US intelligence sharpens its target against Ukraine and Russia

During a private meeting weeks before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in late February, US intelligence officials were asked a question: Is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky like Winston Churchill or Afghan President Ashraf Ghani? In other words, will Zelensky lead a historic resistance or flee like a rich man as his government collapses?

In the end, US intelligence agencies underestimated Zelensky and Ukraine while overestimating Russia and its president, even though they correctly predicted that Vladimir Putin would order the invasion.

However, US intelligence failed to foresee the fall of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, within a few days. While US spy agencies are credited with helping the Ukrainian resistance, they now face bipartisan pressure to examine their own mistakes, especially their misjudgment of the situation in Afghanistan last year.

Intelligence authorities began to review how their services judge the willingness and ability of other governments to fight. The action comes as agencies continue to play a critical role in Ukraine and the White House ramps up arms shipments and other support to Ukraine, trying to predict what Putin might interpret as an escalation and trying to avoid a direct war with Russia.

The administration of President Joe Biden announced that it will supply Ukraine with a small number of modern medium-range missile systems, a weapon that Kyiv has long requested. Since the war began on February 24, the White House has approved shipments of drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, as well as millions of ammunition.

The United States lifted initial restrictions on intelligence dissemination, providing data that Ukraine had used to attack key targets, including the Russian Navy’s flagship.

Lawmakers of both parties are questioning whether the United States could do more before Putin’s invasion and whether the White House has held off on providing more support, based on pessimistic predictions about Ukraine. “If we had had a better prediction, we could have done more to help the Ukrainians sooner,” independent Senator Angus King told officials at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month.

Republican Representative Mike Turner of the House Intelligence Committee said in an interview that he believed the White House and senior administration officials projected their “own biases on the situation in a way that led to inaction.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee sent a classified letter last month to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, asking how spy agencies have assessed Ukraine and Afghanistan. The existence of the message was initially reported by CNN.

Director Avril Haines told lawmakers in May that the National Intelligence Council would review how agencies assess “will to fight and ability to fight.” Haines admitted that both sides are “very difficult to analyze and we are looking at different methodologies for doing that”.

Although the timetable for the review, which began before the commission’s letter, has not been announced, officials have identified some errors. Several people familiar with the pre-war assessments spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.

Despite its enormous advantages, Russia failed to achieve air superiority over Ukraine and failed in essential tasks, such as protecting its combat communications. It lost thousands of soldiers and at least eight to 10 generals, according to US estimates. Russian and Ukrainian forces now face fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine, a far cry from the swift victory for Moscow that the United States and the West had hoped for.

Although Russia has been involved in several third-party wars recently, it has not fought a major land conflict since the 1980s. This means that many of Russia’s projected capabilities have not been tested, posing a challenge to analysts when assessing Russia’s performance in a major invasion, some sources said.

Russia’s arms export industry has led many to believe that Moscow will have more missile systems and aircraft ready for deployment.

Russia has not used biological or chemical weapons as Washington has warned it might. One official noted that the United States had “very serious concerns” about a chemical attack, but that Russia may have decided it would cause a lot of global opposition. And fears that Russia might use a wave of cyber attacks against Ukraine and its allies have yet to materialize.

Other Russian problems were well known, including low morale among the troops, widespread drug and alcohol abuse among soldiers, and a lack of non-commissioned officers to supervise the troops and pass on instructions from commanders.

“We knew all of these problems were there,” said retired Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “But it became a domino effect on how difficult it was all when they tried to do even the simplest operations.”

Sue Gordon, a former deputy director of national intelligence, said analysts may have relied heavily on counting Russia’s stockpile of military and electronic tools.

“We’ll learn a little bit about how we think capacity and usage are not the same when you evaluate the outcome,” Gordon said recently at an event sponsored by The Cipher Brief, an intelligence publication.

Zelensky was universally praised for refusing to flee as Russia sent teams to try to capture or kill him.

During the Nazi aerial bombing of London in World War II, Churchill often watched attacks from rooftops in the capital and made a special effort to walk the streets where thousands were killed.

In contrast, Afghan President Ghani left the country last Sunday, alone and isolated, a few months after the United States called on him to form a united resistance as the withdrawal of American forces approached. Ghani did not even tell other political leaders that he was preparing to leave, while a peaceful transition of power was negotiated with the Taliban. His sudden and clandestine departure left Kabul, the capital, rudderless as US and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years.

In Zelensky’s case, there were also tensions with Washington before the war, over the possibility of a Russian invasion and whether Ukraine was prepared. One flashpoint, according to people familiar with the conflict, was that the United States wanted Ukraine to move forces from the West to bolster defenses around Kyiv.

Even shortly before the invasion, Zelensky and top officials in his government had dismissed warnings of the invasion, in part to prevent public panic and protect the economy. A US official said there is a belief that Zelensky has never been tested in a major crisis facing his country.

Lt. Gen. Scott Perrier, the current director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated in March: “My opinion was that, based on various factors, the Ukrainians were not as prepared as I thought. So, I questioned his willingness to fight. That was a bad outcome on my part, because they fought so bravely.” It is an honor to do the right thing.”

In May, Brier distanced his own opinion from that of the rest of the intelligence community, who revealed he had never had an assessment “that said the Ukrainians lacked the will to fight.”

There was ample evidence of pre-war Ukrainian design.

The Russian annexation of Crimea and the eight-year conflict in the eastern Donbass region strengthened the attitudes of the Ukrainian people toward Moscow. Ukrainian forces have received years of training and arms shipments from the United States, as well as help bolstering their cyber defenses.

US intelligence agencies reviewed private opinion polls indicating strong support in Ukraine for any resistance. In Kharkiv, a mostly Russian-speaking city near the border, citizens were learning to use firearms and training in guerrilla warfare.

Republican Representative Brad Weinstrup, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, saw the decision in person during a December trip. Winstrup watched a military ceremony in which participants read the names of every Ukrainian soldier killed the previous day on the front lines in Donbass, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting the government since 2014.

“It showed me that they had the will to fight,” he said. “This has been brewing for a long time.”

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