When your taxi driver is a retired Russian Foreign Intelligence officer…

Several months ago, when talking about the way everyone in Russia faced economic hardship immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time about how it affected him:  for several months he had to take work as a taxi driver just to be able to feed his family and pay bills.

Those days of generalized destitution in the Russian population during the early 1990s are long gone. But formerly well placed officers in the Soviet intelligence community and in other branches of the siloviki still turn to taxi driving to make a supplemental income and to fill their days with interesting conversation. I know this from first-hand experience, such as what I am about to share with you.

I observed long ago that for me taxi drivers have always been a major source of information on how people really live here. That goes for our “regulars,” meaning individual drivers who may work for taxi fleets but become attached to us when we are here for several weeks and take us on our longer trips – into downtown Petersburg or out to the dacha. It is all the more true of the drivers sent to us by automated dispatchers of the big fleets when we are out and about in Petersburg. In the context of complete anonymity, given that we will never meet again, these drivers are often especially chatty and informative.

Yesterday was a case in point.

Our driver from the fleet in ‘green livery,’ Taksovichkoff,  turned out to be a retired officer of the Soviet/Russian Foreign Intelligence (GRU), as he told us towards the end of the ride. He picked us up during rush hour. The downtown traffic was slowed to a crawl by bottlenecks and we spent close to 40 minutes in his car in a conversation that at least initially was intriguing.

He opened by saying he is very worried that nuclear war is now a real threat and could end civilization. But whether that happens will depend on who strikes first.  If the Americans launch first, then truly everything will go to hell globally.  But if the Russians strike first, they believe they can contain the risks and humanity will go on.  He says that advisers to Putin are urging him to consider a first strike but that the President is holding back. “He does not want to go down in history as the one who did it.”  The last point sounds a lot like a line from the conversation in the War Room between Peter Sellars as President of the USA and his senior general in the always relevant film, Dr. Strangelove.

Otherwise, the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was also a topic in our exchange.  He maintains contact with former pals in the service and so I take his story with a high degree of trust.

Our GRU officer in retirement said that the first five days of the ‘special military operation’ were a disaster, with heavy loss of life on the Russian side.  It was all due, he said, to the incompetence of the major generals in Moscow who were in charge of the invasion. Considering the debacle, he accuses them of treason.  In fact, they were removed from command days later and shunted to one side. But our driver insists the whole lot of them should have been shot.

Why were they incompetent?  Because they owed their jobs to corruption, not to merit. The major generals were armchair experts, whereas the Russian Armed Forces had plenty of simple generals who had proven themselves in the field of action.  Moreover, Intelligence experts were kept out of the operation, which explains its starting out on false premises about the enemy.

I tried to comfort him by noting that incompetence and corruption in the higher ranks of government and military are problems that also exist in many countries, including the USA.  He wasn’t listening: “they should all have been shot,” he repeated.

My question how things are going now was met by silence.

After sharing these observations and opinions, our driver decided that it was time to move on and directed the conversation to a totally different topic, his concerns over global warming, telling us that his expert friends in high places believe that climate change is now irreversible whatever we do. The methane emissions from the oceans are rising and will overwhelm mankind’s best efforts to halt the process.  Then he turned to speculation on divine intervention that has allegedly gotten Russia out of hopeless situations, including on the battlefield, in the past, going back to the Borodino battle during the war with Napoleon. At this point, I turned off my mental tape recorder.

“Loose lips sink ships” as they used to say in the States.  Despite the Terror, in Soviet times Russians blabbed quite a bit.  In the Putin era, this has been largely cut off at the source. The Boss takes all the big decisions alone, so that the possibility of leaks is excluded.

The chitchat of taxi drivers can relate what they hear from friends in high places. These elites are, of course, not in full agreement among themselves. But their views set the limits on what the Boss can do either way.

Before closing, I acknowledge that not every taxi driver is a patriot. The other day, a driver from the same ‘green livery fleet’ said just before dropping me off at a hotel: “I really hope the Americans will win in Ukraine.” Perhaps he thought he would engratiate himself with me, an obvious foreigner. Perhaps that is what he truly believes. But I was perplexed to think how his country’s defeat could serve his own interests, financially or otherwise.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

25 thoughts on “When your taxi driver is a retired Russian Foreign Intelligence officer…

  1. panie doctorow, jeżeli byłby rzeczywiście “terrror sowiecki”, to ludzie by nie gadali dużo. Bo albo jest terror albo ludzie mogą dużo gadać.

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  2. And did the gentleman have any insight into what and where the first strike should hit? Humanity may go on … in New Zealand or South Africa. A nuclear war in the Northern hemisphere won’t leave much to live by (or live for). Perhaps divine intervention will once again spare Russia.

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  3. I think 90% of talkative taxi drivers just till you what they want you to think.
    Especially where either they are working abroad or where the passenger is an overseas visitor.
    Nobody ever got a bigger tip by saying what the passenger didn’t want to hear.

    The ones with something useful to say don’t say much.

