On April 1, 1953, a U.S Naval attaché in Helsinki picked up a scrap of intelligence: A Finnish border guard had “attempted to offer condolences on Stalin’s death to [his Soviet] counterpart,” but “the latter broke into tears, and said they were all worried about their future, and feared military purges in a struggle for power.”
A scrap, as I said. But often such bits, put together with scores of others, tell a larger story. The disconsolate Soviet border guard, reported in a Top Secret CIA assessment on the death of Stalin, turned out to be prescient: A lethal jockeying for power among the aging Bolsheviks was on. People had to choose sides. When it comes to Moscow, some things never change.
Today I’m guessing U.S. intelligence is scraping Russian communication channels for scraps on how Yevgeny Prigozhin’s bizarre and—for now—aborted revolt is going down with the border guards, apparatchiks, security bosses and troops, not to mention ordinary people. Judging just by the video we’ve seen of friendly crowds greeting Prigozhin and his troops in Rostov-on-Don and on up the M4 highway to Moscow, the people welcome relief from Putin’s corrupt dictatorship and inept military—even if it comes from a bombastic savage, and Kremlin crony, like Prigozhin.
“Along the entire route of Wagner’s columns, no one in any way tried to hinder him . Even the security forces did not try to stop him,” top Russian oligarch-in-exile Mikhail Khodorkovsky told ABC News. “It showed that, in fact, inside the country, Putin has an absolute void.”
We’ll see. Prigozhin stopped at the Rubicon and then slithered away—Julius Caesar as rendered by Monty Python. No telling where this is going now.
Whatever, Russia’s disarray is Ukraine’s gain. I’d be surprised if Western intelligence agencies aren’t already reaping an espionage windfall from the chaos, with Kremlin rats pelting Western spies with offers of secrets in exchange for safe passage out of the madness. It’s no time for either side to be timid.
Why? Nuclear weapons. Lord knows we need another Oleg Penkovsky, the Soviet colonel who in 1962 turned mole and alerted us to Moscow smuggling nuclear tipped missiles into Cuba. It cost him his life.
The busy bees at CIA and elsewhere are no doubt salivating at a chance to exploit Kremlin divisions and further drive a wedge between Putin and Russian “patriots” who could bring him down (as it schemed after Stalin’s death 70 years ago last March). It’s as delusional an idea now as it was back then.
Keep the doors open for defectors, sure, but stick to the knitting in Ukraine. That’s where the tip of the spears is, where the bear is bleeding. It’s time to twist the blade.