The CIA Thought Putin Would Quickly Conquer Ukraine. Why Did They Get It So Wrong?

High-tech surveillance may have blinded the U.S. to how corruption has weakened the Russian military.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on July 8, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks during a visit at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va., on July 8, 2022. Photo: Samuel Corum/AFP via Getty Images

Ever since Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive against Russian forces in late August, American officials have tried to claim credit, insisting that U.S. intelligence has been key to Ukraine’s battlefield victories.

Yet U.S. officials have simultaneously downplayed their intelligence failures in Ukraine — especially their glaring mistakes at the outset of the war. When Putin invaded in February, U.S. intelligence officials told the White House that Russia would win in a matter of days by quickly overwhelming the Ukrainian army, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, who asked not to be named to discuss sensitive information.

The Central Intelligence Agency was so pessimistic about Ukraine’s chances that officials told President Joe Biden and other policymakers that the best they could expect was that the remnants of Ukraine’s defeated forces would mount an insurgency, a guerrilla war against the Russian occupiers. By the time of the February invasion, the CIA was already planning how to provide covert support for a Ukrainian insurgency following a Russian military victory, the officials said.

U.S. intelligence reports at the time predicted that Kyiv would fall quickly, perhaps in a week or two at the most. The predictions spurred the Biden administration to secretly withdraw some key U.S. intelligence assets from Ukraine, including covert former special operations personnel on contract with the CIA, the current and former officials said. Their account was backed up by a Naval officer and a former Navy SEAL, who were aware of the movements and who also asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The CIA “got it completely wrong,” said one former senior U.S. intelligence official, who is knowledgeable about what the CIA was reporting when the Russian invasion began. “They thought Russia would win right away.”

When it became clear that the agency’s predictions of a rapid Russian victory had been wrong, the Biden administration sent the clandestine assets that had been pulled out of Ukraine back into the country, the military and intelligence officials said. One U.S. official insisted that the CIA only conducted a partial withdrawal of its assets when the war began, and that the agency “never completely left.”

Secret U.S. operations inside Ukraine are being conducted under a presidential covert action finding.

Yet clandestine American operations inside Ukraine are now far more extensive than they were early in the war, when U.S. intelligence officials were fearful that Russia would steamroll over the Ukrainian army. There is a much larger presence of both CIA and U.S. special operations personnel and resources in Ukraine than there were at the time of the Russian invasion in February, several current and former intelligence officials told The Intercept.

Secret U.S. operations inside Ukraine are being conducted under a presidential covert action finding, current and former officials said. The finding indicates that the president has quietly notified certain congressional leaders about the administration’s decision to conduct a broad program of clandestine operations inside the country. One former special forces officer said that Biden amended a preexisting finding, originally approved during the Obama administration, that was designed to counter malign foreign influence activities. A former CIA officer told The Intercept that Biden’s use of the preexisting finding has frustrated some intelligence officials, who believe that U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict differs so much from the spirit of the finding that it should merit a new one. A CIA spokesperson declined to comment about whether there is a presidential covert action finding for operations in Ukraine.

The U.S. intelligence community’s stunning failure at the beginning of the war to recognize the fundamental weaknesses in the Russian system mirrors its blindness to the military and economic weaknesses of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when Washington failed to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While not all U.S. intelligence analysts underestimated the Ukrainian will to fight, the community’s missteps in Ukraine came just months after American intelligence gravely underestimated how fast the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan would collapse in 2021, leading to a rapid takeover by the Taliban.

Some senior U.S. intelligence officials have since admitted they were wrong in projecting a quick Russian victory. In March, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, acknowledged during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the CIA didn’t do well “in terms of predicting the military challenges that [Putin] has encountered with his own military.”

The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, said at the same March hearing that “my view was that, based on a variety of factors, that the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought they should be, therefore I questioned their will to fight, [and] that was a bad assessment on my part.”

“I think assessing … morale, and a will to fight is a very difficult analytical task,” he added. “We had different inputs from different organizations. And at least from my perspective as director, I did not do as well as I could have.”

Yet these admissions mask a more fundamental failure that officials have not fully acknowledged: U.S. intelligence did not recognize the significance of rampant corruption and incompetence in the Putin regime, particularly in both the Russian army and Moscow’s defense industries, the current and former intelligence officials said. U.S. intelligence missed the impact of corrupt insider dealing and deceit among Putin loyalists in Moscow’s defense establishment, which has left the Russian army a brittle and hollow shell.

“There was no reporting on the corruption in the Russian system,” said the former senior intelligence official. “They missed it, and ignored any evidence of it.”

“There was no reporting on the corruption in the Russian system.”

Following a string of Russian defeats, even prominent Russian analysts have begun to openly blame the corruption and deceit that plagues the Russian system. On Russian television last weekend, Andrey Gurulyov, the former deputy commander of Russia’s southern military district and now a member of the Russian Duma, blamed his country’s losses on a system of lies, “top to bottom.”

Additionally, Putin imposed an invasion plan on the Russian military that was impossible to achieve, one current U.S. official argued. “You can’t really separate out the issue of Russian military competency from the fact that they were shackled to an impossible plan, which led to poor military preparation,” the official said.

Remains of Russian uniforms in the destroyed village of Shandryholove near Lyman, Ukraine, 3rd of October 2022.

Remains of Russian uniforms in the destroyed village of Shandryholove near Lyman, Ukraine, on Oct. 3, 2022.

Photo: Wojciech Grzedzinski/Getty Images

After Russia’s defeat in Lyman, in eastern Ukraine, last weekend, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe from 2014 until 2018, also admitted that he had “overestimated Russia’s capabilities” before it invaded Ukraine because he “failed to realize the depth of corruption” in the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The inability of the U.S. intelligence community to recognize the significance of Russian corruption appears to be the result of an over-reliance on technical intelligence. Before the war, high-tech satellites and surveillance systems allowed the U.S. to track the deployment of Russian troops, tanks, and planes, and to eavesdrop on Russian military officials, enabling U.S. intelligence to accurately predict the timing of the invasion. But it would have needed more human spies inside Russia to see that the Russian army and defense industries were deeply corrupt.

Since the war began, a long list of weaknesses in the Russian military and its defense industries have been exposed, symbolized by the so-called jack-in-the-box flaw in Russian tanks. Ukrainian forces quickly learned that one well-placed shot could blow off a Russian tank turret, sending it sky high and killing the entire crew. It became clear that Russian tanks had been designed and built cheaply — with ammunition stored openly in a ring inside the turret that can explode when the turret is hit — and that crew safety had not been prioritized. In July, Adm. Tony Radakin, Britain’s military chief, said that Russia had lost almost 1,700 tanks in Ukraine.

Weak leadership, poor training, and low morale have led to huge casualties among Russian rank and file soldiers. In August, the Pentagon estimated that 70,000 to 80,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded in Ukraine. Ukraine has also suffered huge casualties, but Russian front-line strength has been badly weakened.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest mysteries for U.S. analysts has been Russia’s failure to gain control of Ukraine’s skies, despite having a far larger air force. Aircraft design flaws, poor pilot training, and gaps in aircraft maintenance have left Russian aircraft vulnerable to Ukraine’s air defenses, which have been bolstered with Stinger missiles and other Western air defense systems.

The failure of U.S. intelligence to see the dysfunction in the Russian army and defense industries means that it also didn’t foresee Russia’s ongoing battlefield defeats, which are now having a profound political and social impact on both Putin and Russia. Putin has ordered a partial mobilization to replace heavy battlefield losses, sparking large-scale protests. At least 200,000 people have already fled Russia, including thousands of young men seeking to avoid conscription.

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