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    1. And to add – Yes the first 5 days might have meant a lot of Russian deaths (i think how many is not clear just highly rumoured and promoted by people like Strelkov).
      But it was also the time when Ukrainian air defence, air force, Navy and ability to mobilise were all destroyed. Ukraine’s ultimate ability to defend itself was ended in those 5 days. A genuine intelligence officer who was able to think for himself would have understood that much.

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    2. Why would a passenger want to hear that the first few days of a military operation were a disaster?

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  4. I haven’t been to Russia for about a decade, but it’s good to know Russians didn’t change so much. I have partial ancestry there so I am not trying to be insulting, but there is a tendency in Russia and in all of the former Soviet Union (I’ve known many Ukrainians & central Asians as well) toward conspiracy theories (first strike urged on Putin) and doomerism. It’s interesting that Russians are almost always more negative about this war than the few pro-Russian Westerners out there.

    I don’t disagree with the taxi driver that the first 5 days of the invasion were bad for the Russian side, but I have heard the blame directed at the Russian secret services rather than at the military. The initial plan was built on an assumption of sudden Ukrainian collapse, which seems more of an intelligence call rather than military call.

    I don’t think the Russians are performing particularly poorly now (but neither do I think they are performing exceedingly well). They are doing ok for the situation they find themselves in, with their air power negated by infinite manpads preventing low altitude tactical air support and a lack of precision weapons preventing successful high altitude precision strikes. Instead we are seeing a weird type of artillery dominated war, almost like WW1 with drones.

    My American optimism still finds room for hope on the Russian side. For one thing, they may end up losing the war and winning the peace. Losing I would consider as just taking the Donbas & Kherson, while seeing an incredibly militarized Ukraine going forward. But Western sanctions might force on Russia what she would not have done herself – stem huge capital outflows to the West, and use that money to develop their own country instead. Through further re-industrialization, further development of agriculture and primary resources, and returning to the Soviet legacy of excellence in science and technology. Russia in 2004 was content to be a frozen Saudi Arabia. All these sanctions will force them to do more.

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  5. Which brings is back to the Black Sea coast. We read in the Wall Street Journal that the Ukrainian government is negotiating furiously with the United Nations and The Red Cross to “evacuate” 38 wounded soldiers from the steel factory. Ahem. There is only one construction one can put on this: the extraordinary importance attached to the Black Sea coast by the West *prior*to hostilities. And then there’s Odessa where an equally extraordinary elite force attempted to retake Snake Island. The fate of that venture just like the fate of the 38 wounded soldiers is insignificant compared to why there were there in the first place. Human civilization probably depends on who controls that coast.

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  6. Funny thing, I was just thinking the same, that a Russian nuclear first strike would be survivable for the world, but not an American first strike. The reason is because a Russian first strike need not destroy Europe, just US military installations. Russia has such an overwhelming advantage with the sheer quantity and advanced status of its nuclear weapons right now, that there is a strong chance of a first strike eliminating any retaliatory capacity (or at least eliminating any willingness to retaliate). The UK and France are not suicidal, they would stand down to save their skins, if they knew the US was the only target. With Sarmats flying over the South Pole hitting the very few Minuteman land silos and, and a few well placed submarine tails, there would be no retaliation, because nobody wants to risk losing New York and L.A.. Even if some of America’s arsenal survived, Biden is too weak and America too risk-averse to make the decision to retaliate. A lone general or hero might react with a few retaliatory shots, but even if that took out Moscow, Russia could still survive.

    The latest scholarly analysis I’ve seen (Montaya, Natalie G. of MIT, 2021) of the potential outcome of a Russian first strike (or second strike) failed to take into account the latest Sarmat missile and the willingness of Russia to use its full arsenal including SLBMs and hypersonics, and STILL the outcome looked very bleak for the US, given the sheer overwhelming quantity of the Russian arsenal. Also their study duly noted the problem of the lack of willingness of the US to retaliate on warning. Although with Sarmat’s flying over the South Pole, there would not even be any warning.

    But actually the most important factor of all which makes a nuclear first strike possible is the willingness of a country to do it. The fact that random taxi drivers, and even prominent TV anchors on Russia’s Channel 1 are openly calling for a nuclear first strike means they have sufficient public support. The Russian people are the only people crazy enough to start a nuclear war, and powerful enough to finish it quickly.

    I know that I’m speaking about the unspeakable, but this is WWIII after all.

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    1. It would be impossible for the USA not to retaliate at all. The submarine nuclear fleet would still be there. The only way to “win” a nuclear war is to totally destroy the other side before they can answer, not limited strikes on missile silos that invite counter strikes on your silos.

      Anyway talk of nuclear response points to Russian weakness, not strength. And more than that, I think it’s a sign of Russians going crazy at Putin’s unwillingness to bring all of Russia’s tools to the table. Forget about nuclear strikes, Russia isn’t even striking government buildings in Kyiv with conventional missiles, something they could do with 1 hour notice or less. Russia does not strike known command and control centers in western Ukraine, in Kyiv, does not take out bridges over the Dnepr river that would help prevent western weapons from getting to the Donbas front. And most important of all, Russia does not provide the ground troops necessary to finish the job in Ukraine, instead half-assing it with a clearly insufficient force on the ground. There is a lot Russia isn’t doing.

