March 20, 2018:
One of the advantages of having NATO members on the Russian border is that now NATO has intelligence agencies in those former parts of the Soviet empire regularly contributing to NATO knowledge of what is going on in Russia. As a result the American, and Western European, intel agencies are finding insights about Russia and contacts inside Russia never before (1991) available. While these insights are often surprising they are also usually accurate and invaluable in knowing, and understanding, what is going on inside the former superpower and Cold War adversary.
American intel about the Soviet Union during the Cold War was often misled by not paying attention to what was really going in inside Russia. Even the American CIA, as late as the 1980s, was surprised to hear confirmation that there was no national standard in the Soviet military for many things. The confirmation came when some New York City cops, who were in a local reserve unit (an armored reconnaissance battalion) decided to invite recent Russian immigrants (let out as “Jews” as a good will gesture in large numbers in the 1980s) who had recently done their conscript service. The policemen realized that these Russians had up-to-date information on how combat units trained and operated. But when over a dozen of these Russians were brought together at the reserve unit training center the Russians, and the Americans, quickly discovered that every division had a different spin on some essential training methods and combat tactics. Even many of the Russians were unaware of this as the official line was that everyone did things the same way. It wasn’t that way at all. When the CIA was told (by someone from New York who heard the story from some reservists and happened to know the guy in the CIA who was in charge of the analysts who covered the Soviet ground forces) they checked it out and soon had a program where new immigrants were interviewed for useful information like this. Thus even before the Cold War ended and Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 American intel analysts were aware that there was much they didn’t know or misunderstood about Soviet Russia. In the early 1990s there were a few years when the Soviet archives were accessible (often with the help of a few hundred dollar bills) and all sorts of Cold War misinformation was set right.
After 1991 many Russian neighbors feared a revival of the traditional Russian aggression and empire building. Thus in 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia joined NATO, putting parts of the former Soviet Union (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) within NATO. Many Russians did not like this, for Russian policy since 1945 has been to establish a "buffer" of subservient (preferably Russian occupied) countries between Russia itself and the rest of Western Europe (especially Germany). This attitude is obsolete in a practical sense but old habits die hard. These new NATO members realized that their understanding of post-1991 Russia often differed from the Western NATO nations and set about issuing intel reports that clarified and explained these misunderstandings.
As a result the intel on Russia from the former Russian states was often more insightful and less scary than the reports Western agencies were still putting out. Old habits die hard and the Western intelligence agencies didn’t want to stray too far from the “conventional wisdom” about Russia still favored by politicians and journalists in the West. The “conventional wisdom” was not only often wrong but could be dangerous as well.
These former parts of the Soviet Union reported a lot of these contrary insights in their local media (leaving out secret stuff that relied on agents and secret contacts they had across the border in Russia.) A much larger proportion of the “East NATO” nations intel personnel spoke Russian and many had personal experience dealing with Russian military and government officials. Some of these East NATO nations began publishing annual unclassified reports on Russia in English to make it easier for their Western (especially American) counterparts to access a different view of what was happening in Russia. Estonia has published three of these annual reports now and they have become required reading in American intelligence agencies and the State Department because Estonia and other East NATO intel reports have demonstrated time and again that they better understand the Russians. .
The East NATO analysts report that Russian boasts of renewed military power are very exaggerated and that Russian public opinion about their government, especially among young Russians who were born after the Soviet Union collapsed were at the same time willing to accept the return of a police state government but at the same time far more hostile and outspoken about government policies they felt hurt them personally. These young Russians are particularly hostile to military service and expensive overseas military operations. At the same time the young Russians are patriotic.
At the same time there is some push back from Western Russian experts who make a living depicting Russia as a growing military threat. The East NATO experts refute that with firsthand knowledge of what is going on in Russia and, if challenged, can go into classified meetings armed with compelling proof of the “eastern” analysis.
The East NATO analysts point out that Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who has run Russia since 1999, is seen as a fraud when it comes to claims that corruption is being eliminated and the Russian economy is coping with the lower oil prices and economic sanctions Russia brought down on itself for invading Ukraine in 2014 and declaring Russia once again confronting a hostile and aggressive NATO. That was the official Soviet view of the Cold War conflict. Many Russians don’t believe it but go along with the propaganda because Russians, above all, want peace and order. Most Russians are reluctant to support any radical economic change and accept that Western sanctions as an excuse for continued lack of economic growth.
But old habits die hard. For decades the Western intel agencies officially went along with the official view that Russians backed their governments aggressive attitude towards the West. The East NATO analysts point out that this myth plays into the Putin propaganda about a need to revive the Cold War. The Russian people remain apathetic and the majority accept the government propaganda about success at keeping the economic policies that are not improving living standards but are also not causing catastrophic collapse. The government controls all mass media and managed to suppress widespread knowledge of the minority that is campaigning for change and more accountability for corrupt government officials. The Russian government regaining control over most of the economy has not made the economy more efficient, but it has eliminated potential political opponents in for the form of wealthy and politically active business owners. Russians, more so than most Europeans, are actually very risk averse. A minority of Russians believe in eliminating Cold War paranoia and instituting more internal reforms to enable Russia to compete in a modern world and achieve the kind of personal freedoms and economic prosperity long enjoyed in neighboring states that were once part of the Russian empire. Ironically the Russian aggression against Ukraine was largely because they saw Ukraine, the largest portion former Russian empire to gain independence, resisting Russian efforts to use bribes and intimidation to force Ukrainian politicians to “be realistic” and remain more like Russia and less like the West. In 2014 the Ukrainian people overthrew a pro-Russian government (that had got elected on a pro-Western platform) and that was something Russia felt it could not tolerate. In short, the Russians are different and most Ukrainians and people in the Baltic States prefer not to think or act like their former Russian overlords.