessities that they could before or be maybe their money is simply useless now. The goods are still there, but their credit cards won’t work anymore. Or they don’t have access to a ruble, or if they do, it’s extremely devalued and they can’t buy much with it.
Will that cause people to take to the streets? Yes, it will. There have been times in Russian history when you had a whole bunch of people in the street. They don’t have any doubts or any hesitation about protesting when they must, and they’ll do it in massive numbers. But it comes with risk.
The people who are responsible for the crackdowns are the ones who are controlled by these security elite, by the internal security services, by the police, among all these other groups that are under the control of various Russian internal structures. If those people are called upon to do their jobs, to repress the Russian people, then the question becomes one of internal pressure. Are the local police going to say, “I’m willing to repress, but I’m not going to cause rivers of blood to flow down in Moscow.” So those pressures cut both ways. They cut both for and against the government.
The Cipher Brief: On that note, we’re seeing reports that suggest – speculate really – that morale amongst the Russian military inside Ukraine is low. That’s hard to assess, but what would that mean for the Russian campaign in Ukraine if true?
Hall: There are two points to consider. I believe there is something to the argument that basically says it is one scenario to climb out of your T82 tank or whatever model you happen to be driving, or your APC, and there are a bunch of Americans, or there is a bunch of terrorists or even Chechens – that’s not so hard to fight against those guys. But when you jump out of your tank and you’re looking at a little old lady, or a mother with kids in her arms, who speaks the same language you do, that carries a different psychological impact. That has to be taken into consideration of having the will to fight, which is one part of it. The other thing is on the Russian side, and I’m not an expert in Russian military history, but Russians overcome a lot of what we would consider to be difficulties in Western militaries, by simply throwing more people and more ammunition at a problem. Say you’ve got a unit that’s a little bit soft because it’s got a bunch of young guys who are second guessing why they are there. Fine, we’ll bring in 10 more units and push those guys out of the way, or we’ll just use more heavy artillery, and if it lands on an apartment building, so be it.
The Cipher Brief: Back to the idea of internal pressure within Russia, if we started to see some of those scenarios playing out that might indicate that the people closest to Putin were going to move against him, what would be the best course of action for the West in that case?
Hall: That is absolutely the right question to be asking. My gut instinct is to do no harm. The siloviki have a lot of experience keeping things very clandestine and very covert. So, I’m not sure that even if we had top notch intelligence, that we would see it coming – even if a guy like Patrushev, for example, or Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the FSB were to be one of the coup leaders – which I think one of those guys would be – that they’re not going to be welcoming of the West. If we were to reach out they are not going to say, “Thank goodness we got rid of Putin, now we can work together.” It’s still not going to be good for Russia if those guys conduct a coup and get rid of Putin. But it might be a lot better for Ukrainians, and it might be a lot better for the nuclear security of the world because their interest is precisely what you were talking about before which is that they want the system to continue to work. They want the oligarchs to keep making money with foreign companies. At the very least, they would want to try to return Russia to the status quo as opposed to, for example, signal a move toward a full-blown democracy, which isn’t going to happen.
The Cipher Brief: What are you most closely watching right now?
Hall: For me, the toughest question is how many innocent Ukrainians are going to have to die before NATO does something? And are we making the same mistake that was made with Hitler, and Chamberlain? This is a tough question. For a decision to be made to go to war with Russia over Ukraine, that would have to have unanimity amongst NATO allies and a lot of the EU as well. As much as it may look like appeasement, it is a rational argument. I’m not sure it’s the right argument, but it is a rational argument to say, “Look, we feel terrible for Ukraine and perhaps we could have done better in 2014, when he annexed Crimea, or in 2008, when he went after Georgia or after Russia’s involvement in Syria. But the bottom line is that to basically commit to another world war, is something that might not be in the interest of the rest of the alliance. So that’s a tough decision. I just don’t know how that’s going to play out.