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Former Cold War Intel Officer Explains How To Deal With Russia In A Post-Soviet World

Michael Sulick, an American intelligence officer who served as Director of the U.S. National Clandestine Service from 2007-2010.
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Michael Sulick, an American intelligence officer who served as Director of the U.S. National Clandestine Service from 2007-2010.

Ukrainian Prime Misnister Arsenily Yatsenyuk said Friday that he thinks Russia might carry out a new offensive in the east of Ukraine, in spite of the ceasefire agreement reached in February.

“The Russians have to understand that Ukraine is now an independent country,” says Michael Sulick, who worked in the U.S. intelligence community for more than 30 years and served as the Director of the National Clandestine Service from 2007-2010. “We can’t allow [Russia] to slip back into Soviet-style foreign policy, in which they think they can brutalize other countries in the region.”

Russia’s relations with the West have been strained ever since the country invaded Ukraine in 2014. However, Sulick thinks the 2014 annexation of Crimea did not mark the start of a new Cold War.

“I would call it a ‘chilling conflict’,” Sulick said. “I don’t think either side wants to return to coming to the brink of nuclear confrontation again.”

In response to the Ukraine crisis, the West has imposed a number of sanctions on Russia. Sulick said he thinks the sanctions are working, but the pressure has to be kept up.

But Russian Presiden Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to be responding to sanctions like the West may have hoped. On Thursday, Putin said Russia would not “make concessions, bend down or trifle with someone,” and that “[the situation in Russia] will change for the better only if [Russia] becomes stronger.”

This sort of attitude is precisely why Sulick says the West has to keep putting pressure on Russia.

“With [the Russians], negotiations and compromise often don’t work, and Putin kind of … epitomizes that attitude,” Sulick said.

Although Russia is no longer the superpower that the Soviet Union once was, Sulick says the West shouldn’t disregard its ability to damage the West. In 2014, Russia’s economy was the ninth-largest in the world in terms of GDP and the country still exerts a lot of influence. Over the past year, Russia has entered in to new trade deals with, among others, China, India, and Brazil – three of the world’s ten largest economies.

Just last week, Russia refused to restructure $3 billion of Ukrainian debt, seriously threatening the country’s ability to secure a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.

Russia has also been strengthening ties with many Latin American countries, raising concerns in Washington over Russia’s increasing influence in the western hemisphere.

All of this means that the U.S. needs to seriously take Russia into account when making policy decisions.

“[Russia] can be helpful or hurtful to us in a number of issues of concern to the United States,” Sulick said.

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Interview Highlights

On Being An Intelligence Officer In The Countries Of The Former Soviet Bloc

There were heady times of course, because, again, it's always interesting to meet your former adversaries. But they, in a sense, wanted to embrace the ideals of the West; they quickly abandoned Communism in most cases. One of the first things we did in all of these former countries of the Soviet Bloc was to bring people over there to explain to them how an intelligence service functions in a democracy. Because remember, they had come from a system where the intelligence service was basically used to repress the people. So we discussed with them why we had an intelligence service which had no police powers, why there was a very strong tradition against such things. This is what the Gestapo and KGB and other Soviet Bloc partner organizations with them had developed. So that’s why we explained congressional oversight them and checks and balances to ensure that the services never become these tools of tyranny, if you will, in the future.

On The Role Of Intelligence Services Post-Cold War

In the early 90s, after so many years of dealing with this focus in this bipolar world on one powerful adversary, suddenly it was hard to say, you know, “who's our opponent now?” Somehow, at that point, terrorism hadn't risen quite to that level yet. Neither had proliferation. China was clearly on the rise, but didn't seem to be at that level. So it was difficult to say. We were so used to dealing with us against one opponent in this bipolar world. Who do we substitute that with? And combined with that, of course, was that people wanted the so-called "peace dividend." Congress reduced our manpower drastically in our budgets because they said, "well, we want the peace dividend. The Cold War is over. Why should we be spending all these resources?” And so it wasn't until 9/11, of course, and that crystalized the agency again, and you did have your enemy. A far different one, of course – harder to find, in many respects harder to fight, but still a different enemy. But the problem then was, of course, [although] Congress was willing to give us any money we needed in order to stop this threat, you can't grow personnel overnight to do that – it takes a few years. So that was one of the areas where we suffered a lot from the peace dividend, and we weren’t quite ready for the 9/11 aftermath.

