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Ex-CIA Officer James Acuna To Prigozhin: No Tea Parties With Guests From Moscow

James Acuna, the seasoned ex-CIA officer who now heads Frontier Vectors, a prominent  security and business consulting firm, sat down with The Pavlovic Today for a wide-ranging interview on the war in Ukraine and the Wagner Group march on Moscow that sent shockwaves through Russia.

In the eyes of James Acuna, a veteran observer of covert operations,Yevgeny Prigozhin, the notorious leader of the Wagner group, miscalculated the level of support he would gain when he embarked on his armed rebellion against the Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s assumptions about “a lot more support” he would get along the route from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow proved overblown.

“Prigozhin encountered heavier resistance and therefore had to backtrack, not only his intentions to allegedly overthrow the Ministry of Defense in Russia or replace leadership, but also the outcome that he could expect from—whatever you want to call it—the coup, the high-level discussions about replacements in the Russian Ministry of Defense,” noted Acuna. “When you look at all the other context associated with it, including a deadline for Wagner troops to assimilate with the Ministry of Defense, which was July 1, this may have been more of a show. He was kind of doing a strike,” James Acuna told The Pavlovic Today.

Yevgeny Prigozhin [Flickr]

Assessing the decision-making to rebel from Prigozhin’s perspective, Acuna highlighted that the Wagner leader believed it was him and his 25,000 troops who “got Russia out of a jam” in eastern Ukraine. 

“Prigozhin had a lot of influence. He thought that he could turn that and go against the Russian government to get more of what he wanted,” James Acuna noted. “He encountered a lot more resistance. When you’re trying to stage a coup in Russia, you want the teams to switch sides. You want the other team to question, ‘Wait a second, who are we protecting here?’ And that didn’t happen,” Acuna described the  fast-evolving situation characterized by incomplete media reports and a proliferation of Twitter feeds.  “As they got closer and closer to Moscow, they couldn’t win it. They just couldn’t. And that’s when Lukashenko comes in with this crazy deal.”

Lukashenko is a little pawn of Putin. He can’t live without Putin, he can’t live with him either.

Former CIA officer, CEO of Frontier Vectors James Acuna

The sudden involvement of Belarusian leader Lukashenko in the unfolding political drama may have taken some by surprise, but for a seasoned CIA operative well-versed in the complex dynamics of the EuroAsia region, such occurrences were far from novel.

“Lukashenko is a little pawn of Putin. He can’t live without Putin, he can’t live with him either,” Acuna remarked, encapsulating the intricate interplay between the two heads of state.

According to Acuna’s analysis, Lukashenko’s actions are dictated by “whatever is good for Russia,” considering the agreements he has made and the leverage that Russia holds over Belarus. “Such an arrangement could have been a “face-saving” measure for both sides to say, hey, we’re gonna give you this deal,” noted Acuna. He observed that Belarus has become a favored destination for individuals facing exile, following the pattern set when President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych went into exile. 

“That seems to be the thing that people do when they’re persona non grata, whether that’s in Ukraine or Russia. That’s nothing new because they’re outside of Interpol or outside authorities,” James Acuna explained, shedding light on the recurring phenomenon of individuals seeking sanctuary in Belarus.

Meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi [Photo source: https://president.gov.by/en/photos-for-press]

As the deal was brokered, Putin announced that Wagner was financed by the Russian government. “The financing of the entire Wagner group was fully ensured by the state,”  said Putin. “We fully financed this group from the Defense Ministry, from the state budget,” he added. While Putin’s revelation garnered significant media attention, Acuna holds the view that Putin’s statement was nothing but a calculated political maneuver.

“If the Russian government says that they’re financing Wagner, they have more control over Wagner. If it’s a private military contractor, it means someone needs to pay them for their efforts. Then who would that be, if it’s not the Russian government? This is all semantics. This is all image,“ said James Acuna.  “Yevgeny Prigozhin wants to say, ‘Oh no, it’s an independent force just like in Libya or Syria. We do our own thing.’ Whereas the Russian government says, ‘No, you need to be an arm of the Russian Ministry of Defense.’ And I think that’s what started the fight in the beginning,” said Acuna.  

