Either Putin and the Whole Russian Military Don't Use Electronics, or the CIA Messed Up

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A possible excuse has emerged for why the intelligence community failed to predict the Russian push into Crimea — although it requires assuming that Vladimir Putin's opposition to using electronics is the standard for the country.

Putin doesn't use cell phones. He doesn't text. He rarely ventures "into that place where you apparently live, that Internet," according to Time's Simon Shuster. And that means that he is "a very hard target for foreign spies." Sound crazy? Well, you didn't build your career working for the KGB in a country that was unabashed about spying on its citizens.

"Putin’s technophobia is part of a Russian tradition older than the telephone itself: an aversion to blabbering that has been hardwired into the national psyche after a century of life in an industrial police state," Shuster writes. "'This is not a telephone conversation,' Russians like to say in the middle of a telephone conversation, reminding each other that only the most innocent chatter is safe to transmit over an insecure line." Working for the very agency responsible for listening in on those calls almost certainly gave Putin a heightened sense of their risk.

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Could this be why the CIA and NSA were unable to figure out that a Crimean invasion was imminent? It was a failure of intelligence that earned the agencies a front-page Wall Street Journal article on Monday in which they pointed all 10 fingers, including one or two at Edward Snowden. If, as Shuster writes, Putin relies on hand-written intelligence assessments, no wonder the CIA couldn't predict what was happening!

The problem with the theory is that it assumes that once Putin hands off an instruction to his senior staff, they take the piece of paper / verbal instruction and give it to their subordinates. And then those subordinates hand paper / speak to their subordinates, and so on down the line until it gets to the guys driving the tanks and putting on unmarked military uniforms. This is how things were done in the Russian (and every other military) for centuries, so it's possible. But it seems unlikely in the year 2014.

Obviously, that's not the case. The blog English Russia only recently posted photos from inside a factory producing electronic communications systems for the Russian Military. And Shuster himself points out that the Kremlin has very robust encryption tools, noting a Snowden leak that indicated that American and British spies were unable to crack communication collected from then-president Dmitri Medvedev in 2009.

So we probably can't blame Putin's aversion to cell phones for missing the Crimea call. As we noted earlier this week, it's probably not fair to blame the Snowden leaks. As that Journal article suggested, the United States moved intelligence resources away from Russia and the former Soviet Bloc over the last 15 years or so, focusing instead on the threats posed by terrorism. The problem might not have been that Putin wasn't calling his forces to get them ready. It just might have been that we weren't listening — or couldn't crack the call.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.