Zelensky has no plan, except to hang on. It’s as if he’s an orphan – a poor waif in his underwear – and we have no real idea of what Zelensky and his crowd are thinking…
Specifically, the phrase “a poor waif in his underwear” is an idiom not found in English. It’s Russian – “мальчик в трусиках” (lit., “boy in panties”). So it’s quite strange, therefore, that this expression should be used by a U.S. intelligence officer speaking to another English speaker, unless that officer – Hersh’s source – is not, in fact, a U.S. intelligence officer, but rather a Russian one.
Twitter, of course, remembered the incident in April 2022 when bungling Russian FSB agents were tasked with planting incriminating evidence on some supposed Ukrainian spies, and left a note – supposedly from a Russian neo-Nazi – which was signed not with an illegible signature, as they were instructed, but literally with the words “signature illegible”.
But there’s more to this slip-up by Hersh’s source. In 2014, there was a famous story on Russia’s Channel One in which it was claimed that Ukrainian forces had crucified a small “boy in panties”. Cue outrage. And while the story was obviously false, it has “forever remained in the hearts of the patriots of the Russian world”, with the boy even having been resurrected to avenge his ancestors. And recently, Prigozhin has been mocked by Russian-speaking Ukrainians as a “boy in panties”.
Of course, there’s rather more than just an ill-chosen idiom to suggest that Seymour Hersh’s secret, high-level U.S. intelligence source is not what he claims to be. There’s also the fact that everything this supposed U.S. official says follows the Russian propaganda line and is outright false or at least misleading, including a number of ludicrous claims that Hersh clearly hasn’t bothered to check. For instance, a central claim is that Ukraine couldn’t have attacked the Kerch Bridge without U.S.-supplied seaborne drone technology, which ignores the fact that Ukraine is fairly open about its own development of long-range aerial and seaborne drones, for instance offering their Magura V5 for sale at a recent arms fair. It also ignores the fact that building a seaborne drone with a combination of GNSS and backup INS, as well as radio and satellite comms, could be done in a variety of ways using off-the-shelf components. And let’s not forget that Ukraine has been attacking Sevastopol with seaborne drones repeatedly for months now.
To unpick the other claims made by Hersh’s source would be to miss the wood for the trees. The story is that the claims made by Hersh’s source almost certainly derive from a Russian government source, and that Hersh is – at best – an old fool if he actually believes his source to be a U.S. intelligence officer. This isn’t the first time I’ve criticised Hersh for the absurd claims of his single anonymous source who implausibly has access to every high-level U.S. meeting but who doesn’t know basic facts (which does leave open the possibility of it being President Biden, admittedly). However, he seems impervious to criticism, and his stories are gleefully picked up by Russian state media without him ever seeming to question what’s going on. It was an old tactic of the KGB’s Department D to “wash” fake stories through unwitting, naïve or actively complicit media outlets around the world, allowing the Soviet government then to “report” on those stories – as if from a distance – and refer to them as though true. And I’d wager that’s what’s happening here.
But I’m not accusing Hersh of knowingly propagating Russian government disinformation. I have no evidence for that, and in any case it’s easy to be deceived by someone who’s a cunning adversary (albeit perhaps not a cunning linguist).
Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario. Let’s imagine I’m an award-winning journalist, known for my hard-hitting investigative journalism uncovering the misdeeds of my own government. People offer me tips all the time, but I’m quite careful which ones I take seriously. Then someone I know sends me an email, saying they’ve met someone whom they think could be an interesting source. He says that this guy often drinks at a certain downtown watering hole, and offers to introduce me when I’m next in town. Or maybe it’s public knowledge that I’m due to appear at a certain event. But through whatever means, a meeting can be arranged. And when I meet the guy, either through an introduction or because I just “randomly” bump into him, he says how interesting and important my work is – he flatters me – but is also vague about his own work (which might be in “government” or perhaps “the Department of Defence”). Perhaps someone else at that bar or that event comes up to him and speaks to him as if he’s a figure of worth and importance. And maybe, if things go well, he invites me to dinner; or he at least gives me his card, perhaps saying that I should contact him if I’m working on anything interesting.
Specific circumstances can be tailored for specific individuals, but let’s assume there’s a second meeting. When I walk into the bar or restaurant, perhaps I see him talking to someone who looks a lot like a known – current or former – senior intelligence official, who walks away before I can identify them properly. Perhaps he leaves my guy with an official-looking document, or some other visible token. Or perhaps there’s just some important-looking person flanked by people dressed like they’re a government protection detail – maybe the Secret Service – who treat my guy like he’s a somebody. Impressions can be moulded this way. It might never be so crude as to involve fake government IDs, or even any specific claims. There’s no public database of government intelligence officers that I can refer to, so I’m left to assess his credibility based on instinct and… confidence.
When it comes to confidence, he might drop some (accurate) information about something going on in the world that hasn’t become public knowledge yet, or through a host of means available to him convince me that he’s privy to inside knowledge. If he’s a Russian agent, he could feed me (accurate) details about what Russia is intending to announce over the next few days, while saying it derives from U.S. intelligence. And he needn’t be – and almost certainly wouldn’t be – a Russian intelligence officer; but rather, a U.S. citizen with an authentic American accent. Maybe – probably? – he doesn’t even know he’s working for Russia, because he’s flattered by all the attention too, and was convinced on grounds so flimsy that it would be embarrassing for him to admit. And this is before we get into the weirder Derren Brown-esque, Zersetsung territory.
I’m reminded of that story of the high-level secretary who worked at NATO headquarters during the Cold War, who was convinced (probably through similar means) that her boyfriend of several years was a Western intelligence agent. When she learned he was actually a Russian spy – and realised how many top secret documents she’d given him – she threw herself out of the nearest window in horror.
In sum, I think Seymour Hersh should investigate his own “U.S. intelligence” contact, because their liaison is looking increasingly dangerous.
Stop Press: Dan Hannan in the Washington Examiner says the Russians are becoming wantonly cruel in the manner in which they’re prosecuting the war.