WASHINGTON — CIA Director John Brennan told key lawmakers Monday that Russia believes its military incursion in Ukraine is permitted under a 1997 treaty between the two neighbors that allows as many as 25,000 Russian troops in the vital Crimean region.
The number of Russian troops that have surged onto the Ukrainian peninsula in recent days remains well below that threshold, Brennan said, according to U.S. officials who declined to be identified in describing private discussions.
Brennan urged caution and appeared to be taking a softer line than Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the officials said. Administration officials have said Russia violated the treaty because it requires the Russian navy, which bases its Black Sea fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, to coordinate all military movements on the peninsula with Ukraine.
U.S. intelligence officials also denied that they had made a mistake Thursday when they advised Congress in classified briefings that they did not expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to send troops into Crimea, although they acknowledged it was possible.
The next day, Russian troops took up positions around key facilities in Crimea, and by nightfall the CIA assessed that Russia was in control of the region, officials said.
“This was not predicted,” said a U.S. official, who asked not to be identified in discussing the classified briefings.
The intelligence officials defended their analysis, however, saying Putin may have made a spur of the moment decision to take military action.
U.S. intelligence agencies have “provided timely and valuable information that has helped policymakers understand the situation on the ground and make informed decisions,” said Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence. “That continues to be the case. Any suggestion that there were intelligence shortcomings related to the situation in Ukraine are uninformed and misleading.”
The difficulty in predicting the Russian military moves echoed a similar intelligence gap in August 2008 when Russian troops backed separatist forces in South Ossetia against the republic of Georgia in a five-day war. The CIA was caught off guard at the time, officials said later.
A former CIA case officer, who also declined to be identified in discussing sensitive issues, said that the agency’s focus on counterterrorism over the last 13 years has undermined its ability to conduct traditional espionage against key adversaries, including Russia.
The CIA station in Kiev, Ukraine, “cannot be larger than two or three case officers,” the former official said. “Did they have sources that could have forecast Russian intentions? Almost certainly not.”
Another former senior intelligence officer with experience in the region said the CIA doesn’t have sources that could have forecast Putin’s plans in Crimea. But, he said, it shouldn’t be viewed as an intelligence failure if analysts didn’t anticipate the actions of Russian troops operating out of bases there.
“The presence of Russian troops there is a fait accompli, so nobody is going to be watching what’s happening in those bases,” he said.
A CIA spokesman rebuffed the notion that the agency’s espionage muscles had atrophied.
“Although we do not talk about our specific intelligence efforts, the agency is a versatile global organization that is more than capable of addressing a range of national security threats simultaneously and it does so every day,” said spokesman Dean Boyd. “Anyone suggesting otherwise is seriously misinformed.”