Decision Making in the Soviet Annexation of Crimea

Written by: Corey Washington

Primary Source: Zero Ideology

A few years ago Time ran a story listing the 10 Biggest Intelligence Failures in History.

  1. Pearl Harbor
  2. Bay of Pigs
  3. Tet Offensive
  4. Yom Kippur War
  5. Fall of the Shah
  6. Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
  7. Fall of the USSR
  8. India-Pakistan Nuclear Test
  9. Iraq WMD
  10. 9/11 Attacks

These were failures of US intelligence, but of course other countries have intelligence agencies that experience failures equally damaging to their national interests. The US failed to foresee the Arab attack that started the Yom Kippur war (#4), but more importantly so did the Israelis. #7 the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a failure from the US point of view because the CIA and NSA did not predict it, but it was even more of a failure from the Soviet side because their intelligence services did not see how catastrophic it would prove to be for their economy. The invasion is widely regarded as having rapidly accelerated the USSR’s decline, leading to its dissolution at the end of 1991.

Over the last few months, commentators have been speculating about the effects that Russia’s annexation of Crimea will have on the Russian economy. If it brings on European development of alternative sources of energy, it could end up significantly hurting Russia in the long term. It may then be seen as resulting from the kind of intelligence failure that led to their war in Afghanistan. It appears that both moves were sparked by fears of having a pro-western government on Russia’s borders rather than any rational process of decision making that one hopes would precede such serious steps.

Western Intelligence and the Fall of the Soviet Union” by Arbel and Edelist contains extensive interviews with intelligence officials from the US and the former Soviet Union, including Lieutenant General Nikolai Leonov, the head of the KGB’s directorate of information from the late 70s and into the 80s. Leonov’s comments to the authors would not sound out of place today. Speaking of Afghanistan, he claims
No one ever asked us what we thought about the potential implications of the invasion….If we had been asked, we would have advised against it.
In the context of the civil war in Afghanistan in 1978-79 Leonov believes that a few choice phrases like
A new regime in Afghanistan could bring the US closer to our border and endanger our security.
spoken to Soviet leaders at the time were enough to convince them to invade. This type of concern is understandable, given Russia’s history of invasion by the West, but hardly amounts to cool-headed reasoning.As an interesting aside, according to Arbel and Edelist, the CIA saw signs of the invasion but misinterpreted them as indications of a potential Soviet invasion of Iran. The CIA spent $100 Million to train Iranians in Germany to help resist against the Soviet army but neglected to inform Ayatollah Khomeini. After returning to Iran, most of the operatives were arrested by the Iranian security services.
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