Stalin’s Intelligence

In the past four years the United States has paid heavily for two major intelligence failures. Before the 9/11 attacks, accurate warnings of the threat posed by Al Qaeda were not acted upon. Conversely, before the invasion of Iraq, inaccurate assessments about Saddam Hussein's military capabilities were acted upon. The world would be a different place today if the earlier intelligence had been heeded and the later intelligence ignored. And thousands of Americans might still be alive.

Slightly fewer than 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the 9/11 attacks, though not all were American citizens. The latest official figures put the number of American military fatalities in Iraq since the invasion at about 1,650, though not all have been caused by hostile action. Each premature death is of course a tragedy. But compare those figures with the casualties arising from another, far more disastrous intelligence failure, and you suddenly see how little the United States has suffered for its mistakes. For in this case, the dead could be counted in millions, if not tens of millions.

In the early hours of June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By July 9 the German forces west of Minsk had already captured more than 287,000 prisoners. By the end of August, the total number of Soviet captives stood at 872,000. Accurate death tolls are unavailable, but must have been comparably high, since the Luftwaffe bombed cities like Minsk to rubble and thought nothing of mowing down columns of refugees. By the time the German advance slowed, the Soviet Union had lost roughly half its industrial and agricultural capacity. This was one of the greatest military disasters in history. Yet the losses might have been significantly lower if accurate intelligence about Hitler's intentions had been heeded.

If, after the war, the Soviet Union had somehow been capable of producing an official inquiry into the catastrophe of 6/22 -- comparable in its mandate to the 9/11 commission here -- its report might have read a little like David E. Murphy's 'What Stalin Knew.' The former chief of Soviet operations at C.I.A. headquarters, Murphy brings to his subject both knowledge of Russian history and an insider's grasp of how intelligence is gathered, analyzed and used -- or not.

He has, however, enjoyed much less access to classified information than did the 9/11 commission. Although able to draw on recently published collections of documents from the Soviet archives, notably the two-volume collection 1941 god ('The Year 1941'), he has enjoyed direct access to just one archive, the Russian State Military Archive. He was refused access to documents in the Central Archive of the Foreign Intelligence Service, even those that had already appeared in 1941 god. The Central Archive of the Defense Ministry declined even to answer his questions. The relaxation of official secrecy that was such a welcome feature of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin has been reversed by Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin. Perhaps that is not surprising, given Putin's evident desire to revive the old myths about 'the Great Patriotic War.'

Historians have long known that Soviet agents supplied highly prescient intelligence about Operation Barbarossa in the months before the German invasion. Six years ago, the Israeli scholar Gabriel Gorodetsky published 'Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia,' an outstanding book on the subject, drawing on, among other things, hitherto neglected Balkan archives. Murphy provides additional, copious detail.

As early as May 1939 Stalin was sent a six-page document outlining 'The Future Plans of Aggression by Fascist Germany,' based on a German briefing obtained by Soviet spies in Warsaw. In December 1940 the Soviet agent Rudolf von Scheliha (code-named Ariets) reported that Hitler planned to declare war on the Soviet Union in March 1941. By Feb. 28, 1941, the same agent provided a provisional launching date of May 20. This intelligence was corroborated by sources in Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia and Rome, to say nothing of the information provided by the famous spy Richard Sorge (code-named Ramsay) in Tokyo. On April 17 a Prague informant predicted a German invasion in the second half of June. The precise date and time of the invasion were revealed by a reliable source in Berlin fully three days before the Germans attacked.

All of this Stalin ignored. Typically, he scrawled on the bottom of the Prague report: 'English provocation! Investigate!' On May 19, Sorge predicted that 150 divisions were being readied by the Germans for an invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin retorted with an expletive.

The result was that literally nothing was done to prepare for the German assault. Soviet planes were not camouflaged. Troops were not in defensive positions; indeed they were ordered not to occupy such positions, for fear of provoking the Germans. Worse, Stalin responded to the gathering storm with yet another purge of suspected threats to his own authority. In June 1941, on the eve of the tempest, around 300 senior service personnel were arrested, among them no fewer than 22 who had been awarded the highest Soviet military decoration.

Two things stand out in Murphy's account. The first is the extent to which the Soviet spy network in Europe continued to deliver first-rate intelligence, despite Stalin's best efforts to purge it out of existence. It was not just the British establishment the Soviets managed to penetrate; there were agents in the German economics ministry, air ministry and foreign ministry, not to mention the American Embassy in Moscow.

The second point is that Germany relied not on secrecy to conceal the preparations for Barbarossa but on disinformation, assuring the Soviets that their troops were being massed on the Soviet borders to keep them clear of British air raids, that dozens of German planes were violating Soviet airspace merely because their pilots were inexperienced and that talk of a German invasion plan was a cynical British smear designed to provoke a Nazi-Soviet war.