Prigozhin has accused Russian forces  of attacking  the Wagner camps in Ukraine with rockets, helicopter gunships, and artillery. He claimed that these attacks were ordered by General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff, after a meeting with Sergei Shoigu.  

“Okay, fine. You want us to come under the Ministry of Defense, but you’re killing our troops because of your incompetence,” Acuna commented on Prigozhin’s motives to rebel. 

“That’s why Prigozhin kind of sits on the fence between being this private military contractor group and an arm of the Russian Ministry of Defense,” he explained. “It’s because they need him so much that he can criticize the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, who’s not a career military guy, by the way. Shoigu was the head of emergency services for ten years. So he didn’t rise up through the ranks in the Russian government, the Russian Ministry of Defense.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, for a span of fourteen years, was selling food to the Kremlin. Numerous photographic records capture him personally serving an array of dishes to Putin. These captured moments transcend the realm of mere culinary service, for they reveal a profound level of trust, specifically in matters concerning the personal security of the Russian leader. 

Prigozhin’s role in Putin’s inner circle has a far-reaching influence that goes beyond mere catering services. It was Prigozhin who created the infamous Internet Research Agency  which was indicted by the Department of Justice for its involvement in “improper foreign influence” in US presidential elections. 

—How does one transition from the catering business to heading a militia enterprise? I inquired of James.

The former CIA operative, his mind honed by years of deciphering the complex web of international intrigue, shared his astute analysis, exposing a strategy cloaked in “deniable plausibility.” Acuna explained that utilizing Wanger as an independent military presence may serve as a strategy to maintain “plausible deniability” regarding the involvement of the Russian Federation in a specific country. Drawing from the tumultuous theater of Syria, he shed light on the calculated deployment of a force that seemingly operates beyond the sphere of Russian influence.

 “You get some plausible deniability that the force that you’re contracting with you can say, no, they’re not Russian. It’s an independent group of people. Oh, maybe they’re Russian nationals, but we’re not doing it. It’s what they did in Ukraine in 2014. These are not Russian troops. These are ‘weird green men.’ if you remember that story. They’re just doing the same thing,” explained Acuna.  “But this is where it bites you— you’ve relied on them so much for so long, for over ten years and now that force has grown really strong and they’re throwing their weight around, “ Acuna added noting that Putin had to “scramble” support on Saturday morning hoping that his troops and his own security personnel would listen to him and not the Wanger leader. “And that’s a 50/50 gamble in Russia,” said Acuna.  

President of Russia Vladimir Putin [Photo: Sergei Bobylev]

President Biden, when asked recently if the armed rebellion has weakened Putin, had said that “it’s really hard to tell.” Shedding light on the intricate dynamics at play, Acuna highlighted the ongoing motion towards Putin’s downfall the Wagner rebellion triggered, especially when viewed from a domestic standpoint within Russia.

The former CIA operative compared Putin to an “emperor without clothes,” suggesting that the enemies of the Russian president might perceive him as less powerful and potentially successful in future attempts to weaken him. Delving into the annals of Russian history, Acuna pointed to the events preceding the Bolshevik Revolution, where Tsar Nicholas II’s gradual weakening during World War I eventually paved the way for revolution. He emphasized that the impact of the Wagner rebellion might not be immediate, but rather a gradual erosion of support for Putin, even if it did not lead to an instantaneous coup.

“It’s really difficult for Putin to spin it to say I am stronger because of it,” said Acuna. 

The fate of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Wagner, is a matter of great international media interest. The likelihood of Putin forgiving him and allowing someone accused of treason to walk away sparks spirited debates in the corridors of power.

“The only thing I can say is, I wouldn’t be drinking any tea with guests from Moscow,” said Acuna. “There’s a tendency for the Russian Federation to allegedly eliminate their enemies. If Prigozhin is really considered an enemy of the state, then what lengths would they go to?” noted Acuna.

Russia can’t use the typical Russian playbook with Prigozhin, which is, you know, polonium in the tea or whatever the Russians love to do, ice dagger  in Mexico City.

Former CIA officer, CEO of Frontier Vectors James Acuna

However, Acuna also acknowledged a significant difference in the case of Wanger leader compared to previous incidents like Alexander Litvinenko in London or Sergey Skripal in Salisbury.

