This time, the US intelligence community got it right, uncovering a rival’s covert planning and accurately predicting and broadcasting Russia’s intentions to carry out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
For months, the Biden administration has been sharing — with its allies and the public — intelligence about President Vladimir V. Putin’s intentions, removing any element of surprise and depriving the Russian leader of his ability to go to war under a false pretense. .
But even with the threat of substantial sanctions and allied unity, that was ultimately not enough to dissuade Mr Putin from leading the broad assault that began early Thursday.
But it has improved Washington’s ability to bring the transatlantic alliance into a unified front against Moscow and prepare waves of sanctions and other measures to impose a cost on Russia. And after high-profile intelligence failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global crises over the past few decades, the accuracy of intelligence and analysis on Mr. Putin has given the CIA and the wider range US intelligence agencies new credibility at home and abroad.
The result was a remarkable four months of US-led diplomacy, deterrence and information warfare, including a last-ditch effort to disrupt Mr Putin’s strategy by plugging into Russian military plans. and then exposing them publicly. Unlike the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was executed almost flawlessly. Even the Germans and other European countries heavily dependent on gas supplied by Russia have signed up to the playbook.
The United States used its intelligence in innovative ways as the crisis developed. William J. Burns, the director of the CIA, confronted the Russian government with its own war plans. Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, shared secret intelligence with allied governments to build support for the U.S. assessment. And the White House and State Department publicly shared declassified intelligence to expose Mr. Putin’s plans for “false flag” operations and deny him the pretext that he wanted to invade.
The intelligence disclosures may not be over now that the invasion has begun. The Biden administration has made it clear that it does not want to take on the burden of publicly calling out Russian troop movements. But the United States plans to continue its information releases, considering various options to hold Russia accountable for actions it takes in Ukraine, according to people familiar with the discussion.
These new efforts could involve countering Russian propaganda that they are guardians and liberators of the Ukrainian people, not an occupying force. They could also involve work to expose potential war crimes and attempt to debunk Russian claims that their war aims are limited.
Mr Putin’s plan to overthrow the government in Kiev was his goal all along, US officials said, and some officials are keen to show that Russia is simply carrying out a plan hatched months ago.
“It’s not something you want to do forever or as a permanent feature of politics or it loses its novelty, but in extraordinary situations, life and death, it’s warranted,” John E said. McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA. “I always found when confronting the Russians with our knowledge of what they were doing, that they would inevitably deny it but it unsettled them to know that we knew. And I think that shook Putin this time.
In the end, that was not enough to stop Mr Putin, although what strategy he might have, if any, is unclear.
The US effort to reveal Mr Putin’s plans to the world has “been a distraction for him, it’s kind of boring”, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said on Wednesday. But, he added, “it remains to be seen what difference it made to his decision-making.”
Some of the information the United States shared with its allies, beginning with a trip to NATO by Ms Haines in November, was initially met with skepticism, according to Western officials. Many Europeans still remember the bad intelligence around the war in Iraq.
But as the information provided increased and the Russian war plan unfolded as Ms Haines had predicted, European officials changed their minds. The intelligence-sharing campaign eventually succeeded in uniting Europe and America on a series of tough sanctions.
Republicans have criticized Mr Biden for not being more aggressive in the military supplies he sent to Kyiv or acting sooner to impose tough penalties on Russia to change Mr Putin’s course of action .
It will take time to know if more and better weapons could have made a difference to the resistance of the Ukrainian army. But administration officials said they had to act wisely not to escalate the situation and allow Mr Putin to use US military supplies as an excuse to start the war.
More clearly, US sanctions against Mr. Putin go no further. It’s the European sanctions against Russia and its billionaire class that really bite, and it took time and smarts to get Europe on board with a tough set of sanctions.
Although the United States clearly has one of the best, if not the best, intelligence collections in the world, it also had a reputation that remained tarnished, at home and abroad, by the invasion of Iraq. in 2003, when erroneous information was made public. justify war. While the intelligence community had long been pessimistic about the prospects for the survival of the US-backed Afghan government, some members of the administration last year criticized spy agencies for failing to accurately predict the speed with which the country’s military forces would withdraw.
No doubt the reputation has heightened some of the skepticism about the assessment of Mr Putin’s intentions, both by reporters questioning officials for more evidence, and by allies.
The warnings this time were very different, the information given to try to prevent a war, not to start one. But leaking the information was a risk nonetheless. If this had been proven wrong, intelligence agencies would have been grappling with new doubts about their ability to properly collect and analyze intelligence about an adversary’s capabilities and intentions. Their ability to credibly warn against future threats would have diminished.
Instead, the public got a rare glimpse of an intelligence success. It is usually the failures, or partial failures, such as Iraq, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the surveillance of national civil rights groups, or the Bay of Pigs, that are aired publicly.
But failures don’t mean US spy agencies aren’t very successful, said Nicholas Dujmovic, a former CIA historian who now teaches at the Catholic University of America.
“This is a rare case where intelligence successes are made public, and the public should conclude, in my view, that this is rather the norm,” Dr Dujmovic said. “They have rare insight into normal process and intelligence production that they don’t normally see.”
Most accusations of intelligence failures are failures to properly warn of an attack or to exaggerate a threat. And it was these warnings that this time proved to be prescient.
“Warning analysts have the hardest job in analysis because they try to understand intentions – if the attack will happen, when it will happen, how it will happen,” Dr Dujmovic said. “The best way to penetrate this fog is with a human source close to the decision maker, in this case Putin – and that’s also the most difficult type of collection to acquire.”
Intelligence agencies were able to guess Mr. Putin’s intentions early on. And that was no small feat. It is simply not publicly known how strong the network of American sources in Russia is or how close these people are to Putin, but it is clear that Mr. Putin is sharing his advice with very few.
Monday’s televised meeting of Russia’s national security aides showed the foreign intelligence chief being chastised by Mr Putin for failing to approve recognition of separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Juxtaposed with months of US revelations, the scene suggested that those at the top of US spy agencies, for once, may have understood Mr Putin’s intentions better than his own intelligence officers.