LONDON (AP) – The war in Ukraine is the conflict in which spies came in from the cold and took center stage.
Since Russia invaded its neighbor in late February, U.S. and British intelligence services have been remarkably willing to divulge their secret intelligence assessments of what is happening on the battlefield – and inside the Kremlin.
The United States this week downgraded intelligence findings claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being misinformed about the poor performance of his military in Ukraine by advisers who are afraid to tell him the truth. On Thursday, a British spy chief said demoralized Russian troops refused to carry out orders and sabotaged their own equipment.
Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s electronic intelligence service GCHQ, made the remarks in a public speech, saying the “pace and scope” of secret intelligence being released “is truly unprecedented.”
Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London, agreed that the public intelligence campaign itself “reflects the fact that we are now living in a different age, politically and internationally. And this is a different kind of war.”
Officials say the flow of declassified intelligence – which includes regular briefings to journalists in Washington and London and daily Twitter updates from the UK Department of Defense – has several purposes. In part, it is to let Putin know that he is being monitored, and to make him question what he is being told. It is also designed to encourage the Russian military to tell Putin the truth and to convey to the Russian public that they have been lied to about the war.
The United States and Britain have also released intelligence assessments in an attempt to deter Russian actions. That was the case with the recent warnings Russia may be preparing to use chemical weapons in Ukraine.
It’s all part of a closely coordinated transatlantic strategy that has been under way for several months.
Officials in the Biden administration say they decided to aggressively share intelligence and coordinate messages with key allies, including Britain, as U.S. concerns about Russian troop movements in the fall of 2021 put the intelligence community on high alert.
In early November, President Joe Biden sent CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to warn that the United States was fully aware of Russian troop movements. The White House has typically been tight-lipped about the director’s travels, but the Biden administration calculated that in this situation they had to announce the visit far and wide. The U.S. embassy in Moscow announced that Burns had met with top Kremlin officials shortly after his trip ended.
Shortly after Burns’ Moscow mission, U.S. officials decided they needed to speed up intelligence sharing.
Officials shared sensitive intelligence with other members of the Five Eyes Alliance – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – and also with Ukraine. The director of the National Intelligence Service, Avril Haines, was sent to Brussels to brief NATO members on intelligence underlying growing US concerns that Russia was apparently on the verge of invasion, according to a US official familiar with the matter. , who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Some allies and analysts were skeptical, citing past intelligence errors, such as the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Late last year, France and Germany led a group of European countries that appeared to see similar military intelligence services as the United States and Britain, but who were less convinced that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent. At NATO, Germany initially blocked the use of a system to help Ukraine acquire certain military equipment. France and Germany also blocked NATO from launching an early crisis planning system in response to the build-up before giving in in December.
This week, French media reported that the head of France’s military intelligence service, who could not foresee the Russian invasion, has been removed from his post.
Eric Vidaud’s departure comes amid a search for a soul among France’s leadership over why it was surprised by the war – which was particularly embarrassing for President Emmanuel Macron, who talks regularly with Putin. Some see Vidaud as a scapegoat and note that his dismissal comes just before this month’s French presidential election.
In January, as Russia assembled troops near Ukraine’s border, the British Foreign Office issued a statement claiming that Putin wanted to install a pro-Moscow regime in Ukraine. Britain said it released the intelligence assessment because of the “usual circumstances”.
Russia’s invasion on February 24 largely silenced doubts and drew a unified response from NATO. The release of U.S. and British intelligence services is partly designed to support Western unity, officials and analysts say. Both Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubt that Putin is serious about negotiating an end to the war and wants to maintain the West’s military and moral support for Ukraine.
The impact in Russia is difficult to measure. The US official, who spoke to the AP, said the White House hopes that revealing intelligence that Putin is misinformed could help encourage the Russian leader to reconsider his options in Ukraine. But the mention could also risk isolating Putin further or cause him to double his goal of restoring Russian prestige that has been lost since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The official said Biden was shaped in part by a belief that “Putin will do what Putin wants to do,” regardless of international efforts to deter him.
Galeotti said Western intelligence services probably do not know how much of an impact their efforts will have on Putin.
“But there’s no harm in giving it a try,” he said. “Because when it comes down to it, in this kind of intensely personalistic system (government), if a line or a particular notion happens to come through and embed itself in Putin’s brain, then it’s a really strong result.”
Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Ben Fox and Nomaan Merchant in Washington, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this story.