Secret intelligence has an unusually public role in the war in Ukraine

LONDON (AP) – The war in Ukraine is a conflict when spies came out of the cold and took center stage.

Ever since Russia invaded its neighbor in late February, US and British intelligence agencies have been extremely eager to voice their secret intelligence assessments of what is happening on the battlefield – and inside the Kremlin.

This week, the United States declassified intelligence findings that advisers who are afraid to tell him the truth are misinforming Russian President Vladimir Putin about the poor performance of his military in Ukraine. On Thursday, the head of British intelligence said that demoralized Russian troops refused to obey orders and sabotage their own equipment.

Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s electronic intelligence agency GCHQ, commented in a public speech where he said the “pace and scale” with which secret intelligence is released is “truly unprecedented”.

Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia from University College London, agreed that the public intelligence campaign itself “reflects the fact that we now live in a different age, politically and internationally. And this is a different kind of war. “

Officials say the flow of declassified intelligence – which includes regular briefings for reporters in Washington and London and daily Twitter updates from the UK Department of Defense – has several purposes. This is partly to make it clear to Putin that he is being watched and to make him question what he is being told. It is also intended to encourage the Russian military to tell Putin the truth and to inform the Russian public that they lied about the war.

The United States and Britain have also released intelligence estimates to curb Russia’s actions. This has been the case with recent warnings that Russia may be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.

All of this is part of a closely coordinated transatlantic strategy that has been under development for several months.

Representatives of the Biden administration say they have decided to aggressively share intelligence and coordinate communications with key allies, including Britain, as US concerns about the movement of Russian troops in the fall of 2021 have brought the intelligence community on high alert.

In early November, President Joe Biden sent CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to warn that the United States was well aware of the movement of Russian troops. The director’s trips were usually silenced at the White House, but the Biden administration estimated that in this situation they needed to advertise the visit far and wide. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said Burns met with senior Kremlin officials shortly after his trip.

Shortly after Burns’ mission in Moscow, U.S. officials decided they needed to speed up the exchange of intelligence.

Officials shared confidential information with other members of the Five Eyes alliance – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – as well as with Ukraine. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haynes was sent to Brussels to inform NATO members of the growing concern of Americans that Russia seems intent on invading, said a US official familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.

Some allies and analysts have been skeptical, recalling past intelligence failures, such as the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Late last year, France and Germany led a group of European countries that seemed to see similar military intelligence as the United States and Britain, but were less convinced of the inevitability of an invasion of Ukraine. In NATO, Germany initially blocked the use of Ukraine’s aid system for the purchase of certain military equipment. France and Germany have also banned NATO from launching an early crisis planning system in response to the escalation before giving way in December.

This week, French media reported that the head of France’s military intelligence, which failed to anticipate the Russian invasion, had been fired.

Eric Vida’s departure comes amid reflections by the French leadership as to why he was taken by surprise by the war, which was particularly embarrassing for President Emanuel Macron, who talks to Putin regularly. Some see Vida as a scapegoat and note that his removal took place on the eve of France’s presidential election this month.

In January, as Russia amassed troops near the border with Ukraine, the British Foreign Office issued a statement saying Putin wanted to establish a pro-Moscow regime in Ukraine. The UK has said it is publishing an intelligence assessment due to “exceptional circumstances”.

Russia’s invasion on February 24 largely silenced those in doubt and sparked a united NATO response. Officials and analysts say the release of American and British intelligence is partly designed to bolster Western unity. Both Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubt that Putin is serious about ending the talks and want to continue military and moral support for Western Ukraine.

Influence inside Russia is difficult to measure. A U.S. official who spoke to the AP said the White House hoped that divulging intelligence about Putin’s misinformation could prompt the Russian leader to reconsider his options in Ukraine. But publicity could also risk isolating Putin or forcing him to redouble his goal of restoring Russia’s prestige lost after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The official said Biden was partly shaped by the belief that “Putin will do what Putin is going to do,” regardless of international containment efforts.

Galeotti said Western intelligence probably did not know how much their efforts would affect Putin.

“But there’s no harm in trying it,” he said. “Because when it comes to this, in such an intensely personalistic system (government), when one line or one particular concept comes across and sits in Putin’s brain, it’s a really powerful result.”


Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Fox and Noman Merchant of Washington, Lorne Cook of Brussels and Angela Charlton of Paris have contributed to this story.

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