The Ukraine crisis has not been difficult to follow. Like a childish kleptomaniac, Russian president Putin appears to have adopted a four-step land-grab strategy: Arm Russian-speaking rebels with guns and supplies and training, support them with disguised Russian GRU military intelligence and Spetsnaz special forces operatives, act indignant when the Ukraine wants to fight back, and then invade the Ukraine to protect Russian speakers from the Ukraine's right to police its country.
As infantile as Putin's game of chess has been, his tactics have worked, and the West has been powerless to come up with a counterstrategy.
Yesterday the Ukraine said it wanted United Nations help after a pro-Russian crowd stormed a police station in the town of Horlivka, near Donets. The West can't do anything because Russia has a veto vote at the top table of the UN. As a result, it looks likely that Russia is poised to invade eastern Ukraine in the same way that it manufactured the invasion of the Crimea. Russia deliberately caused the Ukraine problem. It also exacerbated the genocide in Syria by voting against action there on the unspoken basis that Russia needed to maintain arms deals with President Assad.
As a former British intelligence officer, I know that Western intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the United Kingdom's MI6 have spent years warning their politicians about the dangers of rogue states compared with the relative flash-in-the-pan but abhorrent and immediate threat of terrorism. But since 9/11, bearded crazies have been getting all the attention, and our politicians have been more interested in catching people who were blowing stuff up, killing innocents, and causing anarchy. As a result, the politicians tasked the CIA and other agencies with dedicating a significant percentage of their capabilities to the counterterrorism effort. But terrorists rarely change the world map. Major rogue states can destabilize the world order and everything we cherish. The spies knew that but could do nothing about it because they were told to take their eye off the rogue state threats and instead chase the bearded crazies.
There's no doubt that preventing terrorism and bringing its perpetrators to justice has been vital work. But after 9/11, agencies like the CIA and MI6 were not doubled in size to combat terrorism alongside other existing threats. As a result, the tradeoff has been that Western spies could not predict the 2003 war in Sudan, the 2009 insurgency in the Northern Caucasus, the Middle East uprisings that commenced in 2010, the 2014 uprising in Thailand, the ongoing crises in Syria and Venezuela, and what Russia's doing right now to the Ukraine.
Predicting these hugely destabilizing events is more essential now than ever. If there's one thing we can learn from Putin's land grab of the Crimea, it's that there's not much the West can do if we learn about an act of state violence after the event has happened. Today's geopolitical and economically interlinked landscape make meaningful action of any sort almost impossible. We are hamstrung by international law, trade agreements, competing and overlapping strategic alliances, and a weird permanent-member UN Security Council wherein two of the five members -- Russia and China -- are possibly the biggest threat to global security.
In the case of Russia's attack on Ukraine's sovereignty, most Western leaders and their economic advisors are in agreement that full-blown trade sanctions would hurt us almost as much as they would hurt Russia. They've tried angry diplomacy and freezing a handful of Russian billionaires' bank accounts, and that hasn't worked. And none of them has the stomach for limited or total war with Russia. So all we can do is watch on the sidelines as Putin takes a successful step toward achieving his dream of creating a Eurasian superpower.
Had the West known via its spies that Putin was planning an attack on the Ukraine, as recently as one month ago we could have done something to hopefully wrong-foot Russia's plans. Perhaps we could have urgently made the Ukraine a member of NATO, conducted joint military exercises with the Ukraine military on their soil, or deployed other preventive tactics. I'm not qualified to say; Western leaders and their advisors, generals, and other tacticians are. But I am qualified to say that said tacticians needed credible secret intelligence about Putin's intentions so that they could decide on an informed course of action. They did not have that intelligence because our spies are still out there chasing the crazies.
And while that's happening, we face the prospect of the unexpected assault from rogue states. Today's state threats are Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and others. Tomorrow? Who knows?
Matthew Dunn is a former MI6 officer who worked in hostile locations around the world. He is the author of the espionage novels Spycatcher, Sentinel, Slingshot, and the forthcoming Dark Spies (to be published Oct. 7, 2014, by William Morrow). For more information visit matthewdunnbooks.com. You can also find Matthew on Twitter @MatthewHDunn, and on Facebook at facebook.com/pages/Matthew-Dunn/168465723306908.