Until 2019 he was a high-ranking CIA officer, responsible for special operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia. He was born in Athens, Greece into a Greek-American and Jewish family. Pretty soon the family had to return to the US, where Polymeropoulos’ father became a Rutgers and Cornell University professor.
Polymeropoulos studied at Cornell, and when CIA recruiters came to the campus he promptly approached them and asked them to consider him for the Agency. He never regretted it and is always proud of the CIA.
You were born in Greece. Do you have childhood memories from Athens?
No, because we returned pretty soon to the US. But for a few months we lived at an apartment on Ploutarchou Street, across the road from the British Embassy. My mother was telling me that she was holding me while listening to the Voice of America and looking at the moon when American astronauts landed in 1969.
Until the pandemic I had been coming to Greece almost every summer. My Greek roots are still really strong.
After you retired from the CIA in 2019 you became a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and you published a book, “Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA.” We really need some clarity in the current crisis. Can you provide us with a bit?
I served several years in Afghanistan and Iraq. The last two years of my career I oversaw our operations in Russia and Eurasia. There were several Russian interference operations in the West, including the one in Greece regarding the name of Macedonia. What is happening now is a radical shift in Europe. Look at Germany but also Finland and Sweden. They have woken up to the danger of Russia. As for the war in Ukraine, it is a classic David-versus-Goliath story.
Why has the Russian campaign gone so badly?
In countries with autocratic leaders the subordinates never tell the truth to the leader. This framework generates disastrous decisions.
I keep reading that US intelligence has cultivated a source very close to President Putin. As former head of Russia operations, do you have something to share with us?
I don’t know about any such source. And if I did know, I couldn’t tell you. But ultimately, when you hear these rumors going out, you should think that they are obviously designed to get into Putin’s head. I tend to read this more as a kind of psychological operation.
In countries with autocratic leaders the subordinates never tell the truth to the leader. This framework generates disastrous decisions
How easy is it to cultivate a source in Moscow?
In terms of cultivating assets, Russia is what we call a “hard target.” It’s the same for Iran, China and North Korea. It’s not easy in these countries to make citizens spy for the US.
But it is not impossible. US policymakers would ask me, “Can we run intelligence operations anywhere in the world?” And my answer would always be “yes.” It just takes a lot of ingenuity and a lot of planning. There’s no place in the world that we cannot operate.
What is the CIA doing to counter Russia’s international disinformation operations?
The new strategy is full disclosure of intelligence gathered. In the future the historians on intelligence will look back at this point and they will agree it is really a groundbreaking moment. We combat disinformation by simply spreading the truth about what they are planning.
President Biden said that the Kremlin has organized a genocide in Ukraine. Do you agree?
I used to work at President Biden’s office when I was a student and I admire him. He always speaks his mind. Putin has been a war criminal since the war in Chechnya, 22 years ago and also because of what he did in Aleppo. This is the Russian military doctrine.
Is there any intelligence assessment explaining Putin’s worldview as a result of his lifelong relationship with some ultranationalist Russian philosophers and Orthodox monks?
No, but Moscow’s Orthodox Church has endorsed the invasion. Also, If you look at the history of the Russian intelligence services, they’ve used the Russian Orthodox Church over the years.
If Russia loses in Ukraine, Putin will say that Ukraine was already a NATO member in all but name. Could he then double down and hit the Baltics?
The Russian army has been badly weakened in Ukraine, already. So I think the likelihood of an attack on the Baltics is much lower now.
Do you worry that Putin might use tactical nuclear weapons?
The use of tactical nuclear weapons is part of Russia’s military doctrine. But there is also a concern about chemical weapons.
If you have in a city for the entire world to see 1,000 or 2,000 Ukrainians with horrific chemical burns, then the European and the American public is going to demand action. In this case there will be incredible pressure on NATO governments to intervene.