Wanted urgently: Russian speakers

SINGAPORE - British security chiefs are appealing to their former employees to come back from retirement, as they scramble to beef up the number of Russian-speaking analysts in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

"Britain no longer has the capability to deal with the Russian threat and everybody in the business knows it," reports London's Daily Telegraph, quoting unnamed intelligence sources.

But the new recruitment drive, which includes the re-hiring of people able to monitor and translate Russian media and secretly- intercepted communications, is unlikely to fill all intelligence gaps. For all Western spying agencies are suffering from acute shortages of expertise.

Throughout the Cold War, the study of Russian language, history and politics was one of the key academic disciplines. Graduates had no difficulty landing well-paid jobs: Up to 70 per cent of the intelligence capabilities of all Western countries was devoted to analysing the Soviet Union.

The result was the growth of a generation of Sovietologists, or "Kremlinologists" as they were also known, after the Kremlin fortress in central Moscow where Russia's top leaders reside.

Most of what such experts did, such as analysing with magnifying glasses grainy black-and-white photographs published in Russian newspapers in order to plot rising or falling fortunes of Russia's officials, appear decidedly odd now. But in Cold War days when Russia admitted almost no foreigners and information was scarce, any snippet was treated as gold.

The effort was worthwhile: When the archives of ex-communist states opened up after the Soviet bloc collapsed, it became evident that Sovietologists were often spot-on in analysing developments behind the Iron Curtain.

But capabilities which took half a century to build were dismantled years after the end of the Cold War as intelligence agencies shifted their focus to China and to global terrorist organisations.

Entire Russian academic departments or universities such as London's School of Eastern European Studies closed. The destruction of Russian capabilities was a global trend: Only 300 degrees in Russian studies were awarded last year in the United States. Worse, the large US scholarly foundations followed suit: the Ford Foundation, for instance, devoted US$106 million (S$132 million) to Russian academic activity throughout the last decade, but devotes nothing to it today.

Shortage of expertise on Russia was harmful even before this Ukraine crisis erupted. For instance, it was poor knowledge of Russia's internal politics that led US President Barack Obama in 2009 to dismiss Russian leader Vladimir Putin as "having one foot in the past Soviet Union". The error condemned the US to a flawed Russia policy from which its diplomacy never recovered.

The West's lack of resources to analyse Moscow became obvious when Russian troops poured into Ukraine's Crimea province in March. Western intelligence analysts failed to predict that move and later believed Russia would not annex Crimea.

When both these assumptions were proven wrong, Western intelligence services issued shrill warnings that a much larger Russian military concentration was poised to invade the rest of Ukraine, dismissing the opinion of older and more seasoned Russian specialists who argued - correctly as it turned out - that Moscow had neither the intention nor the need to do so.

In short, the intelligence agencies were guilty of ignoring a major security threat and then over-hyping it, just about the worst combination of errors any spook can make.

Addressing intelligence shortages - Britain alone may need about 700 Russia specialists - will require time and big financial resources. But even if this effort is successful, it is questionable if it will generate a more informed Western policy towards Russia.

Recent US secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice started their professional lives as trained Sovietologists. But for all the US diplomats hired when these two formidable women were in charge, Russia will remain a strange country, full of cities with names they cannot pronounce.

This article was first published on June 12, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.