On February 22, 2022, Josep Borrell, the head of foreign policy for the European Union, received a phone call from the top US diplomat.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken allegedly told Borrell that Russia was planning to attack Ukraine after months of building up a major military presence on the country’s border.
“Tony Blinken called me up and said, ‘Well, it’s going to happen this weekend,'” Borrell recalled in a speech months later. “And indeed, two days later, at 5 in the morning, they started shelling Kyiv. We didn’t think that would happen.”
Western intelligence experts, military analysts, and political scientists were anxious in the months running up to February 24, 2022, trying to decipher Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions as the drumbeat of war became louder.
They also took a close look at what was known about the modernized, reformed, and well-financed Russian military, not to mention the tattered and ill-equipped state of the Ukrainian military.
Many believed that Russia would not invade. They were wrong.
In addition, many thought that if he did, the Ukrainian army would be routed, Kyiv would be seized in a matter of days, and the government would collapse. No, you’re wrong once more.
Analysts are still attempting to figure out what the West went wrong a year later, as the war continues with no sign of ending.
“Clearly, I didn’t take the big gamble, which would have been to join those who had long believed that a big war was about to start,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, said in a comment from the end of December. “I was more and more persuaded of the possibility of him, but it still seemed like such a patently stupid move that I assumed Putin had a better chance.”
Freedman said in an interview that it is now clear that the United States and Britain were right to assume that Putin would give the go-ahead for the invasion.
“The big decision that the Americans and the British made turned out to be the right one,” he told RFE/RL.
“Without a doubt, it was a great intelligence success,” said Konrad Muzyka, a Poland-based defense analyst. “We’re used to talking about intelligence failures when it comes to the United States: the failures to predict the invasion of Georgia, Syria, all things during the Cold War, the invasion of Hungary, Czechoslovakia.”
“What the American intelligence community predicted hit the nail on the head,” he said. “They gave everyone a lot of advance notice, which was a luxury because you don’t normally give that much advance notice.”
The unwillingness of many Western officials to believe the warnings were psychological, Muzyka said.
“Many thought: ‘We are already in the 21st century.’ He said the conflict had been going on for nine years, eight years” in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine. “Everyone thought that Russia would not invade a sovereign country… That the buildup was a bluff. It was a psychological barrier.”
quality versus quantity
Before the invasion, Philip Davies, professor of intelligence studies at the Brunel Center for Intelligence and Security Studies in London, said two lines of intelligence were coming out: “warning” intelligence and “correlation of forces” intelligence.
“What is in question is not the quality of the collection, but the quality of the analysis,” Davies said.
“The alert intelligence analysis was extremely accurate,” he said. “The US alerts, which were the loudest…are accurate to within seven to 10 days, which on the scale of these things is pretty accurate.”
“It’s all about intentions,” Freedman said. “Nobody questioned the intelligence of what the Russians had around the borders. The question is whether it would be used. The difficulty there is that you are trying to assess someone’s options and decisions that may not have been made yet.
New and improved. Or not.
Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was lightning-quick – almost all the fighting ended within five days – but the conflict highlighted the glaring problems of the Russian military, prompting a broad effort to modernize and disengage equipment and practices inherited from the Soviet Union.
Following smaller-scale victories in Ukraine in 2014 and later in Syria, Western analysts judged that the changes had enhanced Russia’s capacity to maneuver swiftly, coordinate movements between dispersed units, communicate more effectively, and employ superior and “smart” equipment.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in 2020 that as much as 70 percent of military hardware had been upgraded.
And then came the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
For months before February 24, 2022, American and British intelligence agencies and diplomats publicly detailed what they said were Kremlin plans for invasion. In November 2021, CIA Director William Burns traveled to Moscow to directly warn Russian officials against the invasion. But, as Burns later said, he left “more worried than when I arrived.”
With more than 175,000 troops stationed along the Ukrainian border and naval superiority in the Black Sea, Russian forces were anticipated to invade Ukraine, overrun Kyiv within days, and overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government.
However, Russian efforts to quickly take Kyiv from the north were thwarted, largely by the successful defense of an airfield north of the capital, which prevented the paratroopers from landing.
Russian forces were more successful in the south, where they took control of the regional capital of Kherson and, after a hard siege that lasted weeks, the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol.
By spring, Russian units had been withdrawn from the northern districts across the border and redeployed in eastern Ukraine.
Why Russia did not prevail – why, instead, it was stopped on its tracks, cornered outside major cities, and put on the defensive – has become one of the most important questions of both American foreign and security policy.