Can Stalin, scarcely renowned for his credulity, really have believed these brazen lies? Historians have long sought better explanations for the lamentable Soviet response to the German assault. In 1990 a Soviet defector writing under the name Viktor Suvorov published 'Icebreaker,' which claimed that Stalin had failed to anticipate the invasion because he himself was planning a pre-emptive war against Germany. Suvorov's (wholly circumstantial) evidence was the destruction of defensive assets along the Soviet western frontier in 1940 and early 1941. On this basis, Suvorov sought to portray Operation Barbarossa as a defensive measure by the Germans.

This argument is now widely accepted in Russia. In 'Stalin's Folly,' a new book aimed at a popular rather than a scholarly readership (at one point Marx is compared with Stephen King), the young Russian journalist Constantine Pleshakov has restated it, claiming to have new evidence in support of the theory that Stalin was bent on attack, not defense. The documents in question -- several drafts 'on the principles of the U.S.S.R.'s armed forces deployment' from 1940 and 1941 -- also appear in 1941 god.

Yet there is a problem. While Stalin clearly did consider the possibility of attacking Germany, he was just as clearly in no hurry to do so. What he commissioned were sketches of a pre-emptive strategy; there was no detailed operational planning of the sort the Germans had been working on since July 1940. So why did Stalin ignore the intelligence that (in his terms) Hitler was about to pre-empt him?

According to Gabriel Gorodetsky, Stalin was a prisoner of history. Memories of the Crimean War and of British intervention in the Russian civil war had persuaded him that the Soviet Union had more to fear from a British naval raid than from a German invasion.

Murphy prefers to see Stalin as having been blinded by a combination of Communist dogma and Nazi guile. As a convinced Marxist, Stalin assumed that the capitalist powers, led by Britain, were more interested in the destruction of the Soviet Union than in the destruction of Nazi Germany. Any intelligence that pointed toward a German invasion of Russia must therefore be disinformation emanating from British sources, who hoped to dupe the two dictators into fighting each other.

As evidence for his interpretation, Murphy publishes a translation -- originally from a French source -- of a speech that Stalin may have made at a Politburo meeting on Aug. 19, 1939, supporting a nonaggression pact with Hitler. Even more intriguing, though perhaps just as likely to be fake, are the letters Hitler allegedly wrote to Stalin in December 1940 and May 1941, swearing on his 'honor as a chief of state' that the German troops gathering on Russia's borders were destined for the British Isles, not the Ukraine. If genuine, the May letter does indeed indicate that Hitler's psychopathic mendacity trumped Stalin's pathological mistrust.

But there was also a historical calculation in Stalin's mind. One of his favorite arguments was that Germany, having lost one two-front war in 1918, would never risk fighting another. Thus, so long as Britain was not defeated, Hitler would never invade Russia. In 'Stalin,' his excellent new biography, Robert Service adds a further important point: Stalin may have ruled out a German invasion so late in the year as June 22, given the limited time that would remain before autumn rains turned the Russian roads into impassable bogs.

Yet whatever Stalin was thinking -- whether he deluded himself or was deluded by Hitler -- the fact remains that he, and he alone, was to blame for the greatest military defeat in Russian history. How, then, did he get away with it? The answer is simple. By 1941 he had so ruthlessly wiped out any potential rivals to his authority that no one dared try to get rid of him.

Service and Pleshakov both describe the extraordinary scene on June 30, 1941, when Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, led a deputation from the Politburo to Stalin's dacha, where 'the boss' had been skulking for nearly two days. Stalin seems to have feared that this was his comeuppance: 'Why have you come?' he muttered. But instead of arresting him, they invited him to head a new State Committee of Defense.

Was Stalin an unnecessary evil? The majority of Russians -- and not only those old enough to have been exposed to his cult of personality -- think not. In a poll conducted in 2003, on the 50th anniversary of his death, the Russian Center for Public Opinion found that 53 percent of Russians still regard him as a 'great' leader. He was, a Russian pensioner told the BBC's Moscow correspondent, 'the father of the family, the person who took care of us.' The popular view remains that Stalin brought victory on the battlefield and discipline on the home front -- a combination that many Russians look back on with nostalgia after the upheavals of the past two decades.

If historians have failed to change such popular views, it has not been for want of trying. Like Stalin's other recent biographers -notably Robert Conquest, Dmitri Volkogonov and Edvard Radzinsky -- Robert Service paints a picture of a warped monster of a man, insatiable in his pursuit of power, ruthless in his treatment of real and imagined rivals, remorseless in his murder of millions. Service's innovation is to reveal Stalin's frailty -- above all, his capacity for miscalculation. He made no blunder costlier than that of June 1941; yet he himself got off scot-free.

Intelligence failures, in short, can change the course of history, whether failures of espionage or failures of analysis. Had successive administrations heeded Richard A. Clarke, the World Trade Center might still stand. Had the C.I.A. discerned and frankly reported the feeble state of Iraq's defenses, Saddam might still rule in Baghdad. These are imaginable scenarios, because the consequences of these errors, though grave, have not been truly disastrous. It is much harder to conceive how World War II might have turned out if Stalin had not trusted Hitler -- or had not survived the terrible consequences of so doing.
 

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