What Intelligence Got Right and Wrong in Ukraine, Thus Far – The Russian invasion of Ukraine has largely turned into a stalemate. Russian forces have made few gains of territory in the past month while suffering horrendous casualties and losing scores of armored vehicles, aircraft, and equipment.
The prevailing attitude was that Russia would sweep into the capital of Kyiv in a matter of just two to three days and take Ukraine – as the Ukrainian military was numerically and technically – inferior in just a matter of weeks.
Those assessments by the vast majority of military analysts were far off the mark, but not all of the intelligence was wrong. Some of it, especially in the pre-invasion assessments were spot on.
US Intelligence Was Correct in Predicting That Russia Would Invade
Prior to the Russian invasion on February 24, US intelligence was looking at the Russian build-up and predicted that this was not a bluff on the part of Russia, despite many other countries didn’t believe that wasn’t going to happen.
The Russians in particular were adamant that the massive influx of troops on the Ukrainian border was nothing more than an exercise. For the US, after two decades of being focused on counter-terrorism, getting back to its roots of global threats from Russia or China, they were very accurate in their assessments.
The US and the UK were using recently declassified intelligence reports to report on Russian attempts at disinformation and staged attacks as a pretext for invading Ukraine. Russia had placed teams of special operations troops to conduct a separate false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine.
As far back as December, the US predicted that Russia would invade in early 2022 with about 175,000 troops. After intelligence debacles in Afghanistan last summer and in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, this was a feather in the cap for those in intelligence circles.
No One Knew How Stiff Ukrainian Resistance Would Be
Once the Russians invaded, they moved airborne forces to seize the Hostomel airfield outside of Kyiv to begin a two-pronged assault on the capital. This would have decapitated the Ukrainian government, installed a Russian-proxy government, and destroy centralized command and control for the Ukrainians.
Kyiv was expected to be taken along with other larger cities in eastern Ukraine such as Kharkiv in as little as 72 hours.
But the Ukrainians were well prepared, unlike the 2014 annexation of Crimea and responded with incredibly stiff resistance. Much more so than was expected, especially by Russia, who expected its forces to easily push any Ukrainian resistance aside.
The military told many of the conscripted troops invading that the Ukrainians would welcome them. The Ukrainian population has risen to bolster the armed forces and while virtually untrained, their resistance has slowed the Russian advance and made them pay for every swath of territory that they had taken.
Russian casualties were much higher than anticipated and other than Kherson, no major cities have fallen, despite attempts to encircle and pound the civilian populace of Mariupol, Kyiv, and Kharkiv.
The Ukrainian will to fight was severely misjudged by both Western and Russian intelligence. Many predicted that the Ukrainians would quickly fold much like the Afghanis had last summer and how Iraq had during the ISIS takeover. But the people in Ukraine believe in their government, military, and their leaders.
They completely rejected the Russian version of history, despite Putin’s assertion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and former President Dmitry Medvedev followed Putin writing that Ukrainians as ‘people who do not have any stable self-identification’, ‘prey to rabid nationalist forces’, and ‘absolutely dependent people’.
Most especially, the West misjudged how dedicated Ukrainian leadership was and how President Zelensky has been a symbol for Ukrainians to rally around. He didn’t bolt for the border as we saw in Afghanistan. He remained, conducting nightly video messages to the people, who rallied around him.
The US Overestimated the Prowess of Russia’s Military
Probably the biggest intelligence miscalculation has been the overestimation of Russia’s military. This is not new. The US military-industrial complex has been painting the conventional Russian military as a major threat since the earliest days of the Cold War. It is happening even now as military leaders are requesting huge budgets from Congress to combat “near-peer” Russian and Chinese military forces.
Russia reportedly had made several improvements to its military and made a more professional NCO corps that was supposed to make them more robust and better able to handle the complexities of 21st-century warfare.
If their performance in Ukraine is any indication, the Russians, apart from their extensive nuclear weapons arsenal, are not a “near-peer” adversary. Russian intelligence severely underestimated its opponent, and their plans on taking the entire country with the number of troops they employed were far below what they needed to take, let alone hold Ukraine territory.
Russia’s vaunted air force never gained mastery over the airspace of the battlefield and Ukrainian air defense weapons have taken a major toll on Russian aircraft. The planners for the operation failed to factor against a milder winter that had the ground much softer than normal. Russian armored formations were then road-bound and lost their ability to deploy sufficiently and Ukrainian ambushes in small towns took a severe toll with Javelin and NLAW anti-tank weapons.
Russian logistical support, or the lack of it, has been a nightmare. Russian troops were frequently running out of fuel, food, and short of ammunition. The long snaking logistical columns, and moving on roads were easy, soft targets for Ukrainian forces.
With the heavy casualties suffered by Russian troops, their morale is said to be very low at this point. The Russian Ministry of Defense has had to resort to filling its combat losses with volunteer Syrian forces, Wagner Group mercenaries, and Chechen forces.
As Russian forces become increasingly bogged down, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and infrastructure has increased. That shouldn’t be a surprise as they did the same thing in Grozny, Chechnya during the war there, in Syria during the Civil War in 2015, and since. Included in this is the use of cluster munitions.
The war crimes and extrajudicial killings of civilians were likewise committed in Chechnya, Syria, the Central African Republic, and other places where Russian troops are present. It is reminiscent of what happened with Serbian forces (a close ally of Russia) during the Balkans War in the mid-1990s.
Steve Balestrieri is a 1945 National Security Columnist. He has served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer before injuries forced his early separation. In addition to writing for 19fortyfive.com, he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for more than 10 years and his work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.