A three-front assault—one of the scenarios predicted—wasn’t difficult to deduce. After all, Russia’s mobilization visibly took place in the border areas in the north, south, and east of Ukraine. Furthermore, a line of attack to Kyiv wasn’t difficult to deduce either. Russia used Belarus—a mere 140-mile drive to Kyiv—as a military staging ground, whereby it visibly stationed tactical and rapid deployment forces. Generally speaking, if the quality and insight of American intelligence were so robust, as suggested by the alarmism, it stands to reason why sharing it failed to convince European allies, including Ukraine. In fact, on February 12, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy still doubted the rhetoric coming from Washington. He insinuated that the U.S. public messaging was exaggerated from what the shared intelligence had stipulated, citing that “too much information in the information space” was negatively stirring a domestic panic. This divergence—or asymmetry in information—isn’t the result of uneven or privileged intelligence within the Western alliance, but rather of one ally’s active distortion.
Threat Inflation vs. Threat Assessment
In the face of criticism prior to the war, the White House defended its communications strategy. ”In Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war,” Sullivan said, “We’re trying to stop a war.” The same logic was put forth to an international audience at the United Nations, where Blinken stated: “I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out. But let me be clear: I am here today, not to start a war, but to prevent one.” Essentially, threat inflation by the U.S. was justified because its cause was noble, even considered by those propagating it—a necessity. Because “by sharing what we know with the world,” Blinken continued in his February 17 address, “we can influence Russia to abandon the path of war and choose a different path while there’s still time.” Later on, CIA Director William Burns emphasized an ongoing information campaign of “selective declassification“ pursued by the U.S. intelligence community. “This is one information war that I think Putin is losing,” he noted in his congressional testimony alongside the heads of other intelligence agencies in March 2022, saying the U.S. had finally caught up with Russia’s previous command in weaponizing the information space.
According to U.S. and Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, the employment of information—or disinformation—was being used, at one level, to preempt, disrupt, and confuse Moscow in carrying out its plans and tactics and, at another level, to “undermine Moscow’s propaganda and prevent Russia from defining how the war is perceived in the world.” Until now, many observers believe the information “declassified” originated from reliable source material, failing to understand that information warfare was made necessary because of the lack of access into the upper echelons of the Russian state.
The tight inner circle and decision-making apparatus of Putin’s Russia—coupled with its advanced counterintelligence system—would constitute an enduring problem for the U.S. intelligence community. These limitations and constraints help explain the wide and intermittent variation in forewarnings issued by Washington. Indeed, preemption was unlikely driven by having reliable intelligence, but rather on the basis of lacking it. In all likelihood, “selective declassification” relied on speculative projection and conjecture, whereby target selection was guided by how Russia might or could operate given assumptions over its capabilities and past behavior, but not necessarily derived from accurate, real-time information. “We don’t have clarity into Moscow’s intentions,” admitted Blinken in November 2021, “but we do know its playbook.” As such, by targeting the playbook, U.S. preemptive tactics bypassed the problem posed by uncertainty and inaccessibility, increasing the costs and complications of an invasion so as to deter it.
Akin to a probabilistic process of elimination, preemptive efforts aimed to dampen the likelihood for a multitude of possible scenarios. Apart from the invasion itself, other threats and warnings never came to pass. In this jumbled mix was a coup d’état in major Ukrainian cities, including the capital, a ‘false flag’ operation using graphic video propaganda, a massive cyberattack, the use of chemical weapons, among others. None, however, were based on reliable information but rather on assumptions of their mere probability. Later on, U.S. officials acknowledged that threats based on unsubstantiated or low confidence were part of its information warfare against Russia. “It doesn’t have to be solid intelligence,” said one U.S. official, “It’s more important to get out ahead of them, Putin specifically, before they do something.” In other words, these preemptive tactics were utilized as disinformation, sometimes just “trying to get inside Putin’s head.”
Most consequentially, preemption to service an indirect form of deterrence-by-denial extended beyond the tactical level, and sought to shape the perception of Russia’s political aims and military ambitions.
