Western intelligence agencies are waging a psychological war over Ukraine directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an expert at the genre, who is now effectively taking a dose of his own medicine.
The United States and its allies are painting a picture of a bogged down, demoralized and dysfunctional Russian military taking disastrous losses on the battlefield, and are simultaneously conjuring a vision of growing political tension inside the Kremlin. They claim the Russian leader is isolated, poorly advised and lacking real intelligence on just how badly the war is going.
Western governments are preventing Putin from defining the narrative of the war – just as they did before it began, when their declassified intelligence correctly called an invasion many geopolitical experts thought was unlikely.
It is a tough position for a Russian leader who has often deployed information warfare himself, notably while meddling in US and European elections. The remarkable detail of the declassified intelligence assessments must also be especially galling to Putin, a former KGB officer and intelligence chief. And they leave open the possibility that Western intelligence agencies have the capacity to see deep into the Kremlin’s war effort and internal politics, which is likely to infuriate the Russian leader and could open further cracks in his regime.
The willingness of Western governments to be so open about what they are seeing inside Ukraine and Moscow has surprised even some veteran spies.
“It makes intelligence professionals, even former ones like me, nervous, because, of course, it’s so ingrained in us to protect sources and methods,” Steve Hall, former chief of Russia operations for the CIA, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera Thursday.
Part of the intrigue about the US showdown with Putin and the intelligence angle is being fed by the nature of the covert community itself. Outsiders have no way of independently assessing the full accuracy of the information being pushed into the public view by their leaders. So we don’t know where it’s all coming from or from whom. But of course, that’s the point, and it’s keeping the Russians guessing too.
The attempt to portray the war in Ukraine as a disaster for Russia is coming at a moment when Western officials are discounting Moscow’s claims that it is deescalating the conflict in Kyiv and elsewhere. Instead, they say, Putin’s forces are “repositioning” – possibly for an intensified assault in eastern Ukrainian regions where Moscow has been pummeling civilians and razing cities. Such a tactic could be designed to unite Russian-held areas with Crimea, which Putin seized in 2014, and to give Moscow a direct corridor to the Black Sea through Ukraine.
The inside story of the war
In recent days, Western officials have sketched a remarkable portrait of the war.
In Australia on Monday, one of Britain’s top spy chiefs, Jeremy Fleming, said that Putin had “massively misjudged” the war, the resistance of the Ukrainian people and his own military’s capacity, and had been poorly served by his subordinates.
“We’ve seen Russian soldiers – short of weapons and morale – refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft,” said Fleming, who heads GCHQ, the UK’s equivalent of the National Security Agency. Fleming’s frankness was extraordinary coming from a leading espionage agency chief. But it is being mirrored in the United States where there were new reports on Wednesday that opened a window into the war and Putin’s inner circle.
An official told CNN’s Jeremy Diamond that Putin is being “misinformed” by advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy. \White House communications director Kate Bedingfield then said on camera that the Russian leader’s advisers were “too afraid to tell him the truth.” She said there was now a “persistent tension” between Putin and his military leadership.
On Wednesday, this new stream of declassified assessments made headlines. On Thursday, President Joe Biden was asked about them in a public setting, as officials presumably knew he would be. The sequence gave the President the chance to further amplify the US narrative.
“There’s a lot of speculation,” Biden said, though of course that speculation had been driven by information that the White House had allowed into the public domain. Asked how badly Putin was being misinformed by his advisers, Biden replied, “I’m not saying this with a certainty – he seems to be self-isolating, and there’s some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers.” While Biden said that the US didn’t have that much hard evidence, his comments unleashed a whole new torrent of attention on Putin’s current situation.
So what exactly are Western governments trying to do with this novel use of declassified intelligence assessments? Especially given that in many previous geopolitical crises, intelligence was kept secret by routine?
As with the pre-invasion messaging, it’s clear that the US does not want the Russians to be able to create a dominant narrative of their own about the war through disinformation. Creating a picture of a failing war also helps maintain support for the tough Western stand against Putin. It may also improve morale among Ukrainians who are resisting Russia’s onslaught. And it gives Western leaders a political opening to argue their policies are working as they manage public opinion on the war.
By providing a look into the disarray among Russian troops, the allies may be able to build internal political pressure on the Kremlin. Given the Moscow government’s crushing of independent media, there will be few illusions that the Russian people will hear the US version of events, though tech-savvy younger Russians with VPN passwords allowing access to foreign internet services might.
But a drumbeat of humiliation for Russia could further sow discord inside the military, political and intelligence elites. In recent days, it has almost seemed as though Western officials, by discussing the situation in the war so openly, have been trying to address Putin and his advisers directly.
The complications of an intelligence-driven strategy
It’s unlikely the intelligence stream will dry up any time soon. That’s because it seems to be rooted in a morale problem inside Russian armed forces, which became obvious thanks to eavesdropping.
“They’re whipping out their cell phones and trying to communicate with each other, both tactically, ‘Where are you? Where’s your unit?’ and perhaps also back home in Moscow. That makes it really easy to collect,” Hall said.
“And then, it’s an interesting political decision to say, look, it’s worth perhaps showing the Russians how good we are at collecting this stuff, in order to get the word out to citizens of both countries, citizens of the world, as to what’s really going on in the Russian military right now,” Hall added.
“It’s an interesting decision, but it’s been very illuminating.”
Still there is reason for caution in interpreting the war solely based on the West’s declassified assessments.
Intelligence, by definition, is a murky business. The information about the Russian operations in Ukraine and the apparent isolation of Putin in Moscow only tell the outside world what the Western intelligence services want to release. There is, therefore, no way for outsiders to know whether these snapshots give the full picture or a more selective one.
And the information that does filter out is still limited. An official cited by CNN’s Diamond and Kevin Liptak on Wednesday declined to provide additional details of Putin being misinformed by his advisers other than what was reported. The intelligence community declassified and downgraded a summary of their findings but not the material itself.
As always, intelligence agencies are taking strenuous steps to avoid identifying their sources and the methods that were used to collect the intelligence.
There have been multiple times in recent American history – for example, before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when US intelligence assessments have proven to be faulty. In this crisis, however, the covert community has repaired some of its reputation. For weeks, the US warned that Putin was getting ready to send his forces across the Ukrainian border. Even the Ukrainians were skeptical.
Then hours before the invasion actually happened, the US issued a warning that the incursion was imminent – and was proven correct.
Still, the problems encountered by the Russian invading force have surprised Western intelligence agencies and have caused a reassessment of assumptions about the supposed might of Russia’s military forces and leadership.
The head of US European Command, Gen. Tod Wolters, said at a Senate hearing this week that there could be an intelligence gap that led the US to overestimate Russia’s strength and underestimate Ukrainian defenses.
But even that oversight only underscores the surprisingly poor performance of Russia’s forces, and draws attention to it, further advancing the West’s goals.