ACADEMIC INCUBATOR – Tragically, in the early morning hours of February 24th, the Intelligence Community’s most dire warnings of a full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine came to heed. While the UN Security Council was meeting in New York City, Mr. Putin gave the orders for the invasion to begin. A devastating campaign of explosions, air strikes and missile attacks on multiple cities across the country began, with numerous military installments and civilian areas hit, coming from multiple lines of attack.
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About the Author: Kavon Nowroozi is pursuing a Masters of Arts in international security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
The intelligence declassification campaign on Russia’s military troop buildup and invasion plans, led by the Biden administration in tandem with our Western allies, has successfully outsmarted Mr. Putin at nearly every turn throughout the Ukraine crisis. The continuous intelligence declassifications over the past months have undercut nearly every pretext and manufactured lie Mr. Putin cultivated to justify an invasion without any credible explanation for the invasion. The constant stream of declassified intelligence has also helped the Biden administration unify democratic allies to support Ukraine’s defense.
Declassifying intelligence is certainly nothing new and is a normal practice of governments around the world. Government officials in Washington have occasionally released important declassified intelligence and assessments before or after critical issues of magnitude, such as the published report on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. However, the timing, quantity, frequency, and breadth of classified raw intelligence that has been and continues to be publicly revealed by Western governments relating to the Ukraine crisis is simply astounding and unprecedented.It is an intelligence declassification campaign unlike anything recognizable in modern times.
Mr. Putin and the Kremlin likely foresaw the international reaction and condemnation to any military aggression in Ukraine, but perhaps they didn’t anticipate the lengths that the West would go to publicly declassify intelligence in the weeks and months leading up to the invasion. The intelligence declassification probably didn’t change Mr. Putin’s decision, as an invasion of this scale requires long-term planning, but it has definitively weakened his ability to justify his military actions to most of the world. Outlandish Kremlin justifications such as mass genocide against ethnic Russians in different regions of Ukraine and other lies have been exposed by U.S. and British intelligence. Even many Russians, despite state-media propaganda and restrictions on independent media, are likely to find out the truth.
What is clear is that the frequent intelligence disclosures from the West ratcheted up the pressure before the invasion. The more Biden administration officials in Washington and U.K. officials in London exposed Russian actions and intentions, the fewer “false flag” pretexts Putin had to justify an invasion.
Western officials began this remarkable intelligence disclosure campaign in December 2021, upon news that Russia was planning a military operation against Ukraine in early 2022. For instance, in the U.S., the Washington Post obtained intelligence with satellite photos of Russian troop locations. Towards the end of January, British officials then revealed that Moscow was planning to topple Kyiv’s government and install a puppet pro-Russian leader in exchange. Soon after, in early February, the U.S. disclosed that Russia was planning to send saboteurs into eastern Ukraine in order to stage an action that would create a pretext for Mr. Putin to invade Ukraine. On February 11, 2022, U.S. National security adviser Jake Sullivan revealed, in a White House daily press briefing, that a Russian attack may be imminent, and urged any Americans in Ukraine to leave immediately.
While these intelligence revelations did not deter Mr. Putin from invading, they served several key purposes in my view: they informed public opinion around the world, presented Russia as an aggressor, and spurred conversation in the media.
Moving forward, there are questions about whether releasing intelligence to advance foreign policy objectives can be effective or not. Of course, the American record of intelligence accuracy and credibility is not necessarily spotless. Colin Powell’s 2003 UN speech that the U.S. had evidence of Iraq possessing WMD’s, which turned out to be false, for example, tarnished American credibility on its intelligence.
Some have praised the U.S. strategy as effective policy. Others questioned whether it had any effect, or whether it provoked Mr. Putin or angered him more. There are also risks to timing and to this amount of intelligence disclosures to the whole world. American adversaries might choose to strengthen their own defenses after seeing what goes into U.S. intelligence operations.
The Biden administration has used the full force of U.S. intelligence to inform the public and to attempt to deter Russian military aggression. While it clearly did not deter Mr. Putin’s calculus, as he apparently seemed set on this decision for a long time, at least the American public, European allies, and the world are now aware of many parts of Moscow’s schemes and intentions. The Biden administration, in tandem with Western allies like the British, clearly believed that information sharing was a key part of efforts to attempt to deter and prevent war and reach a diplomatic solution to this crisis. Tragically, Mr. Putin chose to start an unprovoked, unnecessary war in Ukraine.
This is an extremely perilous, fluid situation playing out in real time. The Biden administration and NATO allies have made and are making many tough decisions on how they will support Ukraine, despite Ukraine not being a member of NATO. As the war continues, the Kremlin and Mr. Putin have been forced to devise narratives and justifications to the Russian people for their military actions. The disinformation disseminated through state-media only grew in the following weeks and months.
Intelligence declassification remains one of the best ways to counter Russian lies, propaganda, and false narratives about their invasion of Ukraine. As this war endures, the Pentagon and CIA and its British counterparts should continue to publicly declassify as much intelligence as possible regarding the situation on the ground in Ukraine as possible (including civilian casualties), and to share intelligence with Ukraine’s government. The U.S. and Western allies should also continue to declassify as much intelligence as possible on all Russian military action and planning. If Mr. Putin has his sights set on territory beyond Ukraine, continued frequent Western declassification could help deter any further military attacks.
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Peer Reviewed by Larry Pfieffer, Director, The Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, Schar School for Policy and Government, George Mason University.