The New York Times broke the sensational story last week that Russia's military intelligence arm, the GRU and its Unit 21955, paid $100,000 bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan.
The story attributed the deaths of three Marines last year to these GRU bounties.
Those revelations created an instantaneous double-digit political earthquake reading on the Washington Richter scale. Republicans and Democrats demanded to know what did the president know and when did he know it. Perhaps the same questions should also be directed at the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff if the evidence is shown to be credible.
The president's immediate response was predictable: Twitter first and find out later. "Fake news and a hoax," President Donald Trump bellowed. A White House memo subsequently argued that the intelligence could not be confirmed with "high confidence" as the National Security Agency responsible for signals and electronic snooping "strongly dissented." In any case, this story may be more complicated in getting to the "truth."
A GRU plot is plausible. The GRU attempted to assassinate a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England last year. After losing the Afghan War in 1989 in which 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, many because of American aid to the mujahedin, 30 years later revenge could be a motive. In 2018, former International Assistance and Security Force Afghanistan commander Gen. John "Mick" Nicholson testified that Taliban were being supplied with Russian weapons but did not state by whom.
If the reports prove correct, it would seem inconceivable that Russian President Vladimir Putin, both a former KGB officer and its onetime head, did not know or approve of setting bounties. Of course, Henry II's plea to rid him of "that meddlesome priest" could have been misinterpreted by his intelligence services. But what would motivate Putin and the GRU to stage such a risky operation?
Disruption would seem one aim. Disclosure would and did cause a firestorm in America no matter who Putin might favor as the next president. And the firestorm could intensify.
As this story plays out, history offers cautions. In August 2001, the Bush White House ignored intelligence suggesting a possible terrorist attack. A year later, the same White House manipulated intelligence declaring with "slam dunk" certainty that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. During the Vietnam War, the CIA had its own Unit 21955 called Operation Phoenix that eliminated 50,000 suspected Viet Cong and North Vietnamese agents.
The story reminded me of another Bounty, His Majesty's 90-foot sailing bark with a crew of 44 and the mutiny that took place in April 1789. The protagonists were Bounty's 33-year-old captain, Lt. William Bligh, and his executive officer, Fletcher Christian.
During the long cruise to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit plants, Bligh's brutality toward the crew led to the mutiny. Rather than killing Bligh, Christian set him and 18 of the crew adrift in a long boat. The cause celebre was allocating precious water to the breadfruit and not to the crew. In an unprecedented feat of navigation, Bligh piloted his life boat to safety 2,500 miles away. In later life, Bligh was promoted to vice admiral.
In a mental exercise, imagine Putin as Capt. Bligh, Trump as Christian and HMS Bounty a metaphor for the U.S.-Russian relationship. For much of the cruise, Christian was loyal to and supportive of the captain, no matter what Bligh did. At some stage, Bligh's action would force Christian to mutiny. The question is this: Is there anything that Putin/Bligh could do to cause Trump/Christian to take decisive action?
If there were a Russian side of the story, it would have Trump as Bligh and Putin as Christian. Here Trump/Bligh is the aggressor. And Putin/Christian has no option other than to retaliate. As a trained spy, instead of provoking an outright mutiny, Putin/Christian relies on clandestine and non-attributable actions -- hence a different form of bounty.
This hypothetical diversion may be a bridge too far. But how else to explain the bizarre relationship between the two leaders? Some argue, without evidence, that Putin has leverage over Trump, possibly through blackmail-like information. Others believe that Trump wants to improve relations with Russia as leverage vis a vis China. Hence the president is unwilling to challenge Putin too publicly. And the GRU story could just be wrong.
If the GRU did offer bounties, how will this affect relations with Russia, the attitude of the president toward Putin and the impact of Putin's disruptive intent? Perhaps the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty becomes strangely more relevant.Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman: To Be Feared, Friended or Fought in a MAD-Driven Age."