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What does the War in Ukraine tell us about Russian Intelligence?

The war on Ukraine explained: Hear from our experts
Elena Grossfeld

PhD Candidate, Department of War Studies

22 March 2022

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, hints of possible failures of Russian intelligence have been visible on multiple levels. Those intelligence failures, if confirmed, could have far-reaching impact on the course of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and even on the future of Europe, Russia, and the wider international community.

Two days after the start of the Russian invasion, a congratulatory article was leaked by a Russian state-affiliated news site. The article appeared to indicate Russia's plans of waltzing into Kyiv, swiftly decapitating the Ukrainian government, and reestablishing the lost unity of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Although it was swiftly taken offline soon after publication, its content indicated that not all was going according to plan.

Instead of a quick win, Moscow is now bogged down in a full-scale war, which – four weeks into the conflict – has resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties, billions of pounds worth of damage, and the biggest European refugee crisis since the Second World War. Russia and its population are also taking an unprecedented hit. Facing an avalanche of sanctions, the country is gradually becoming a pariah and facing an impending default.

As the pressure on the Russian government continues to mount, Putin is working on solidifying his authoritarian grip by arresting hundreds of demonstrators, introducing censorship, and further reducing citizens' freedoms. Internationally, fear of a spillover of the war are mounting, energy prices are skyrocketing, and worldwide grain shortages seem imminent.

Putin’s war effort also does not seem to be going according to plan. We have now seen both tactical and strategic failures on the ground. Twenty seven days into the invasion, the Ukrainian air force remains operational and retains a significant part of its airplanes, drones, and air defense assets. Ukrainian air space continues to be contested. Initial attempts to capture Ukrainian airfields failed. Misdirected Russian bombing of inoperational aircraft and facilities, numerous unsuccessful attempts to capture and encircle Ukrainian cities and towns, and multiple Russian casualties and POWs suggest a lack of awareness of Ukrainian troops and military assets' locations.

It appears that Russia underestimated the Ukrainian Armed Forces' preparedness, autonomy, and the will to fight, as well as and the support of ordinary citizens' for Ukraine's independence and readiness to take up arms. Russian military logistics was caught unprepared for the resistance, leading to equipment breakdowns, lack of fuel, and massive abandonment of costly missile systems, artillery, and tanks. Failure to suppress drone operations allows Ukrainian defenders to continue their attacks, exacerbating Russian logistical woes and leading to further casualties. Whether due to Ukrainian tight operational security, or other reasons, we have yet to see reports of famed Russian electronic warfare used; instead, its troops resort to open communications available for all to hear - and to jam.

Embarrassing and lengthy outages of the official websites of, among others, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Russian government demonstrated a lack of adequate cyber defences and underappreciation of Ukrainian cyber forces and the global support they managed to rally.

Finally, the Kremlin also seems to have misjudged the US and NATO's resolve to aid Ukraine and the worldwide support to the plight of Ukraine and its citizens. Despite some preparations, Russia was surprised by the severity of economic, financial, transport, and trade isolation that Russian citizens and businesses find themselves in.

Conceivably, those could be the result of intelligence or policymakers' failures. If indeed a failure of intelligence, it could potentially be a failure of collection, analysis, or delivery.

Unverified reports by Ukrainian security services allege that President Putin ordered an investigation of potential embezzlement of the five billion dollars allocated for Russian subversive activities and human intelligence (HUMINT) in Ukraine since 2014.

Another possible cause for collection failures could be Russian Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) capabilities - Russia is trailing the US in its Earth-observation capacity while battling the poor lifespan of its existing satellites and lacking the commercial satellites available in the West. In a repeat from its war with Georgia in 2008, reported failure of communication equipment hinders the work of Russian intelligence, leading to operational security failures.

Ostensibly those issues could also result from a failure in intelligence analysis. Historically, Soviet intelligence lacked dedicated analytical staff until mid 1980s. Several Soviet leaders, among them Stalin, expressly forbade delivery of analytical materials, demanding raw intelligence only. Russian intelligence has been known to tailor its assessments to match its superiors' preferences, with multiple examples documented in the history of the KGB.

While unconfirmed, a recently-leaked letter attributed to a serving FSB analyst suggests contemporary Russian analysis echoes this lack of rigor and lack of ability to speak truth to power. This, coupled with the widely-televised humiliation of the head of the SVR, Sergey Naryshkin at the prewar meeting of the Security Council, perhaps only underlines the alleged long-term discord between Putin and his security and intelligence community.

But perhaps what we are seeing is not an intelligence, but rather a policymaker failure. In the case of Russia, the decision-making process and its participants are particularly opaque. Personal relations between Russian intelligence agencies heads and President Putin appear to affect the intelligence delivery, as Russia lacks a single, unifying, coordinating intelligence authority. Coupled with an ongoing rivalry among Russian intelligence organisations a lack of a single authority precludes the delivery of an unbiased intelligence assessment.

In the absence of verified information, it is unclear whether the reported issues arose from intelligence failures, policymakers' decisions, or yet another, thus far unknown, cause. If indeed caused by failures in the collection, analysis, delivery, or a lack of access to the small and opaque circle of decision-makers, the importance of credible, high-quality intelligence during global crises is demonstrated again by the increased danger to Ukraine, Russia, and the world. Until reliable sources become available, all that remains is to speculate and expect the intelligence scholars, in a repeat of post 9/11, to spend the next decade attempting to unravel the mysteries of this war.

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Elena Grossfeld

Elena Grossfeld

PhD Candidate

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