LONDON (AP) – The war in Ukraine is the conflict where spies came in from the cold and took center stage.
Since Russia invaded its neighbors in late February, intelligence agencies in the US and UK have been remarkably willing to release their classified assessments of what is happening on the battlefield – and in the Kremlin.
The US this week released intelligence findings that said Russian President Vladimir Putin is being misinformed about his military’s poor performance in Ukraine by advisers afraid to tell him the truth. On Thursday, a British spy chief said demoralized Russian troops were refusing to obey orders and were sabotaging their own equipment.
Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s e-intelligence agency GCHQ, issued a public speech in which he said the “pace and scale” at which classified information is being released is “truly unprecedented”.
Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London, agreed that this very public intelligence campaign “reflects the fact that we are now living in a different age, politically and internationally. And this is a different kind of war.”
Officials say the stream of declassified intelligence – which includes regular briefings for journalists in Washington and London and daily Twitter updates from the UK Ministry of Defense – has multiple targets. Partly to let Putin know he’s being watched and to get him to question what he’s being told. It is also intended to encourage the Russian military to tell Putin the truth and convey to the Russian public that they have been lied to about the war.
The US and UK have also released intelligence assessments to deter Russian action. Such was the case with recent warnings that Russia may be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.
It’s all part of a closely coordinated transatlantic strategy that has been in the works for months.
Biden administration officials said they decided to aggressively share information and coordinate messages with key allies, including Britain, as US concerns about Russian troop movements in the fall of 2021 put intelligence agencies on high alert.
In early November, President Joe Biden dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to warn that the US was fully aware of Russian troop movements. The White House has typically been silent about the director’s trips, but the Biden administration calculated that in this situation it needed to publicize the visit far and wide. The US Embassy in Moscow said Burns met with senior Kremlin officials shortly after his trip ended.
Shortly after Burns’ Moscow mission, US officials decided they needed to expedite the exchange of information.
Officials shared sensitive information with other members of the Five Eyes alliance – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and also with Ukraine. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has been dispatched to Brussels to brief NATO members on the intelligence behind growing American concerns that Russia appears to be planning an invasion, a US official familiar with the matter said. who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Some allies and analysts were skeptical, recalling previous intelligence blunders such as the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which were used to justify the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Late last year, France and Germany led a group of European countries that appeared to have military intelligence similar to that of the US and Britain but were less convinced that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent. At NATO, Germany initially blocked the use of a system to help Ukraine procure certain military equipment. France and Germany also prevented NATO from introducing an early crisis planning system in response to the build-up before backing down in December.
This week, French media reported that the head of French military intelligence, who failed to foresee the Russian invasion, was removed from his post.
Eric Vidaud’s departure comes amid self-examination among French leaders into why the war caught them by surprise – which has been particularly embarrassing for President Emmanuel Macron, who speaks regularly with Putin. Some see Vidaud as a scapegoat, noting his ouster comes just ahead of this month’s French presidential election.
When Russia was massing troops near the Ukrainian border in January, the British Foreign Office issued a statement claiming that Putin wanted to install a pro-Moscow regime in Ukraine. The UK said it was making the intelligence assessment public due to the “extraordinary circumstances”.
Russia’s February 24 invasion largely silenced doubters and drew a united NATO response. The release by US and British intelligence is intended in part to prop up this western entity, officials and analysts say. Both Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubt that Putin is serious about negotiating an end to the war and want to maintain Western military and moral support for Ukraine.
The effects within Russia are difficult to assess. The US official who spoke to AP said the White House hopes releasing information that Putin is misinformed could help persuade the Russian leader to reconsider his options in Ukraine. But the public could also risk further isolating Putin or leading him to redouble his goal of restoring Russia’s reputation lost since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The official said Biden was shaped in part by a belief that “Putin will do what Putin will do” regardless of international efforts to deter him.
Galeotti said Western intelligence agencies probably don’t know how much impact their efforts will have on Putin.
“But there’s no harm in trying,” he said. “Because when it comes down to it, in this kind of highly personalistic (government) system, if a line or a certain notion happens to come through and get stuck in Putin’s brain, then that’s a really powerful result.”
Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Fox and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this story.