“You can’t use the typical Russian playbook, which is, you know, polonium in the tea or whatever the Russians love to do, ice dagger  in Mexico City. They can’t because if anything happens to Prigozhin, it doesn’t matter if he legitimately falls in his dacha, everyone is going to think this was done by the Russian state.  And you could have 25,000 very angry people that will march on Moscow or St. Petersburg.”

Does James Acuna believe that Yevgeny Prigozhin still commands loyalty among the mercenaries?

“Absolutely,” he responded. “I saw a video from Southern Russia in Rostov-on-Don. He was like, George Marshall or something coming into that town. That’s not made up. That’s not just simple Russian propaganda. That is pure affection for Prigozhin. To me, that’s what it looked like.”

Prigozhin’s turning on Putin raises questions about his motivations. When seeking analysis on this perplexing situation, Acuna drew a parallel to running a company under the constant threat of being absorbed by a larger entity. Disliking the prospect of such a scenario, Prigozhin vehemently opposed the deal and called for the removal of the military leadership. His public outbursts against the leadership can be traced back to May, as evidenced by his recorded tirades readily available on YouTube.

What’s interesting is that while the media, according to James Acuna was “out of control,” reporting on the coup d’état taking place in real time from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow, political science literature traditionally suggests that coups d’état are typically launched from the center of power rather than the periphery. 

“What do you hope for if you’re going to run a coup? You would hope that you’ve talked to those people in the center and you’ve coordinated your moves,” noted Acuna. “You say, ‘If we rebel, you’re going to stand up, and your troops will become loyal to us, or your Federal Security Service or whatever it may be, is going to be loyal to us.’ But I’m sure if you operate in an echo chamber, a lot of times you’re going to get a lot of soft yeses. ‘Yeah, we’ll be there right behind you.’  And then it got so heated so quickly. And the Russian government needed to defend so quickly,” he added. 

“And so, they were testing the waters as they went up the road,” Acuna referred to Wagnger shooting down several Russian helicopters. “Well, while they did that, in nature, they were showing their strength. If I’m the leader of this rebellion, I’m like, wait a second, these guys are attacking? They’re not supposed to attack me. They’re supposed to turn, switch sides. Wagner got a lot of resistance, and needed a way out. That’s what I think happened.“

Acuna: Thousands of analysts can’t help Putin predict Western response

The last time Russia conducted a nuclear test  was on October 24, 1990, during the Soviet Union era. One of the concerns in the world of politics is the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons by Putin when he is left with no way out. What does Acuna think of this?

“At the end of the day, Putin is a survivalist and calculated risk-taker,” Acuna said of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Reflecting on the situation from Putin’s perspective, Acuna emphasized the challenge of comprehending the Western response. Even with thousands of analysts, the Russian leader will “never understand how the West will respond.”

Europe has their own nuclear weaponry. France has their own nuclear weaponry. They could use that to annihilate Russia.

Former CIA officer, CEO of Frontier Vectors James Acuna

Acuna highlighted the reports from Russia, which suggest the need to demonstrate strength and launch a nuclear attack on Europe due to Europe’s perceived weakness and the belief that the United States would not defend it. He said however,  that this may be an impetus for the West to go from “we wanted to give Ukraine F16. Why don’t we just scrap that and put in the fifth generation F35. Or the F22?”

He further commented,“I don’t know why somebody didn’t mention this in this report, but Europe has their own nuclear weaponry. France has their own nuclear weaponry. They could use that to annihilate Russia. Why do they think that the United States is even part of this? So you have these radical, very aggressive National Security Council guys in Russia, and they’re seeing these things. It is literally and figuratively the nuclear option, right? It’s out of your control after that. The gloves are off, everyone is going to do whatever. You have no idea how the West is going to respond if you’re Russia. So what do you win out of it? What is your end state then? You use tactical nuclear missiles, and what does the West do? Or does the West use something else, or limited strikes into Russia? Or worse, they park a couple of aircraft carriers off the Kamchatka Peninsula. What is it that you think you’re going to win with that? And so strategically, it’s not going to achieve the objectives that Russia wants. ‘Well, of course, we are super strong; look at us now, people respect us.’ No, you’re going to be annihilated.”

How does the war in Ukraine end?

