Russia could use a 21st-century Col. Penkovsky

Almost 60 years ago, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war as the Cuban Missile Crisis played out in October 1962. Discovering the Soviet Union was secretly placing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy confronted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on the issue. The two leaders faced off, eyeball to eyeball, each waiting for the other to blink. JFK debated giving Khrushchev an ultimatum to remove the IRBMs. However, he could not do so without a piece of key intelligence he lacked. Khrushchev would blink first as, unknown to him, JFK was able to obtain that intelligence, enabling him to call Moscow’s bluff. Ironically, the intelligence came directly from Moscow, provided by Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence officer. Despite knowing full well his identity would be exposed and he would pay the ultimate price, nonetheless, Penkovsky did so.

The key intelligence JFK needed was knowing whether the IRBMs were operable. If not, he could play hardball; if operable, softball would be the name of the game. Fortunately, the IRBMs were inoperable, allowing JFK to give Khrushchev an ultimatum laced with a face-saving measure. While demanding the IRBMs be removed, JFK offered to remove U.S. nuclear missiles in Turkey.

The Soviets quickly identified Penkovsky as the source of the intelligence leak. He was arrested, tried, convicted and executed in 1963.

While Penkovsky was considered a traitor by the Soviet government, his motivation was purely patriotic. He did not spy for the West for financial gain as is the case for most Americans caught spying for our enemies. He did so because he recognized the Soviet system was brutal, stripping the Russian people of their dignity, their liberty and any sense of individuality. Although Penkovsky had survived the rule of Josef Stalin, which had snuffed out the lives of millions of innocent Russians, he saw the Soviet leadership as totally incapable as well of improving their citizens’ lives.

It would take almost four decades after Penkovsky’s death for the Soviet system he so despised to finally collapse, doing so on the last day of 1991. And while there was a wing and a prayer that the freedoms the Russian people so richly deserved would evolve, such hopes were dashed by the rise to power, as president of Russia in 2000, of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, elected with 53% of the vote.

Several developments have given us a sufficient indication that Putin possesses a hunger for power and desire to establish a buffer around Russia, created at the expense of the same neighboring countries that once provided a buffer for the former Soviet Union.

Putin’s personal power lust is demonstrated by his manipulation of Russian democracy to keep himself in office for over two decades. His hunger for the glory days of the Soviet Union has been demonstrated by numerous offensive initiatives.

Confident the West would do nothing, Putin launched a 2008 invasion of Georgia. It ended quickly, feeding his lust for future acts of aggression and leading him to believe the West had little stomach to confront Russia’s military juggernaut.

As a result, in 2014, setting his sights on Ukraine, Putin brought Crimea under Russian control. That year he also made the disturbing claim that “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”

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His appetite still unsatiated, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 of this year, fully expecting a cakewalk. He anticipated the action would trigger anger from the West but little else before the Russian army achieved its objective in destroying Ukrainian resistance.

Putin’s big surprise was that the Russian military juggernaut revealed itself on the Ukrainian battlefield to be a paper tiger. Stiff Ukrainian resistance coupled with poor planning by senior Russian military officials left their troops susceptible to Ukrainian counter-attacks. Like the Chinese war strategy of imposing “death by a thousand cuts” upon an enemy, Ukrainians have been slicing and dicing through Russian forces. A few weeks ago, Putin acknowledged that thousands of Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine. The loss of those personnel along with hundreds of tanks and other equipment is a major embarrassment to Putin.

Monitored communications of Russian soldiers reveal they suffer from inadequate training, poor leadership, substandard equipment and a lack of truth concerning why they are in Ukraine. Many units are refusing to fight. Some are either abandoning operable equipment or making such equipment inoperable and then abandoning it, while others are committing suicide or killing their superiors.

There is no bigger threat to Putin’s rule than thousands of Russian mothers learning their sons will not be coming home. It could well start a groundswell of opposition to a Russian leader lacking any sense of compassion not only for the thousands of Ukrainian civilians who are dying but for his own military as well.

As is typical of dictators whose aggression against others fails to go as planned, Putin has purged over a hundred FSB (successor to the old KGB) members as well as senior military advisers in an effort suggesting his failures are their fault. But all the factors now exist for a military coup as the leadership of both organizations recognize Putin poses a serious danger to Russia’s survival.

We can hope one of these military/FSB leaders demonstrates the courage Penkovsky did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His major concern was avoiding a nuclear war he knew the Soviet Union would lose, killing millions of his countrymen.

For those Russian leaders today still reluctant to do what needs to be done to turn Putin out of office, their lack of motivation may be driven by knowledge of how Penkovsky was executed. Reportedly, tied to a slab, he was slowly fed, feet first, into a crematorium fire.

While Penkovsky suffered a horrific death, he saved the lives of millions. If only Russia’s senior leadership possessed the “right stuff” to similarly act to save their country.

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