A Blindspot within American Intelligence
Within the media discourse, the American intelligence community was “spot on” in predicting an invasion of Ukraine. But this assumption is misleading, at best, and dangerous, at worst. It has allowed statements and warnings issued by U.S. policymakers, who cite the authority of intelligence, to go unchallenged. Upon closer scrutiny, an examination of the rhetoric of the Biden administration in the lead-up to the war suggests good reason to question the quality of their information. Undoubtedly, the lack of access into the decisions and deliberations inside the Kremlin extends to the lack of insight into Russia’s intentions. Hence, the certainty espoused by U.S. leaders when maximizing Russia’s war aim is unsubstantiated and constitutes an overreach.
A healthy dose of skepticism about the veracity and depth of American intelligence—or, at least, how political elites portrayed it to the public—is needed. First, given the rhetoric and actions by Washington throughout the crisis, there’s no credible indication that access into Moscow’s deliberations over aims, strategy, and intentions was ever obtained by the U.S. intelligence community. Second, the eleventh-hour upswing in alarmism from U.S. officials was also intertwined with an intensified information campaign that sought to preempt and inflate the Russian threat so as to deter it. Importantly, evidence of threat inflation had well preceded the shift to assert a near certainty of an invasion. This makes it difficult to disentangle and discern if the alarmism was derived from new streams of intelligence—or if it stemmed from political decisions to strengthen deterrence-by-denial. Finally, there existed profound political and strategic incentives for U.S. policymakers (and the intelligence community) to hedge their bets. After the debacle in Afghanistan, the uncertainty and inaccessibility to the Kremlin would likely incentivize widening intelligence estimates or political statements to incorporate some level of plausibility over the worst-case scenario. As such, there’s little doubt that avoiding the surmountable damage of being caught flat-footed again was of paramount concern, driving an overcorrection.
Contrary to popular depiction, the U.S. forewarning of an invasion of Ukraine doesn’t necessitate that intelligence access into Russia’s intentions, aims, and strategy drove its decision to issue a prediction. In fact, it was only in the final week of the yearlong military escalation that U.S. officials signaled some modest level of certainty about the prospect of a Russian invasion, yet were still engaged to find a diplomatic solution. Warnings ratcheted up over the likelihood of war as the crisis visibly escalated to a boiling point. In Washington, concern grew over Moscow’s costly signaling after it publicized its ultimatum on December 17, 2021, whereby its rejection would set up a pretext to invade. Some believed Russia’s mere issuance of the demands had indicated that an invasion was a foregone conclusion.
In its public engagement, Washington hedged its threat assessment. It signaled that a Russian invasion was a growing likelihood, inflated the threat to help buttress ongoing deterrent efforts, but still couched those warnings within continued uncertainty regarding Putin’s plans and intentions. This rhetorical balancing act served to preserve the public perception of American credibility regardless of how events unfolded. If Russia invaded, the U.S. credits the accuracy of its intelligence to advance preparations to confront the threat; absent an invasion, it credits its deterrent strategy that kept Russia’s aggression in check.
Up until the closing days, U.S. officials had, repeatedly, stressed that its intelligence had not revealed Putin’s calculus. Throughout the crisis, not to mention the years preceding it, the U.S. intelligence community had been encumbered by a critical blind spot into reading Russia’s intentions. It acknowledged an inability to pinpoint decision-making inside the Kremlin, which required obtaining access to Putin and his deliberations or penetrating his inner circle. The uncertainty forced U.S. intelligence, in large part, to rely on interpreting Russia’s visible military posture and maneuvers along the borders with Ukraine. Indeed, former U.S. intelligence officials doubted if access inside the Kremlin was ever obtained, believing that assessments had to rely on imagery and signals intelligence on Russia’s military deployment, particularly as final orders came down the chain of command.