International in general,” wrote Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the Rand Corporation, an American think tank, in an article published this month in Foreign Affairs.
“Where people got it wrong was in their assessments of the Russian military,” Freedman said. “It wasn’t fated for the Russians to screw her up so much.”
“I was surprised at how well the Ukrainians did and how badly the Russians did,” said Clint Reach, a defense researcher at the Rand Corporation and a former Russian linguist with the US Departments of the Navy and Defense. “Despite a bad plan on Russia’s part, Russia has shown that it was not the army we thought it was going into the war.
And that Russian expectation was based on the assumption that a decade of modernization and training efforts would produce results on the battlefield. We haven’t seen it.” “The Russians have put a lot of effort into building what we might call a military-capable Potemkin village,” Davies said.
He used Russia’s newest tank, the T-14 Armata, as an example. Despite the technologies it boasts and the capabilities that military authorities talk about, the tank has not been deployed in Ukraine.
“It’s easy to look at an opponent on paper, look at them and count [teams]….. You can take all the satellite photos you want. You can count all the tanks and armored fighting vehicles, and the plans and whatever you have, and add up the balance: who has more on one side or the other,” he said. “But the willingness to use them, the ability to use them, and the ability to use them: You don’t see that in a satellite photograph.”
“Unfortunately, I was also on the wrong side, a wrong assessment of the ability of the Russian armed forces to carry out their attack on Ukraine,” Muzyka said.
“We know on the basis of the exercises, the investment that the Russians had made since 2012, they looked like they should do much better,” he said. “We thought that all branches of the forces would do much better, especially in the northern parts of the country.”
The same failed prognosis holds true for Ukraine, whose forces many experts predicted would not be able to hold out for long against a larger and better-equipped Russian Army. Instead, Ukrainian forces, armed with Western weapons and intelligence, thwarted the first Russian attempt to capture Kyiv.
“We did not foresee the effects of the Ukrainian resistance,” Borrell declared in his October speech. “I overestimated Russian capabilities,” Muzyka said. “On the other hand, one must remember the initial confusion and chaos on the Ukrainian side in the initial days of the war.
“The only thing that prevented the Russians from entering Kyiv was the group of a few hundred volunteers who had been preparing for this invasion for months, and their resistance at Bucha and Irpin stopped the Russian advances.”
Ukraine later surprised Russia – and outside observers – when it mounted a lightning counter-offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region and pressured Russian forces in the southern Kherson region until they withdrew through from the defensive barrier of the Dnieper River, abandoning the only regional capital they had taken since the February invasion.
I didn’t think the Ukrainians were going to do as well as they did,” Davies said. “I really went into it with a very pessimistic stance: with all the best toys in the world, the best thing to do is give the Russians a good beating, and it costs them dearly, and they suffer sanctions for the next 20 years.”
Experts have also focused on another puzzling aspect of the Russian invasion: Russia’s inability, or unwillingness, to use its air force more aggressively.
Because of the threat posed by Russian fighter jets to its ground forces, Ukraine has relied on its tiny Soviet fleet of jets and other warplanes, which have been protected from the air by Western anti-aircraft systems.
“We assumed that the Russians not only had airpower superiority but also knew how to use it efficiently,” Freedman said. But it was not like that.
spies vs. spies
Western governments and analysts were not alone in their predictions of how the invasion of Ukraine would play out. According to multiple Russian press accounts and Western officials’ public statements, Russian intelligence was also flawed.
A widely cited example is that of a department of Russia’s main national security agency, the Federal Security Service, which is responsible for analyzing Ukraine’s internal politics.
Unconfirmed reports in the months after the invasion claimed that the department director and his deputy had been investigated and placed under house arrest, allegedly for giving the Kremlin wildly optimistic assessments that the Zelenskiy government would rapidly collapse.
Davies added that there is also the question of how much Ukraine knew about Russia’s objectives.
“I have a slight suspicion…that the Ukrainians probably had pretty good information on the Russians,” Davies said, “and they had a lot of time to spend getting good information on the Russians. And [they] seem to have been better prepared for the poor state of preparedness of the Russians than everyone else.”
“How robust and detailed the intelligence was that the Ukrainians had on the Russians, and what kind of intelligence – especially their human operations – they had on the Russians,” he said.
“I think that, when all the papers come out in a few years, they will prove to be much more significant in how things played out then than we’re giving them credit for now.”
Radio Free Europe