On Government Intelligence Leaks

Well I think it's certainly a new phenomenon, in a sense, where a leaker can in a sense cause more damage than the spies sometimes can by giving something to a foreign power. I think one of the damages, one of the main ones, to me, from the Snowden case, is that our ability to keep secrets seems to be very poor, and that's not encouraging to our foreign partners. And especially in terrorism, unlike in the Cold War, we have to rely on – since it's so difficult to find terrorists operating – you really have to rely a lot more on local law enforcement and local intelligence services. So really, the partnership with other countries is important, probably more so than in the past. But when you reveal this inability to keep secrets, those services are less inclined to cooperate with you. The reason why a lot of the Europeans are actually mad is their intelligence services are angry that the Snowden revelations have focused attention on their own operations like this. So anyway, here we have a phenomenon I think that’s going to continue because of WikiLeaks and because of the ability to obtain this kind of information.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Michael Sulick, welcome to World Views.

MICHAEL SULICK: Thank you. Glad to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, Mike, let's start with the beginning of your career. When you entered the CIA, when you began to work as an intelligence officer, you really began as a Russian specialist, a Soviet specialist. You were a Russian linguist. And so you found yourself working in operations in that part of the world during a very interesting and exciting time, obviously, the Cold War. Give us a little bit of background on that and what that was like working for the U.S. Government Intelligence Service while you are in a country like the Soviet Union.

SULICK: Well it was a critical time in the Cold War. In a sense it was the long twilight of it, in the decade of the 80s. As you recall, Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. Clearly the Cold War "final battle" had just begun in the 80s as a result of his engagement on the issue of the Cold War and the Soviet regime. And by the end of that decade, many of the people who had been our enemies before in the Soviet Bloc and Eastern Europe had suddenly opened their gates and people flooded out of there and people who were once our old adversaries had suddenly become our new friends.

GRILLOT: Well so you were one of the first, if not the first, intelligence officer that was to work in the former Soviet Republics. So this was this incredible time of transition. Give us some sense of what that was like, to be there at a time when these new independent countries were trying to shed that KGB presence and engage with you and the United States government, but also the challenge of making sure you can trust them and develop those relationships with, perhaps, a former enemy.

SULICK: Well like I said, there were heady times of course, because, again, it's always interesting to meet your former adversaries. But they, in a sense, wanted to embrace the ideals of the West; they quickly abandoned Communism in most cases. One of the first things we did in all of these former countries of the Soviet Bloc was to bring people over there to explain to them how an intelligence service functions in a democracy. Because remember, they had come from a system where the intelligence service was basically used to repress the people. So we discussed with them why we had an intelligence service which had no police powers, why there was a very strong tradition against such things. This is what the Gestapo and KGB and other Soviet Bloc partner organizations with them had developed. So that’s why we explained congressional oversight them and checks and balances to ensure that the services never become these tools of tyranny, if you will, in the future.

GRILLOT: Well, clearly Russia's back in the headlines today and some are concerned that there might be a re-ignition of the Cold War or some sort of dividing line kind of reemerging again. Do you see it that way? I mean, I know you're no longer in service, so perhaps you can even give us more of your opinion on this subject. Where are we with Russia today? And should we be concerned? And should we be stepping up our intelligence operations in that part of the world once again?

SULICK: Well I would call it a "chilling conflict" not a Cold War. I mean, the Cold War conjures up images of nuclear standoff and a bipolar world. We are no longer living in a bipolar world and I don't think either side wants to return to coming to the brink of nuclear confrontation again. So that's not an issue. But clearly the relationship is more complicated than it was before. We do have to take Russia into account. I think part of their peak, if you will, of course, is that they resent losing their superpower status. The fact is they are still the sixth largest economy in the world, major producers of energy. They can be helpful or hurtful to us in a number of issues of concern to the United States like Iran, conflicts in the Middle East, and so on. So I think we have to take them into account. At the same time, we can't allow them to slip back into Soviet-style foreign policy, in which they think they can brutalize other countries in the region.

GRILLOT: Well what options do we have to prevent that from happening? It seems like it's been hard for the United States and Europeans to even move on this issue. Is there a dividing line? It's like, "okay, we'll let you have Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but hands off the Baltics, hands off other parts of Eastern Europe, and once you go there, then that's the red line and we'll stop"? What are we willing to do?

SULICK: Yeah, I don't know that we should draw red lines. We should realize the Ukraine is more important to Russia than it is to us. There's a long history there; there's this idea of "Slavic brotherhood" that operates there. But at the same time, the Russians also have to understand that the Ukraine is now an independent country, and it will tilt to the West, it will incorporate more into the West, and the only way they can stop it is by subversion or invasion or something, and that's not going to happen. I think sanctions are working, but the pressure has kept up. Because in the end, all the Russians understand is force. With them, negotiations and compromise often don't work, and Putin kind of, to me, epitomizes that attitude. So they just have to be made to feel the effects of this and realize that pressure isn't going to let up. Because they play the long game – they're willing to wait this out, to slowly make gains to get what they want.