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      1. I suggest you apply for the position of military advisor to President Putin.

        Has it occurred to you, that one reason to keep all those weapons and manpower in reserve is in preparation for an eventual NATO involvement?

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      2. I appreciate this analysis and it resonates with what I have heard from people in war studies and in the Financial Times. There are no winners in a nuclear war and one single strike could cause up to 50 million casualties (I’m quoting the article the person before reported – a widely-available Ph.D thesis so not sure how good a source it is) and incommensurable damage to the environment world-wide.

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    2. Yeah sure nuclear war can be contained. Hck even if the war isn’t contained, it is certainly worth a try.

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  7. I don’t understand what is driving people to keep the faith, “believe in the plan”, for so long and after the majority of people even in Russia understand that things are not going well militarily. You can’t fix a problem until you admit that it is there. Russia has so few troops that the high command is forced to cede hard fought for territory around Kharkiv that was not even in contention, in order to reinforce Donbas. And in the process allow Ukrainian troops to move right up to the Russian border and shell villages on the Russian side. Is this also part of the plan?

    Russia has 150 million people. It can mobilize an extra 300,000 for this operation if the alternative is a humiliating loss that only emboldens Nato even more.

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    1. I think the idea is that the Kharkov front, and even the villages on the Russian side of the border, are an attempted distraction. Much like the Moskva was. As was Snake Island intended to be. As is the endless nonsense in Mariupol. The strategic front right now is in the Donbas. That’s where there are no Ukrainian initiatives, only Russian ones. The RF is making progress there, while the Ukranians attempt to achieve a public relations “victory” with actions in the Kharkov sector, Snake Island, the steel plant, anywhere, and even nowhere in particular, as with the endless false claims of atrocities, of “wonder weapons,” of the “Ghost of Kiev,” of the alleged poor morale and supply of the Russian troops, of Putin’s “instablity” or “illness,” etc, but, where it really counts, Kiev has already lost a ton of territory. In the Donbas, between the Donbas and the Crimea, and in the breakout from Crimea. Territory that it is not going to get back. Ever. That’s the key fact, not that Ukraine has regained some territory that Russia is not concerned about right now, much less that it has fired a few token “shells” across the border.

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  8. “I really hope the Americans will win in Ukraine.” This is a particularly significant remark, if we consider the context.
    The man, as explained, may hold a treasonous grudge against his own country, or he may be a typical brainless yes-man, pleasing the current interlocutor whatever the nature of the conversation.
    The context, however, makes it relevant, if the moral element prompts such statements. Those that care about truth and justice will make the opposite remark, i.e., “I really hope the Russians will win in Ukraine”, be they Russian, European, US or from any other country. Given the nazi infestation in that country, and the crimes and abuses carried out against Russians for many years, the moral imperative dictates only one legitimate wish.
    Let’s suppose there was a German that had a living conscience and knew the nature of the nazi beast unleashed upon his country; would he wish his country to win the war? Never.
    Taking sides then demands taking a stand on moral grounds, regardless of one’s own country’s position on the matter in hand. It may not be possible to express such a stand; it may be necessary to hide one’s conviction, but the matter should be clear in one’s mind.

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    1. At least the man acknowledges that this fight is between NATO and Russia, and Ukraine is just the chosen hammer to pound Russia with.
      Too many in the US still believe the USA is JUST helping poor defenseless Ukraine, and they are still sold this nonsense unopposed on a daily basis.

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  9. Your driver was intelligence not military strategy. RF forces have been doing some strange things if we look at them in the NATO playbook but it is not clear that the RF has even read it let alone would be stupid enough to use it (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, …?) . In a longer operational/strategic sense, RF moves may begin to make sense.

    At the moment the RF forces seem to be pulverizing the Ukrainian forces in the Donbass. Not succeding quickly but advancing.

    Western news sources are not at all reliable. The New York Times and the Washington Post have all the reliability and validity of a 1942 Pravda edition. “The Glorious Azov Regiment has advanced”. Right from one Azovstel tunnel to another.

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  10. I drove a cab in NYC for several years. I would always tell passengers what I thought they wanted to hear. Really, a column from a good source. I’ll retire to Bedlam

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    1. Superb link. Thanks. It looks more and more likely, that the war is a secondary issue. The main strategic goal of Russia (and China) is to break the unipolar worldorder. In order to succed the petro-dollar must be destroyed, and the dollar must loose its role as the sole reserve currency.

      These goals are well underway. A quick war would have prevented the west to continue the path of continued sanctions, which destroyed their own economi – and strenthened the rubles. Trade agrements are now done in rubles and yuan between countries like Russia, India, china and Saudi-arabia. (Only the west are sanctioning Russia)

      This may give explanation to why Russia initially did not destroy the infrastructure of Ukraine: They didn’t want the war to end quickly. The west had to go all the way into the bottom of the trap, while Russia is still in control of events on the battlefield.

      It might seem that the west are now aware of what is going on. But proabably too late.

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  11. I read the same story about Putin’s reluctance to use nuclear weapons and the pressure from his generals. It was written by a reporter of il Corriere della Sera currently based in Russia. Maybe he took the same taxi…

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