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How has public intelligence transformed the way this war has been reported?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Dr Huw Dylan

Senior Lecturer in Intelligence Studies and International Security

01 March 2022

Western intelligence offered ample warning of Russia’s intentions in Ukraine. Policymakers chose to publicise the warnings they received. Those same politicians have, since the invasion, underlined the accuracy of reports, and praised their intelligence services.

And the intelligence has kept coming. UK defence intelligence has been tweeting ‘Intelligence updates’, its assessment of Russian progress in its invasion, on a daily basis. More will doubtless be put into the public domain over the coming days and weeks. The war, and, in particular the build-up to the war, has placed generally secretive intelligence agencies in a very public position. Their product has been used to inform global publics, counter Russian misinformation, and as part of a (now failed) package of deterrence. It will play a crucial role over the coming days and weeks, both in public and in secret.

The decision to utilise intelligence in public is not without precedent. There is a long history of states de-classifying documents, or strategically leaking select material to certain audiences with particular objectives. It has not always gone well. The ghost of the ‘slam dunk’ intelligence on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, the infamous dossiers, and the ensuing, painful revelation of a catastrophic failure, looms large in the public, and, no doubt, the intelligence officer’s mind when considering public intelligence. Past controversy, though, should not blind us to the utility of using the state’s intelligence power in public.

The use of public intelligence in the run up to this war has been unprecedented in its scale. It has also been sure footed. This has been aided, in part, by the relative ease with which modern intelligence powers (and indeed, the average citizen with a limited budget and a web connection) can monitor the movement of aircraft, formations, and armour from space, through its technical resources, and through open sources. The mass mobilisation was visible, telling, revealed clear capability, and pointed to hostile intent. The deployment of intelligence in public denied Russia the advantage of surprise, and undercut its claim that these were peacekeeping operations. Its use denied Russia the initiative in the information space.

Deterrence, here, however failed. The questions now is what next? Elements of the situation will remain reasonably transparent, and there is little doubt that, for the time being, Western leaders will continue to see clear political benefit from sharing intelligence about Russian force dispositions, and elements of their operations with the public. They will be joined in doing so by investigative outfits like Bellingcat, which, along with others, is adept at navigating the web to gain insights into situations such as this.

Should Russia intensify its operations, as seems likely, it will not go undocumented and unreported. Intelligence will also, no doubt, be part of the assistance packages offered to Ukraine. Several reports have indicated that this recently included details about plots to assassinate President Zelenskyy.

But a particular challenge will remain assessing President Putin’s intentions. There is only so far one can infer intentions from observing capabilities - though, as in this case, they frequently provide strong indication. President Putin’s next moves, how far will he go, and which factors will influence his decisions, are problems orders of magnitude more difficult to estimate than the numbers of an armoured column. This has always been the case. It is something that even the most well-placed of well-placed sources would struggle to discern, let alone communicate. Uncertainty is a condition of intelligence.

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Huw  Dylan

Huw Dylan

Senior Lecturer in Intelligence Studies and International Security

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