In January 2022, the United States and United Kingdom spearheaded a joint information campaign that sought to maximize Russia’s potential war aims in the public discourse. On January 20, the Treasury Department issued sanctions on four pro-Russian Ukrainian elites, with a single reference to the audacious aim of “creating a new, Russian-controlled government in Ukraine.” Days later, in targeting the media establishment in the West, an erratic pattern of insufficient and unsubstituted claims was put forth by Washington and London. This consisted of public disclosures and private leaks to the media, whereby representatives of each government corroborated the other’s threat assessment. Substantively, they insinuated that the Kremlin’s plans for an invasion had designs to install a pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv.
These allegations, however, severely lacked details and, by all accounts, failed to meet basic thresholds of plausibility. Having trickled into the public discourse, the identification of elites purported to be Russia’s next handpicked puppet leader in Kyiv had risen to the level of comedic absurdity among the Ukrainian population. More significantly, the disclosures mimicked amateur and speculative guesswork. In fact, there was no trace or resemblance to a threat assessment that had undergone the traditional intelligence cycle. “Complete nonsense,” said a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker. “A lot of the people who are named as members of this future government aren’t even on speaking terms with each other,” he continued. “It’s a random group of names.” The head of research at a Kyiv-based think tank believed it to be “poorly thought-out” and “absolutely absurd,” saying such a regime “will not be supported by Ukrainian society.”
Instead of busy plotting a coup, Yevhen Murayev, alleged by the U.K. to potentially lead this pro-Russian government, was on vacation with his family on a tropical island. ”At first,” he said, “I thought it was some kind of prank.” Oddly, Murayev was no longer an ally of Russia. Years prior, Moscow sanctioned him after a falling out with another conspirator alleged by the U.S., Viktor Medvedchuk, who since May 2021 had been under house arrest for treason as part of the government’s crackdown on the Russophone opposition. “It isn’t very logical,” said Murayev, “I’m banned from Russia. Not only that but money from my father’s firm there has been confiscated.” Unsurprisingly, his party failed to gain a single seat in parliament in the previous election. Alleged by U.S. officials, another candidate was Oleg Tsaryov—a former parliamentarian who described himself to be the “most hated man in Ukraine after Putin.” Tsaryov left Ukraine and politics altogether in 2015. “This is a pretty funny situation,” he said, “Look at me. I’m not even invited to speak on [Russian] state TV because I’m not important enough. I’m a sanatorium director in Yalta.” Truly, Tsaryov runs three wellness clinics on the Black Sea. A fourth candidate was Ukraine’s former premier, Mykola Azarov, who despite being forced to flee the country in 2014, was now 74 years old, no less. “How can I defend myself against the allegation when nobody has provided any evidence against me?,” he said in frustration, “I can’t even sue the British, because they phrased it very carefully. They haven’t directly accused me of being involved, just that some people may have been thinking of using me.”
The purpose of the U.S. and U.K. allegations, however, was not to reflect reliable intelligence. Otherwise, such publicization would’ve been prohibited to protect sources and methods, especially when lacking inroads into reading Russia’s intentions. Instead, the disclosures and leaks represented a disinformation operation to harden deterrence-by-denial. By preempting a plan’s mere possibility, they believed its implementation would become more complicated and drive up its costs. “Calling it (i.e. regime change) out takes away the element of surprise and also reduces the chances of Russia succeeding if they actually attempt it,” said a Western official in January 2022, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Before February 24, the information environment in the West over the prospect of war and its potential scope and aims was muddled. But afterward, having settled the lingering uncertainty, the effects of the invasion cascaded, clarified, and consolidated the narrative that now dominates the public discourse. Not only did it legitimize the disinformation broadcasted in the lead-up to the war, but it also lent unwarranted credibility to the distorted threats that would follow. Consequently, this empowered the statements and information delivered from an official podium, and bestowed to U.S. leaders a windfall to further intensify threat inflation in pursuit of denial by proxy.