Russia Coup: Pop Goes the Weasel
Did US intelligence see Yevgeny Prigozhin's revolt coming? A tale of pizza boxes tells the story.
What links the CIA and pizzas? A big time foreign crisis, former senior CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos notes, when the lights stay on late on several floors, when spy agency officials and worker bees start calling family and friends to cancel parties, golf dates, travel plans. And order pizzas by the van-load.
That’s what’s happened on the occasion of other momentous events, from the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 to Russian troops and tanks marshaling in January 2022 to invade Ukraine. Word soon leaked that something big was going down. During a crisis in 1983, when the Kremlin freaked out over a huge NATO military exercise in West Germany, the KGB ordered its U.S. agents to look for late lights and pizza deliveries around Washington, among other signs of heightened strike preparations. Moscow Center was perplexed when its spies detected nothing out of the ordinary.
Friday night’s apparent calm around the intelligence community bothered Marc Polymeropoulos, a 25-year CIA operations veteran who retired in 2019. He hadn’t picked up word of any unusual after-hours activity at the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters—or other outposts of the sprawling U.S. intelligence apparatus around Washington. He wondered: Had Yevgeny Prigozhin’s revolt taken U.S. intelligence by surprise?
“Nothing stays secret in this town, and a question about Russian stability—that shit leaks out,” Polymeropoulos said. “I certainly hope we had advanced knowledge of this from all-source collection,” meaning intelligence from electronic intercepts, satellites and human spies—he said on Saturday afternoon, as Prigozhin’s Wagner Group troops rolled up the M4 highway from Rostov toward Moscow. “I mean, this is the Super Bowl— in every national security institution, whether it's at Langley or the DNI or DIA or the Pentagon— anywhere.”
Within hours, the rebellion appeared to collapse, with the Kremlin’s military leaders apparently sticking with Vladimir Putin. But it’s an understatement to say the situation remains in flux. Back in Rostov, Prigozhin had seized control of the Russian army’s headquarters without firing a shot, according to reports. The locals welcomed him and his soldiers. The future of “Putin’s chef” remained unclear late Saturday.
Putin may well be selecting the bullet to be used on the back of Prigozhin’s head in the basement of Lefortovo Prison, where traitors have been executed since the days of Stalin. Or maybe, as I suspect, the shaky president will find a new use for his erstwhile friend, who, after all, commands the loyalty of tens of thousands of mercenary troops. For the meantime, according to reports, he’s going to be under a house arrest of sorts in Belarus. It won’t be for long.
CNN reported Saturday afternoon that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had declared that “criminal charges against Prigozhin would be dropped and that he would go to neighboring Belarus.” We’ll see.
“I hope we had reporting on [Prigozhin’s revolt] and that the White House wasn't surprised,” Polymeropoulos said in a SpyTalk phone interview. “That is something that I think needs to be kind of fleshed out because this is monumental.”
Again according to CNN on Saturday afternoon: “U.S. Intelligence officials briefed congressional leaders known as the Gang of Eight in recent days on potentially concerning Wagner movements and equipment build-ups near Russia…It was unclear what was going to happen and when, however.”
That’s some pretty weak ass-covering by Washington standards.
“Potentially concerning”? “Unclear what was going to happen”? That’s what the spooks told congressional natsec leaders? Wow.
Let me offer an alternative “Breaking News” headline for CNN: “Spy Agencies Rushed to Hill to Say They Were Quite Clueless on Russia Situation.”
[The New York Times reported shortly after this column was published that “U.S. spy agencies” briefed Congress on Wednesday that it “had indications days earlier that Mr. Prigozhin was planning something and worked to refine that material into a finished assessment.” That was according to “officials.”)
The silence of the pizza deliveries is deafening.
Maybe the CIA’s Russia analysts were just chill on Prigozhin’s military uprising. Former senior CIA officer and Russia hand John Sipher snarked on Twitter that the agency’s Russia analysts tend to focus on clear skies rather than storm clouds, ie, since the sun came up yesterday, went down last night, and came up today, it will do the same tomorrow. “Yep. it's always backward leaning,” Polymeropoulos agreed.
In what looks like Prigozhin’s quick capitulation, though, the unflustered analysts may have been right—for the moment. Putin’s still there (though looking quite damaged).
Another possibility: U.S. eavesdroppers, glued to Russian communications, were as deaf to the uprising as the Kremlin was.
No matter how the crisis plays out, however, U.S. intelligence remains acutely tuned to the command and control of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Unconfirmed reports early Saturday that a column of Progozhin’s advancing forces had peeled off toward a nuclear weapons depot scared the bejesus out of the Twitterverse.
Amid the disarray, some in the Biden administration may be tempted to persuade the president to swivel the CIA’s covert action guns on Russia, flooding its communication platforms and channels with false reports of mutinies and local popular uprisings—a rough version of what Russian cyber warriors under Prigozhin’s command did to us during the 2016 presidential campaign. But intelligence veterans urged restraint: Ukraine already poses a mortal threat to Putin, as Prigozhin’s revolt well illustrated. Time to bear down there.
“Don’t take your eye off Ukraine,” Polymeropoulos advises. “I mean, this is a massive opportunity for the Ukrainians…In Russian military units, morale is gonna be in the toilet… They're gonna be focused on what's happening back home” instead of what’s in front of them, he thinks.
The Ukrainians can help that along. One infowar weapon: ridicule over Russia’s unrest. Kyiv put out a video Saturday of a drone operator eating popcorn, which instantly went viral. Another was posted of Ukraine military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov supposedly issuing a “certificate of appreciation” to Prigozhin for his “efforts and collaboration.” Ha, ha, ha. But just getting the truth to Russian audiences about Prigozhin and Ukraine is a powerful weapon. As Polymeropoulos put it, “What you promulgate is exactly the truth because there is confusion and chaos.”
At the outset of his revolt, Prigozhin loudly declared that the war was a boondoggle launched under the false pretenses of a looming NATO attack from “Nazi” Ukraine. There was no such attack coming, he said. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of ordinary Russians have been jailed for saying less.
As for Washington, “there's nothing really we can do other than Ukraine,” Polymeropoulos added. “Now's the time to help the Ukrainians kill more Russians. You gotta have the Ukrainian boot on Russia's neck and fucking press it down.”
Where Putin’s boot lands—that’s the next plot twist in this very unpredictable story.
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