Ever since Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive against Russian forces in late August, US officials have tried to take credit, insisting that US intelligence was key to Ukraine’s battlefield victories.
Yet US officials have simultaneously downplayed their intelligence failures in Ukraine — especially their glaring mistakes at the start of the war. When Putin invaded in February, U.S. intelligence officials told the White House that Russia would win within days by quickly overwhelming the Ukrainian military, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, who asked not to be named to discuss sensitive matters. information.
The Central Intelligence Agency was so pessimistic about Ukraine’s chances that officials told President Joe Biden and other policymakers that the best they could expect was for the remnants of defeated Ukrainian forces to launch an insurgency, a guerrilla war against the Russian occupiers. At the time of the February invasion, the CIA was already planning how to provide covert support to the Ukrainian insurgency after a Russian military victory, officials said.
American intelligence reports at the time predicted that Kiev would fall quickly, perhaps in a week or two at most. The predictions prompted the Biden administration to secretly withdraw some key U.S. intelligence assets from Ukraine, including covert special operations personnel under contract to the CIA, current and former officials said. Their account was backed by a Navy officer and a former Navy SEAL, who were aware of the movement and who also asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The CIA “got it completely wrong,” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official who knows what the CIA was reporting when the Russian invasion began. “They thought that Russia would win immediately.”
When it became clear that the agency’s predictions of a quick Russian victory were wrong, the Biden administration sent classified assets that had been recovered from Ukraine back into the country, military and intelligence officials said. One US official insisted that the CIA only partially withdrew its assets when the war began and that the agency “never completely left”.
US covert operations in Ukraine are conducted on the basis of presidential secret actions.
Still, US covert operations inside Ukraine are now far more extensive than they were at the start of the war, when US intelligence officials feared Russia would outmatch Ukraine’s military. There is a much larger presence of CIA and US special operations personnel and resources in Ukraine than there was at the time of the Russian invasion in February, several current and former intelligence officials told The Intercept.
U.S. covert operations in Ukraine are being conducted under a presidential secret finding, current and former officials said. The finding indicates that the president quietly informed certain congressional leaders of the administration’s decision to conduct a broad program of covert operations within the country. One former special forces officer said Biden had modified an existing finding, originally approved during the Obama administration, that was designed to counter the activities of malicious foreign influence. A former CIA official told the Intercept that Biden’s use of the previous finding frustrated some intelligence officials, who believe that US involvement in the conflict in Ukraine is so different from the spirit of the finding that it should merit a new one. A CIA spokesman declined to comment on whether there was a finding of presidential covert action for operations in Ukraine.
The stunning failure of the American intelligence community at the start of the war to recognize the fundamental weaknesses of the Russian system reflects its blindness to the military and economic weaknesses of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when Washington failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although not all analysts U.S. intelligence underestimated Ukraine’s will to fight The community missteps in Ukraine came just months after U.S. intelligence seriously underestimated how quickly the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan would collapse in 2021, prompting a swift takeover. government by the Taliban.
Some senior US intelligence officials have since admitted that they were wrong in projecting a quick Russian victory. In March, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, admitted during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the CIA had not done well “in terms of anticipating the military challenges that [Putin] he met his own army.”
The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Barrier, said at the same March hearing that “my position was that, based on a number of factors, the Ukrainians were not as prepared as I thought they should be, so I questioned their the will to fight [and] it was bad judgment on my part.”
“I think that assessing … morale and will to fight is a very difficult analytical task,” he added. “We had different contributions from different organizations.” And at least from my perspective as a director, I didn’t do as well as I could have done.”
Yet these admissions mask a more fundamental failure that officials have not fully acknowledged: U.S. intelligence has failed to recognize the extent of rampant corruption and incompetence in the Putin regime, particularly in the Russian military and Moscow’s defense industry, current and former intelligence officials said. US intelligence officials missed the impact of corrupt insider dealings and fraud among Putin loyalists in Moscow’s defense establishment, which left the Russian military a fragile and hollow shell.
“There have been no reports of corruption in the Russian system,” said a former senior intelligence official. “They missed it and ignored all evidence of it.”
“There were no reports of corruption in the Russian system.”
After a series of Russian defeats, even prominent Russian analysts began to openly blame the corruption and fraud plaguing the Russian system. On Russian television last weekend, Andrei Gurulyov, former deputy commander of Russia’s Southern Military District and now a member of the Russian Duma, blamed his country’s losses on a system of lies, “from top to bottom.”
In addition, Putin imposed an invasion plan on the Russian military that was impossible to achieve, according to one current US official. “You can’t really separate the issue of Russian military competence from the fact that they were shackled by an impossible plan, which led to poor military preparation,” the official said.
Photo: Wojciech Grzedzinski/Getty Images
After Russia’s defeat in Lyman, eastern Ukraine, last weekend, retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded US forces in Europe from 2014 to 2018, also admitted that he “overestimated Russia’s capabilities” before it attacked Ukraine because he “failed to understand the depth of corruption” in the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The inability of the US intelligence community to recognize the significance of Russian corruption appears to be the result of an overreliance on technical intelligence. Before the war, high-tech satellites and surveillance systems allowed the US to monitor the deployment of Russian troops, tanks and aircraft and to eavesdrop on Russian military officials, allowing US intelligence to accurately predict the timing of an invasion. But it would take more human spies inside Russia to see that the Russian military and defense industry are deeply corrupt.
Since the war began, a long list of weaknesses in the Russian military and its defense industry, symbolized by the so-called shortage of Russian tanks, has been exposed. Ukrainian forces quickly learned that one well-placed shot could blow off the turret of a Russian tank, sending it skyward and killing the entire crew. It became clear that the Russian tanks were designed and built on the cheap—with ammunition openly stored in a ring inside the turret that could explode when the turret was hit—and that crew safety was not a priority. In July, Adm. Tony Radakin, Britain’s military chief, said Russia had lost nearly 1,700 tanks in Ukraine.
Weak leadership, poor training and low morale led to huge casualties among Russian soldiers. In August, the Pentagon estimated that 70,000 to 80,000 Russian soldiers were killed or wounded in Ukraine. Ukraine also suffered huge losses, but Russian frontline strength was greatly weakened.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest mysteries for American analysts is Russia’s failure to take control of Ukraine’s skies, despite having a far superior air force. Flaws in aircraft design, poor pilot training and aircraft maintenance deficiencies have made Russian aircraft vulnerable to Ukrainian air defenses, which are bolstered by Stinger missiles and other Western air defense systems.
The failure of US intelligence to see the dysfunction in the Russian military and defense industry means that it also failed to foresee Russia’s ongoing defeats on the battlefield, which are now having a profound political and social impact on both Putin and Russia. Putin ordered a partial mobilization to replace heavy battlefield losses, sparking large-scale protests. At least 200,000 people have already fled Russia, including thousands of young men who want to avoid conscription.