GRILLOT: When you became the director of the National Clandestine Service and as your position changed within the CIA, you clearly dealt with other parts of the world, and in particular in the Middle East because of the critical importance, from September 11 2001 on, of the role that intelligence has played in helping us battle extremists and insurgents and fight those wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now elsewhere in the Middle East. How was it making that adjustment? And going from kind of that Cold War – even then, post-Cold War – focus on the Soviet Union, former Soviet Union, Russian influence, to something, really, completely different in another part of the world?

SULICK: I think we adapted faster than others perhaps, in the United States government, but we still, I think, were a little bit slow about that. But we were the first ones that reached out to our counterparts in these new governments there, as I mentioned before, in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc, to discuss issues of mutual interest. That being cooperation on things like terrorism and proliferation. But in the early 90s, after so many years of dealing with this focus in this bipolar world on one powerful adversary, suddenly it was hard to say, you know, “who's our opponent now?” Somehow, at that point, terrorism hadn't risen quite to that level yet. Neither had proliferation. China was clearly on the rise, but didn't seem to be at that level. So it was difficult to say. We were so used to dealing with us against one opponent in this bipolar world. Who do we substitute that with? And combined with that, of course, was that people wanted the so-called "peace dividend." Congress reduced our manpower drastically in our budgets because they said, "well, we want the peace dividend. The Cold War is over. Why should we be spending all these resources?” And so it wasn't until 9/11, of course, and that crystalized the agency again, and you did have your enemy. A far different one, of course – harder to find, in many respects harder to fight, but still a different enemy. But the problem then was, of course, [although] Congress was willing to give us any money we needed in order to stop this threat, you can't grow personnel overnight to do that – it takes a few years. So that was one of the areas where we suffered a lot from the peace dividend, and we weren’t quite ready for the 9/11 aftermath.

GRILLOT: Well it's a little shift in our gears here, but I have to get to your most recent book, because although you've spent most of your time overseas and, obviously, working on intelligence issues around the world, your most recent book focuses on people who've spied against the United States, in particular American citizens who've spied against their own country. What kind of led to that shift? And were you surprised that you were able to find as many people as you covered in your book: about 40 Americans who have spied against the United States? I mean, is this something that happens regularly every day and we don't know it? Spies are living among us?

SULICK: Well, I had run CIA counterintelligence, which we also have a charter for counterintelligence to protect our own operations and information. And, of course, part of that is finding out about spies operating in the U.S. government. The FBI, of course, is responsible ultimately for protecting the United States against espionage and catching spies, who are prosecuted by the Department of Justice. We cooperated very closely with them. After years of, frankly, some turf battles, we have a much closer relationship with them these days. In that job, I had to often speak to people in our agency – younger officers, people in the intelligence community – about counterintelligence. I like to use historical examples, and I found myself running to all sorts of books and I thought it would be easier if all of these cases were kind of capsulized in one volume. Then when I retired, I remembered that and said, "I could write that volume." And so that was how those books came out. They're basically intended to be short, in a sense almost vignettes, that introduce the layman and students into this world. But also to show them how extensive it has been throughout American history, going back to the revolution, and how our attitudes to it, in a sense, mirror our values system – sometimes in strong ways, other times in flawed ways.

GRILLOT: Well, you do cover most of the spies that you talk about in your book, and we think about particular individuals who have shared secrets with foreign governments. But we also have very recent examples of people like Edward Snowden, those who run WikiLeaks, that are sharing secrets or classified information in a much broader sense with the media or through some sort of electronic service. How do we make sense of these two different types of activities? And do you see that the Edward Snowden-type activity is going to be much more prevalent today?

SULICK: Well I think it's certainly a new phenomenon, in a sense, where a leaker can in a sense cause more damage than the spies sometimes can by giving something to a foreign power. I think one of the damages, one of the main ones, to me, from the Snowden case, is that our ability to keep secrets seems to be very poor, and that's not encouraging to our foreign partners. And especially in terrorism, unlike in the Cold War, we have to rely on – since it's so difficult to find terrorists operating – you really have to rely a lot more on local law enforcement and local intelligence services. So really, the partnership with other countries is important, probably more so than in the past. But when you reveal this inability to keep secrets, those services are less inclined to cooperate with you. The reason why a lot of the Europeans are actually mad is their intelligence services are angry that the Snowden revelations have focused attention on their own operations like this. So anyway, here we have a phenomenon I think that’s going to continue because of WikiLeaks and because of the ability to obtain this kind of information.

GRILLOT: Well, Michael Sulick, thank you so much once again for being with us today and sharing this insight into issues that normally not so visible to us. Thank you.

SULICK: Thank you.

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