U.S. intelligence agencies misjudged Russia’s military capabilities in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, and also believed Ukraine’s military was ill-prepared to resist and would be quickly defeated, according to military and intelligence officials.
Both those intelligence judgments were wrong, officials have disclosed recently to Congress, and now the scramble is on to determine why.
Bad intelligence on Ukraine — and the failure of intelligence regarding the resilience of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan last year — are partially to blame for what some critics say is the Biden administration’s missteps in reacting to the fighting in Ukraine and other crises. Correct intelligence on Russian and Ukrainian militaries, the critics say, could have resulted in a more rapid and effective arming of Kyiv’s forces prior to the Feb. 24 invasion and more effective support as the five-week war grinds on.
For example, the Pentagon delayed sending 1,000 Javelin tank missiles to Ukraine that were requested by the Polish government in the weeks before the war.
Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, NATO’s senior general and commander of the European Command, said there appear to be shortcomings with intelligence, including gaps in reporting prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade.
“There could be a gap [in intelligence] and I think what we owe our citizens is once we get into a post-conflict environment to go back and examine that very issue to make sure if there is in fact a gap, we rectify it,” Gen. Wolters told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The U.S. wasn’t the only Western nation dealing with the poor quality of its pre-war intelligence. Gen. Eric Vidaud, the chief of French intelligence, stepped down this week reportedly over his failure to accurately predict the Russian military invasion in February. French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the most prominent Western to make a last-minute appeal to Mr. Putin not to invade, at a time when President Biden and his aides were insisting the Kremlin was already determined on war.
“The Americans said that the Russians were going to attack, and they were right,” French Gen. Thierry Burkhard told Le Monde newspaper in an interview March 6. “Our services instead said that the conquest of Ukraine would have a monstrous cost and that the Russians had other options” to pressure the Kyiv government to make concessions.
In addition to faulty assessments of the strength of Russian and Ukrainian forces, U.S. intelligence agencies also made questionable calls on the impact of sending Soviet-era MiG jets to Ukraine and warnings of Russian cyberattacks that so far have not materialized.
Under questioning from several House members on Wednesday, Gen. Wolters said “at this point, I agree with you that there was a degree of miscalculation and it’s evidenced by the performance of the Russian military up to this point.”
Spokespeople for the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees did not respond when asked if the committees will review the U.S. intelligence performance related to Ukraine.
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner said this week American intelligence agencies accurately predicted in late 2020 and early 2021 how extensive the Russian invasion would be, at a time when many European governments, including the Ukrainians, did not believe a major Russian attack was coming.
France’s government this week fired the director of military intelligence, Gen. Vidaud, after his agency concluded in February that a large Russian invasion of Ukraine was unlikely, contrary to U.S. warnings, according to European news reports.
Intelligence agencies accurately predicted that the invasion would be from multiple routes, and not limited to eastern Ukraine. Intelligence agencies also said Mr. Putin was seeking to take over the entire country, Mr. Warner said.
Three “surprises” for U.S. intelligence — often a euphemism for intelligence failures — were misestimates of the Ukrainian military’s ability to fight; poor judgments of the low quality of Russian military logistics and the Russian army’s ability to fight; and the vulnerability of tanks in modern warfare, Mr. Warner said on CNN.
“The notion that Russia, which we do know was throwing some of its best troops into this invasion, was so inept in the operation of materials logistics, I guess that would be a surprise,” the Virginia Democrat said.
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, Tennessee Republican, said he is increasingly concerned by the quality of U.S. intelligence assessments over the past year, including on Ukraine and Afghanistan, where spy agencies wrongly predicted a U.S. military withdrawal would not result in the immediate collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
Taliban insurgents took over the country days after the U.S. military completed a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
“The intel community did a great job in predicting the invasion, the amount of troops, the number of tanks, but here we are on Day 34, 35 and I don’t think it was gamed beyond, you know the initial two to three days,” Mr. DesJarlais told Gen. Wolters.
Mr. DesJarlais said Congress relies on intelligence assessments to allocate resources for weapons, as do policymakers in the Pentagon and State Department.
Gen. Wolters said the closed nature of Mr. Putin’s regime made it “very difficult” to assess the Kremlin’s military calculus related to Ukraine.
“We need to go back and take a look at our soft areas and make sure we fix those,” he said.
Ukraine and Iran
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said during a recent hearing that intelligence was misused in what he termed the “fiasco” of first supporting and then denying an offer by Poland to supply MiG-29s from its fleet to Ukraine, using a U.S. base in Germany as a transshipment site. The Pentagon nixed the offer, calling it “not feasible.”
Mr. Cotton said he did not believe there was intelligence to support the administration’s decision to cancel the jet transfer after first approving it, and that the concurrent negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal influenced the U.S. decision.
“I have concerns that part of the reason the administration went relatively soft on Russia and was hesitant in Ukraine in 2021 was that they were relying on Russia to get the bad nuclear deal” with Iran, Mr. Cotton said.
Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said DIA analysts conducted several studies examining what he termed an “escalation ladder” involving the range of actions that could take place in the Ukraine war and determined that the jets would lead to a broader conflict. However, under questioning from Mr. Cotton, the DIA director acknowledged his agency has made significant analytical mistakes already about the conflict.
The first was that DIA underestimated the ferocity of Ukrainian resistant to the invasion. “That was a bad assessment on my part,” he said.
The DIA also overrated Russia’s military capabilities and judged that Mr. Putin’s bigger and better-armed forces would quickly overrun Ukraine. “We made some assumptions about his assumption which proved to be very, very flawed,” Gen. Berrier said.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said she believed intelligence analysts working for her office underestimated the logistical and other problems now facing the Russian military. Analysts, however, correctly gauged that Mr. Putin would misjudge the intense level of Ukrainian resistance, she said.
“These mistakes had potentially real-world policy implications about the willingness of the president and other NATO leaders to provide weapons that they thought might have fallen into the hands of Russians in a matter of hours,” Mr. Cotton said.
So far at least, the conflict has also not produced the large-scale and debilitating cyberattacks from Russia’s formidable army of hackers that were anticipated by U.S. intelligence agencies. Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, said earlier this month that major cyberattacks could still be forthcoming.
The general said his agencies worked with the Ukrainian to bolster cybersecurity, sending military cyberteams to Kyiv. NSA and private sector security experts also contributed to electronic defense efforts.
“These are all impacts that I think have played out positively early on,” he said. “And I think to a degree, there’s still obviously a Russian calculus that will play out here, and we will be very, very vigilant to see what occurs there.”
Rep. Jason Crow, Colorado Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, defended the efforts of U.S. intelligence during the conflict. He said Mr. Biden and his aides were sounding the alarm about Mr. Putin’s military plans before the war when even the Ukrainian government said U.S. fears were overblown.
“I sit on both the Armed Services and the [Intelligence] committees, and I have to say we nailed it,” Mr. Crow said. “Starting back last fall, we started to determine what was happening. We were ringing the alarm bells, and we engaged in an unprecedented public engagement and private engagement with our allies, with the international community, declassifying information, getting the Ukrainians prepared to address this,” he said.
The activities were “one of our generation’s finest intelligence successes,” he added.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Mr. Crow added. “That’s why we [have after-action reports], but I think it’s important to say that the intelligence community and the military did an exceptional job.”
A spokesperson for the DNI declined to comment. A CIA spokesperson had no immediate comment. A spokesperson for the DIA did not respond to a request for comment.