While the war in Ukraine remains a significant concern, the Western alliance and Moscow appear to be deadlocked on the question of how and when the conflict will conclude. Washington asserts that the war can end tomorrow if Russia withdraws its forces from the entire territory of Ukraine. Moscow, on the other hand, states that it will end once Ukraine accepts the new territorial realities. 

“In a perfect world, everybody thinks the Russian troops regress back to the Russian Federation, pre-2014. But, you know, it’s really hard to save face in Russia if you’re doing that, right? And so, what does the rest of the world do when you have these sorts of frozen conflicts? They try to establish peacekeeping missions. If it was Sub-Saharan Africa, or places where UN peacekeepers traditionally went, you could see a ceasefire, a line of conflict such as Cyprus. Something that is agreed upon. And basically, what you’re saying is, “We’ll figure this out later, but stop firing at each other.”

The first thing is to end the hostilities and come up with a peace plan.

Former CIA officer, CEO of Frontier Vectors James Acuna

Acuna emphasized that any peacekeeping mission would require approval from the UN Security Council, which includes China and Russia as permanent members with veto power. The United Kingdom, United States, and France, who are also current Security Council members, serve as the “de facto voice” for Ukraine.

The proposed scenario would require both sides negotiating a ceasefire along the current line of conflict and subsequently agreeing to an international group of peacekeepers. Acuna stated that these peacekeepers cannot be traditional ones such as CIS peacekeepers or OSCE. “The only legitimate option,” he explained, “is if the UN does it.”

He added, “The first thing is to end the hostilities and come up with a peace plan. China trying to do one, France trying to do one. Probably Lukashenko has one. Try to do that, and then give the sides  talking. And then if peacekeeping is the option, then you go with the peacekeepers.”

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council meeting on threats to international peace and security.[UN Photo/Evan Schneider]

According to Acuna, the end of war in Ukraine won’t be like the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 or the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, where everybody just goes home. “I think it’s way more complicated than that,” he said. “ I think with the infrastructure that Russians have already put in Crimea, there’s the Kerch Bridge. That it’s just not going to be like ‘Okay, let’s turn off the switch, the war is over.’ Unless there’s this existential huge threat to Russia, like a coup or something like that,” noted Acuna. “From a military point of view,  I just don’t see this abrupt end to it.” 

In the wake of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine has emerged as the foremost beneficiary of US foreign aid by a wide margin. This marks the first instance of a European country occupying the top position since the Truman administration channeled substantial funds into reconstructing the continent through the Marshall Plan.

In the realm of potential cease-fire scenarios, another crucial aspect to consider is the role of the Congress in authorizing financial assistance to Ukraine. The duration of continued expenditure hinges heavily upon the delicate interplay of votes and the balance of power within this legislative body.

“I put it this way: Your younger brother is like poking at the enemy, saying, ‘I’m going to beat you up,’ while the bigger brother stands over their shoulder, looming. And then, all of a sudden, you turn around, and the bigger brother has backed off a little bit, making you uneasy, right?,” he remarked. “ I’m not a politico in Washington but if you read the tea leaves, the White House is examining it, thinking, ‘Wait a second, can we hold this together? Will the House approve $26 billion in aid for Ukraine?’ If you don’t have that, shouldn’t you then be like, ‘Hey, you guys need to end this. You need to come to some sort of mediated settlement.’ I don’t work for the government, so I don’t know what they’re saying. But it seems like a natural course of action,” said Acuna.

Acuna: Putin lives echo chamber of good news

Since the war in Ukraine started, James Acuna has remained actively present on Ukrainian soil, embarking on extensive journeys from Odessa to Kyiv, and from Lviv to the eastern regions.  Recognizing the inherent value of firsthand experience, he firmly believes that immersing oneself in the country is imperative for gaining insight. “In order for people to understand Ukraine, you have to go there,” he said. “Form your own opinion about what you see in the media and what is actually happening.”

When asked about where he sees a disconnect, Acuna pointed out that “people make the entire country of Ukraine a war zone where it’s not.” Despite the ongoing war, the people of Ukraine are resilient and continue to carry on with their lives. “They go to parties, they celebrate things,” he added. “If you didn’t see the drones in Kyiv and you didn’t fly there because you can’t fly there,  you would think it’s a completely normal metropolitan city,” he further added. “Once you leave Kyiv—I won’t get into specifics— you get more of a sense of being more militarized.”