Indeed, leading up to the invasion, a snapshot into the rhetoric used by U.S. leaders points to the general but imprecise nature of information. In early 2022, the White House estimated an invasion between mid-January and mid-February. On February 11, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the U.S. intelligence community had “sufficient confidence” of a “distinct possibility” that an invasion occurs before the end of the Beijing Olympics, which concluded on February 20. But he also added, “We are not saying that…a final decision has been taken by Putin.” Meanwhile, in an hourlong call, Biden warned Western leaders that an invasion was expected to happen on February 16. Of course, that turned out to be incorrect. “Putin has put in place the capacity to act on very short notice,” said Blinken on that day, “He can pull the trigger. He can pull it today, he can pull it tomorrow, he can pull it next week.” On February 17, Biden said that there was “every indication” Russia prepared to attack Ukraine “in the next several days.” He added, “I guess it will happen.” The next day, on February 18, he stretched that prediction’s timeframe to “in the coming week, in the coming days,” but still emphasized it wasn’t too late for a diplomatic path.
This rolling-basis framing of prediction suggests that Western intelligence assessments suffered from a lopsided composition in source material. Analytically speaking, insight into Russia’s intentions exhibited an overreliance on its capabilities because the U.S. lacked access into the deliberations inside the Kremlin. Indeed, as late as February 17, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized the ongoing lack of entry into Putin’s inner circle, saying that “we know about their capabilities but of course we don’t know with certainty about their intentions, so it remains to be seen what they will do.” This may have been sufficient to make estimations on general outcomes and provide an early warning system of an invasion’s final ground preparations. But the lack of direct access into Russia’s intentions undermined efforts to determine critical details, such as its strategy, military plans and objectives, and ultimately, political goals.
As such, U.S. predictions were made in the context of Russia having positioned its final military pieces. In February, Putin had claimed a partial withdrawal of Russian forces from the border. But evidence contradicted any signs of a pullback. “So far we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground from the Russian side,” said Stoltenberg on February 15, “Over the last weeks and days we have seen the opposite.” This suggested an invasion was on the horizon, and likely prompted U.S. officials to get ahead of it and elevate their warning status. The chances of an invasion are “very high,” Biden said on February 17, “because they have not moved any of their troops out,” but instead “have moved more troops in.”
Another sign of the unbalanced and limited nature of U.S. intelligence was the wide-ranging projections into the mechanics of a military invasion. Devoid of knowing Russia’s war-aim and military strategy, U.S. estimations of how an invasion would look relied on deducing plausible scenarios. Essentially, it focused on information gleaned from Russia’s mobilized military capabilities, force posture, and unit compositions.
Speaking from a White House podium, Sullivan suggested on February 11 that an invasion “could take a range of different forms,” with “a possible line of attack” being “a rapid assault on the city of Kyiv,” whereby the Russians “could also choose to move in other parts of Ukraine as well.” On February 17, in a speech to the United Nations Security Council, Blinken described a wider range of scenarios, even as he admitted: “We don’t know exactly the form it will take.”
Surely, at the individual level, U.S. policymakers were also incentivized to overcorrect and safeguard their reputations. Back in summer 2021, Blinken’s dismissal of a hyperbolic scenario he conceived—that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan wasn’t going to happen over the span of a weekend—had ironically turned out to be the reality foreshadowed. Now, the incentives at using hyperbole were reversed. Akin to throwing spaghetti on the walls at the UN, he warned of a false flag operation in the form of “a fabricated so-called ‘terrorist’ bombing inside Russia, the invented discovery of a mass grave, a staged drone strike against civilians, or a fake—even a real—attack using chemical weapons,” whereby Russian leaders “may theatrically convene emergency meetings” that greenlight an invasion. In the attack stage, “missiles and bombs will drop across Ukraine,” whereby “communications will be jammed,” and “cyberattacks will shut down key Ukrainian institutions,” all occurring prior to soldiers marching in “on key targets that have already been identified and mapped out in detailed plans.”
Needless to say, the forewarnings turned out to be wildly incorrect. Despite laying out an array of possibilities, the U.S. still missed Russia’s decision, days prior to the invasion, to recognize the independence of the two Russian-speaking breakaway provinces in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This represented even more evidence of Washington’s lack of access to the decision-making calculus in Moscow. Moreover, the expectations over how Russia might conduct its war strategy were so overly generalized that military observers noted they “mirror-image” how the U.S. would conduct an invasion of its own.