Prigozhin Demise, Spy Ops and Sabotage

History rhymes with covert ops in widening Ukraine conflict

3 mins read
Photo: Gray Zone

I don’t know about you, but from the outset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I feel like I’ve been living in a kind of Back to the Future time warp, transported to 1940s headlines and movie-theater newsreels from World War Two. Tank battles, trench warfare, infantrymen scurrying across open fields, and, last but not least, those ungodly missiles raining down on cities, evoke nothing less—for me, anyway—than Europe during the war years.  Not that I was around then, of course, but like other baby boomers, I heard tales of the war from my grandparents and have been marinated in movies, TV shows and books glorifying the war since I was a kid. And it never stops—witness the blockbuster success of Oppenheimer. Obviously there’s a bottomless appetite for tales of wars we win.

It fills me with dread.

Now comes word of Yevgeniy Progozhin’s death in a mysterious plane crash Wednesday, preceded by the disappearance of Russian air force commander Sergei Surovikin, his reputed ally in June’s aborted mutiny. U.S. intelligence officials say an explosion preceded the plane’s fall to earth—shades of Hitler’s bloody retribution for the failed assassination plot against him in July 1944.

I’m also seeing hazy glimmers of World War Two in other aspects of the Ukraine conflict, such as the espionage and sabotage operations carried out by all parties of the conflict, which, you will remember, began with U.S. intelligence exposing a Russian plot to stage a phony ”false flag”  incident on Ukraine’s border as a pretext for its invasion.  That one was torn from the pages, as they say, of the Nazi’s 1939 playbook for invading Poland.  

Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, have conducted some brilliant deception and paramilitary ops of their own, such as the reported raid Thursday on a town on the western Crimean coast, home to “extensive Russian air defenses and missile sites, including advanced systems” and “a Russian radio engineering regiment and sophisticated radar,” according to CNN. In that, I saw shades of OSS sabotage ops to thwart German designs in Norway and France and the brilliant deception and double-cross scheme Britain used to mislead and confuse the Nazi high command.  

Then there’s Moscow’s clandestine operation to derail Western supply trains in Poland, as revealed last week in a stunning Washington Post story. “Russian spy agencies built a network of amateurs for operations including sabotage, assassination and arson,” the Post put it, going on to detail how the GRU recruited youngsters and other layabouts to distribute pro-Russia propaganda and hide video cameras in the bushes along the rail routes.  The plot was “disrupted by Polish authorities,” the Post reported—no doubt with the help of U.S. penetrations, I suspect, of Russian communications related to Ukraine, just one theater of the cyberwar that threatens to burst out of control.

All this, of course, comes to us Americans in the comfort of our living rooms, as it was for millions at home here during World War Two. How lucky they were then and we are now—for the moment. In wartime, things often go sideways. See Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 masterpiece, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, for a more complete accounting.  She died before Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1936, Hitler’s unchecked reoccupation of the Rhineland led him to absorb Czechoslovakia and so on and so forth, ending in the unimaginable, utter destruction of Europe, not to mention the genocide of millions. In 1941, FDR’s oil embargo and seizure of Japanese assets in the U.S. unexpectedly led to Pearl Harbor. Then, of course, came the bomb, rushed to completion because the Nazis were working on their own. The Russians soon got theirs, followed by the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis, North Koreans, South Africa and Israel. Others have tried.

Nuclear weapons have been the sword of Democles hanging over our heads for the past 78 years this month.  The list of known nuclear weapons accidents and near launches will make your hair stand on end.  Now Putin and his cronies have raised their own nuclear weapons thundercloud, threatening to use them in Ukraine if defeat is imminent. And the allies—publicly, anyway— say there’s no substitute for victory, creating an existential paradox if there ever was one.

God only knows how this will unravel. In Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox’s Marty returns from the time warp in his plutonium-powered Delorean to rescue Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd.)  Happy ending.

Boy, if life were only like this, to steal another movie’s classic line. We like to say we take lessons from history. But the history of war, alas, is that nothing is certain. 

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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