In light of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, questions arise whether the intelligence community could have foreseen the scenario of Putin getting into Ukraine, given their background knowledge and experience. 

Acuna noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed his view in 2012, stating that Nikita Khrushchev giving away Crimea in 1954 to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UkrSSR) he did not consider  legitimate.

“You could always read that. And you could always sense some frustration from the Russian government. In terms of you’re not listening to us, you’re not listening to us. So, all they were looking for was just a little bit more spark.” He further cited the events of the 2014 Maidan uprising against the Ukrainian government as a partial fulfillment of this desire for a spark.

When it came to deciphering the motives behind the 2022 escalation, Acuna admitted, “I have no idea about the internal machinations within the Russian government or decision-making.” However, based on information available in open sources, he drew parallels to the cautionary tale of Joseph Stalin, emphasizing the consequences of delivering unfavorable intelligence. 

“If you remember the story about Joseph Stalin, you never wanted to bring the guy bad intelligence.Because,you would end up dead,” he said. 

Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill on portico of Russian Embassy in Teheran, during conference–Nov. 28 – Dec. 1, 1943 [Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print]

Acuna suggested that the Russian leadership has been trapped within an echo chamber of positive news, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. He explained, “You live in this echo chamber of good news, and COVID did not help with that, only getting good news. ‘Look how great our army is. Look at these ‘Nazis,’ quote on quote, in Ukraine. We can just have a three-day war and everything’s great,” noted Acuna.

To the disappointment of Russian strategists, their optimistic expectations did not pan out as anticipated. “They got into this quagmire, and they’re like, ‘Oh, now what do we do?'” As a response, Russia deployed additional troops and firepower, but their efforts were met with resistance from Ukrainians and the support of NATO, the United States, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations. 

“Everyone got together to say, ‘Nope, not today, not in 2022.’ And so they need an out, right? What’s the out here? Maybe they need a ceasefire, just to have time to think about what that out might be.”

Frontier Vectors, a bridge between American capital and Eastern Europe

When James Acuna retired from the government he conceived the idea for Frontier Vectors, a company aimed at providing American businesses with a better understanding of Eastern Europe’s geopolitical climate for purposes such as investment in companies, startups, and technology ventures spanning from Finland to Croatia.

His intention was to leverage his experience in geopolitics to facilitate a positive impact in the private sector. Frontier Vectors assists individuals in perceiving countries like Estonia as less exotic, enabling them to make informed investment decisions.

By positioning himself as a reliable local presence, Frontier Vectors mitigates risks for American investors and encourages their participation. “You have a lot of companies that are like, ‘Ah, it’s just too difficult.’ So when I say, ‘Well, I’m here, I can be your guy on the ground,’ then they have less risk, and they may invest in it.”

Initially focusing on NATO countries in Eastern Europe, James Acuna expanded his vision to include Ukraine, driven by a desire to support the country amidst the ongoing conflict.

“I’ve done everything from trying to restart commercial maritime shipping in Ukraine to identifying founders of startup companies, to doing due diligence on tech startup companies to informing Western companies about good investment potential,” said James Acuna. Acuna specifically emphasized the strong investment potential in software development, SaaS, and engineering fields, particularly aerospace engineering, thanks to the exceptional talent pool in Ukraine. When considering investment options, he urged investors to contemplate whether their interests lie solely in Ukraine or in broader reconstruction efforts. According to Acuna, investments need not be limited to Ukrainian companies, as support for Ukraine can be found in Polish or Estonian companies.

“I focus primarily on defense-related technologies,” Acuna emphasized. “ If you have a young company with cutting-edge tech that either NATO, Ukraine, or the United States needs, and you’re struggling with understanding complex systems, raising capital, establishing contacts, and engaging with venture capital firms, private equity, or family offices, you can turn to me. I will connect you with the right people,” he said. “ If you fail after that, it’s on you, but I will have provided the opportunity.”

The post Ex-CIA Officer James Acuna To Prigozhin: No Tea Parties With Guests From Moscow appeared first on The Pavlovic Today.



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Ex-CIA Officer James Acuna To Prigozhin: No Tea Parties With Guests From Moscow

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