Spies return to reset US-Russia ties

FILE PHOTO: US troops patrol in Logar province, Afghanistan.

The sensational disclosure by the New York Times on June 26 that Russia’s military intelligence agency paid bounties to Afghan militants to kill American and NATO troops in Afghanistan, opens a can of worms. 

It pollutes the air of US-Russian relations with a powerful stench. The ramifications are going to be felt far and wide. The scandal has overnight reached the centre stage of US domestic politics. 

A first-rate controversy has erupted in Washington just when President Trump began a determined attempt in the recent weeks, in the final lap of his first term, to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin. No doubt, the scandal puts paid to the Kremlin’s fond hopes of calming down Russia’s tense relations with the US while Trump is still in charge in the White House.

Trump and Putin have lately agreed on the need to balance supply and demand in the world oil market; they have kickstarted the talks on arms control; they are collaborating on Afghanistan. Indeed, the old narrative reappears now — that Russia is a wily, duplicitous and  unworthy partner — which would rationalise the NATO’s hostile power projection in the Eurasian theatre and complicate Russia’s relations with the major EU countries. 

Yet, the curious part is that the Times story essentially devolves upon an assessment by US spy agencies based on what spooks call ‘raw’ intelligence. No clinching evidence or proof has been presented — at least, so far. The Taliban has called the Times report to be ‘baseless’. 

But then, it is one of those situations where evidences and proofs do not really matter. It is the controversy itself that matters, the dust it raises on the political and diplomatic turf.  The focus is on whether Trump actually knew months ago about this intelligence assessment of Russian bounty and, equally, why the White House National Security Council didn’t act on it by punishing Russia with more sanctions.  

In a second report on June 28, Times has claimed that the intelligence assessment was based on the interrogation of  militants and terrorists who were taken into custody in Afghanistan and, specifically, from a large amount of US dollar bills that was found stashed away in a Taliban hideout. 

The Afghan security agencies presumably played a key role in the unearthing of the unholy Russia-Taliban nexus. Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul was never friendly toward Moscow and had all along resented Russia’s attempts to muzzle its way into the intra-Afghan peace talks. 

The Times controversy will ensure that Russia is kept out of the intra-Afghan peace talks, which are due to begin in a near future. Paradoxically, the US-Russia collaboration was fostered by two veteran interlocutors — Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative on Afghan reconciliation, and Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy on Afghanistan. 

Now, Khalilzad is known to have close links with the US intelligence and the Pentagon. And it is a fair surmise that when he recently invited Kabulov to join a new US-Russia-Afghan trilateral forum to spur the intra-Afghan talks, he was very much in the know of the devious dealings between the GRU and the Taliban on bounty killings in Afghanistan. 

Presumably, Washington was never genuinely interested in working with Russia in Afghanistan, and Khalilzad was merely dissimulating the partnership with Kabulov, who of course looks rather naive and foolish in the Afghan bazaar. The Afghan media has begun to poke fun at the Russians. 

How come Moscow fell into this bear trap? It can only be attributed to Moscow’s burning desire to partner with the US and make itself useful in facilitating an orderly departure of American troops in Afghanistan — something which Trump hopes to highlight during his election campaign as a foreign-policy success. Moscow probably hoped to extract a quid pro quo from Washington somewhere else — such as in Syria, for example, where the US intransigence is blocking Putin’s path to end the conflict and wrap up a final settlement. 

In the final analysis, what the Times controversy underscores is the deeply entrenched hostility toward Russia across the political aisle in Washington and within the ‘Deep State’ and the strategic community at large. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pounced on the White House’s failure to act on the intelligence assessment of Russian bounty killings to allege that Putin has dirt on Trump. 

In the words of the House speaker Nancy Pelosi, “Just as I have said to the president: With him, all roads lead to Putin. I don’t know what the Russians have on the president, politically, personally, or financially.” This is exceptionally harsh language meant to ensure that Russia and Putin remain toxic subjects in the Washington Beltway for the foreseeable future. 

The Times controversy flags once again that notwithstanding the polarisation in US domestic politics, when it comes to Russia, there is an enduring bilateral consensus among the political elites. In fact, a host of prominent Republican lawmakers have also demanded that the Congress should look into the Times report (which has since been picked up by the Washington Post, Politico, CNN, etc). 

We haven’t heard the last word on the Russia-Taliban nexus over bounty killings. The US agencies have reportedly shared the intelligence with Britain recently, arguing that the bounty killings might have taken British lives, too. 

This is like a throw to the wolves. There is no daylight between the British and American spy agencies over Russia. Remember, John le Carré’s novels were required reading for the KGB’s England desk. Trust the MI6 to dig deep. Spy agencies are egotistic, and MI6 has old scores to settle with the GRU. 

At the very least, Trump’s G7 expansion plan now faces sudden death. In this backdrop, an invitation from Trump to Putin to visit the US is simply unthinkable. The spy agencies in the US and UK will ensure that Russia remains ostracised by the West even as the post-pandemic world order is taking shape. 

They have vast experience in wire pulling to reset the narrative on Russia. The flip side, of course, is that Russia’s ‘pivot’ to China might acquire a new air of gravitas now that Moscow’s hopes of becoming a ‘balancer’ between Washington and Beijing prove to be a pipedream.