What US intelligence got wrong on Ukraine

Natali Sevriukova reacts next to her house following a rocket attack the city of Kyiv, Ukraine
AP/Emilio Morenatti

U.S. intelligence agencies are rightly receiving considerable praise for correctly forecasting the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Through a combination of satellite surveillance, monitoring of social media, and other sources, they read Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind several weeks before the conflict began on Feb. 24 — and prevented him from controlling the narrative about the true causes of the war.  

Putin was widely recognized as the clear, and duplicitous, aggressor. Their prescience probably helped President Biden, working with other Western leaders, to put together the coalition that since has solidified NATO’s eastern flank militarily, strengthened Ukraine’s own ability to resist the invasion, and punished Putin’s Russia economically. All that is to the good. 

{mosads}However, it appears that U.S. intelligence agencies — like Putin himself — expected a far quicker, easier fight than has ensued over the past month. If so, that constitutes a significant intelligence failure that may have compromised our response options. It also would reflect poor tradecraft in military analysis that the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and other parts of the American intelligence community must fix before they do worse harm in a future crisis. 

Consider what the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger, said at a public conference in mid-March, according to Breaking Defense: “The computer models would have said Russia wins in 72 to 96 hours. [They] cannot explain why Ukraine is still hanging on.”

If U.S. military or intelligence organizations confidently predicted a rapid Russian win, they committed a cardinal mistake in military analysis. 

As Pentagon “whiz kids” Alain Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith argued a half-century ago in their classic book, “How Much Is Enough?,” it is crucial to lay out plausible optimistic and pessimistic cases for any possible war when forecasting its duration, outcome and casualties.  Anything else is to assume a degree of clairvoyance that we cannot have about most military encounters — past, present or future.

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In this case, the models were not wrong to include a pessimistic scenario (pessimistic as Ukraine, and the United States would define it). Just as with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was indeed a credible path to quick victory. Russian airborne forces could have quickly grabbed Kyiv, or its government — and particularly President Volodymyr Zelensky — could have been successfully targeted in the war’s early hours by a missile attack or hit squad. 

Indeed, it appears that Russia tried these tactics. Had any of them worked, the rest of the Ukrainian government and perhaps its armed forces might have collapsed as fast as the Afghan government did last summer.  Actually, an estimate of 72 to 96 hours is very fast; it took us three weeks to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003, and it took the Taliban at least 10 days (after a campaign that had lasted months) to generate the rapid snowballing series of victories last August. But the spirit of this scenario is still credible.

Yet we know that in war, as Carl von Clausewitz wrote compellingly in the early 19th century, even the simple things are hard. A lot goes wrong, and “the enemy gets a vote.” There was always a chance that Ukraine could do well in this conflict — especially since the late winter start of the invasion meant that Russia would need to use a modest number of roads to mount its invasion, in the face of Ukrainian regular and irregular forces armed with plenty of anti-tank weapons. This outcome should not surprise us, even as we admire the tenacity and courage of the Ukrainian resistance. We should have known it was possible in advance.

{mossecondads}Russia has an active-duty military that is 900,000 strong, more than quadruple Ukraine’s standing armed forces that number about 200,000. But Russia has brought only around 200,000 of its total forces to the fight so far; even rounding up to account for support from nearby Russian forces on home territory, its total strength probably does not exceed 300,000. Ukraine itself may have roughly that same aggregate total of fighters, counting various citizen resistance units on top of its uniformed military. 

Simple military modeling tells you that, in a war of attrition between two forces of roughly comparable size, even if one side enjoys technological superiority and various other qualitative advantages, any resulting victory could take months. Across a large theater of combat, it is unusual to see daily loss rates approaching or exceeding 1 percent of total forces. Moreover, while by some measures Russian troops might be expected to be two to three times as good as Ukrainians, the latter enjoy advantages in terrain and fighting position, as well as morale, that could largely or even wholly counter the better equipment and (somewhat) better training of the Russians. 

Did this mistake matter? Perhaps not gravely — except that, if we had avoided it and recognized how tough the war could be, perhaps we all might have tried just a wee bit harder to avert it, rather than, in some quarters, to accept it largely as an inevitability. 

But let’s not make this mistake again. It would be tragic if, in some future crisis, overconfidence in our ability to predict the outcome of a possible war skewed the way in which we sought to prepare for it — and ideally, to deter it.

Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy, Brookings Institution, and author of “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.

Tags Joe Biden Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine US intelligence agencies Vladimir Putin

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