Intelligence Community made right call on Russia invasion, buying Biden time
Bloomberg February 24, 2022
It failed to prevent a war, but almost everything the U.S. said Russia would do in Ukraine has come to pass.
The intelligence that President Joe Biden made public in a highly unusual step gave the world a preview of Vladimir Putin’s true intentions, robbing him of the element of surprise. It also gave the U.S. time to rally support from its allies on sanctions that in normal circumstances would have taken months to hash out.
Last November, the U.S. privately warned allies in Europe that Putin had plans to invade Ukraine. Officials shared maps and intelligence outlining how Russia was planning to double troop numbers around Ukraine. They spelled out where Putin would place artillery, and ground, air and naval forces to strike its neighbor. They previewed how a series of cyber attacks and a drumbeat of disinformation would set the stage for an attack.
It was a real-time chronicle of an invasion foretold even though right until the end no one knew whether Putin would really do it. In the early hours of Thursday morning, Russia entered Ukraine from the north, south and east, targeting multiple cities -- just as the U.S. and the U.K. warned it would.
Given the intelligence failures of the past, most damagingly in 2003 with Iraq, the U.S. couldn’t afford to get this wrong. Two decades later, controlling the narrative on social platforms is critical to shaping perceptions. Sending Americans to fight was out of the question, so the White House had to try and control the narrative -- and unlike in Russia’s previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it decided to go public with what it knew.
For starters, it brought more countries into the fold. The U.K. is a trusted partner of the Five Eyes intelligence network, along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But this time vast amounts of information were also shared with France, Germany and European Union leaders in Brussels.
Administration officials then decided to aggressively begin to release sanitized versions of some of the intelligence findings publicly.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance had very good intelligence on Russian plans and took the decision to publicize Russian efforts to create a pretext for an invasion.
“We exposed those attempts because we hoped that could reduce the risk of a military invasion,” he told reporters in Brussels. “They have done as they actually planned for a long time ago.”
The same assessments, pointing to a large-scale invasion from multiple directions in the early months of 2022, were independently verified by the U.K., with senior British officials also deployed to brief allies.
In the weeks that followed, the U.S. and the British governments made public much of that same information in an unprecedented effort to try and deter Putin by exposing his plans.
By telegraphing Putin’s strategy, the U.S. was able to accelerate talks with allies over a package of financial penalties that would not only hurt Russia but their own economies as well. It wasn’t always easy, especially getting Germany to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Italy was also uneasy about being cut off from supplies during an energy crunch.
A person familiar with the thinking said the aim was not primarily to get people to believe but to cause people to have some skepticism, as events such as false-flag operations, unfolded. For months the U.S. downgraded and declassified information, while protecting sources and methods, to share it with key allies and senior officials traveling to Europe.
Amid repeated Kremlin denials that he intended to invade and some skepticism in Western European capitals, the two transatlantic allies went into great detail in their disclosures, including by outlining Russia’s potential plots to fabricate a pretext for invasion, rapidly attributing cyber attacks to Russian intelligence services and tweeting about Moscow’s possible military maneuvers.
As frantic diplomatic efforts to sway Putin away from invading continued through January and this month, allies were clear that the intelligence assessments didn’t extend to the Russian president’s intentions: They did not know whether a decision had been taken to invade.
That changed last week.
On Feb. 17, on a late afternoon, Biden came out in front of the camera to tell world that there was “every indication” that Moscow would attack within days and try and “stage a pretext” for an invasion.
The U.S. believed that the Russian leader had just about made up his mind by that point. There was some last-ditch frantic diplomacy.
France’s Emmanuel Macron even tried to arrange a summit between Putin and Biden, one that U.S. officials at that point really couldn’t see happening. A one-on-one meeting between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, was scrapped.
Blinken last week was very specific.
He said Russia “plans to manufacture a pretext for its attack” -- a violent event that Russia will blame on Ukraine, then “the highest levels of the Russian government may theatrically convene emergency meetings to address the so-called crisis.”
He went on to say: “Next, the attack is planned to begin. Russian missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine. Communications will be jammed. Cyber attacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions. After that, Russian tanks and soldiers will advance on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”
For months, no one had wanted to speculate what exactly Putin would do. The oft-repeated line was that no one could not get into his head.
With scenes unfolding now of military vehicles breaching the Kyiv region, what Putin had planned became painfully apparent.
- - -
Bloomberg’s Ania Nussbaum and Peter Martin contributed to this report.