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US spy agencies review their misfires on Ukraine and Russia

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FILE – Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies during a Senate Armed Services hearing to consider global threats on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 10, 2022. Haines recently told lawmakers that intelligence officials would consider how they assessed a foreign government’s will and ability to fight. combat. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

PA

The question was posed in a private briefing to US intelligence officials weeks before Russia launched its invasion in late February: Was Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy made in the mold of Britain’s Winston Churchill? or from Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani?

In other words, would Zelensky lead a historic resistance or flee as his government collapsed?

In the end, US intelligence agencies underestimated Zelensky and Ukraine while overestimating Russia and its president, even as they accurately predicted that Vladimir Putin would order an invasion.

But Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, did not fall in a few days, as the United States had expected. And while US spy agencies have been credited with supporting Ukraine’s resistance, they are now facing bipartisan pressure to reconsider what they got wrong beforehand – especially after their mistakes in judging Afghanistan last year.

Intelligence officials have begun a review of how their agencies judge foreign governments’ willingness and ability to fight. The review comes as US intelligence continues to play a vital role in Ukraine and the White House ramps up arms shipments and support to Ukraine, trying to predict what Putin might see as an escalation. and seeking to avoid direct war with Russia.

President Joe Biden’s administration has announced it will give Ukraine a small number of medium-range, high-tech rocket systems, a weapon Ukraine has long wanted. Since the start of the war on February 24, the White House has approved the shipment of drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems and millions of cartridges. The United States lifted early restrictions on intelligence sharing to provide information that Ukraine used to strike critical targets, including the Russian Navy’s flagship.

Lawmakers from both parties are questioning whether the United States could have done more before Putin’s invasion and whether the White House withheld some support due to pessimistic assessments of Ukraine. Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, told officials during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month that “if we had had a better idea of ​​the prediction, we could have done more to help Ukrainians.” earlier”.

Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he thinks the White House and senior administration officials have projected “their own bias on the situation of a way that lends itself to inaction”.

The Senate Intelligence Committee last month sent a classified letter to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence asking how the intelligence agencies assessed Ukraine and Afghanistan. CNN first reported the letter.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers in May that the National Intelligence Council would review how agencies assess both “willingness to fight” and “ability to fight.” Both questions are “quite difficult to provide effective analysis and we are looking at different methodologies to do so,” Haines said.

While there is no announced timeline for the review, which began before the committee’s letter, officials identified some errors. Several people familiar with pre-war assessments spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Despite its vast advantages, Russia failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine and failed in basic tasks such as securing its battlefield communications. It lost thousands of soldiers and at least eight to ten generals, according to American estimates. Russian and Ukrainian forces are now fighting in fierce close combat in eastern Ukraine, far from the quick Russian victory predicted by the United States and the West.

While Russia has entered recent proxy wars, it has not directly fought a major ground war since the 1980s. ordeal, which posed a challenge for analysts to gauge how Russia would fare during a major invasion, some people said. Russia’s active arms export industry led some people to believe that Moscow would have many more missile systems and aircraft ready for deployment.

Russia did not use chemical or biological weapons, as the United States has publicly warned. One official noted that the United States had “very serious concerns” about a chemical attack, but that Russia may have decided it would provoke too much global opposition. Fears that Russia will use a wave of cyberattacks against Ukraine and its allies have so far failed to materialize.

Other Russian problems were well known, including low troop morale, the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among troops, and the lack of a corps of non-commissioned officers to oversee the forces and provide instructions to commanders.

“We knew all of these things existed,” said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “But it just became a cascading effect of how overwhelming it all became when they tried to do even the simplest operations.”

Sue Gordon, the former senior deputy director of national intelligence, said analysts may have relied too much on Russia’s inventory of military and cyber tools.

“We’re going to learn a bit more about how we think capacity and usability aren’t one and the same when you’re evaluating results,” she said at a recent event sponsored by The Cipher Brief, an intelligence publication.

Zelenskyy won worldwide acclaim for refusing to flee as Russia sent teams to try to capture or kill him. Britain’s Churchill, throughout the year-long bombardment of London by German fighter planes in World War II, often watched the bombings from the rooftops and he made a special effort to walk the streets of places where thousands of people were killed.

By contrast, Afghanistan Ghani escaped his country last Sunday in August, alone and isolated, months after the top US diplomat urged him to forge a united stance as a US military withdrawal approached. Ghani did not even tell other political leaders who had negotiated a peaceful transition of power with the Taliban that he was heading for the exit. His sudden and secret departure left Kabul, the capital, rudderless as US and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years.

For Zelenskyy, before the war there were also tensions with Washington over the likelihood of a Russian invasion and Ukraine’s readiness. According to people familiar with the dispute, a flashpoint was that the United States wanted Ukraine to move forces from its west to bolster defenses around Kyiv.

Until shortly before the war, Zelenskyy and senior Ukrainian officials ignored warnings of invasion, partly to quell public panic and protect the economy. A US official said it was believed Zelenskyy had never been tested in a crisis of the level facing his country.

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the current DIA director, testified in March that “my opinion was that, based on various factors, the Ukrainians weren’t as ready as I thought they should be.” be. Therefore, I questioned their will to fight. It was a bad assessment on my part because they fought with courage and honor and they are doing the right thing.

In May, Berrier distanced his own view from that of the entire intelligence community, which he said never had an assessment “saying that the Ukrainians didn’t have the will to fight.” “.

There was plenty of evidence of Ukraine’s determination before the war. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the eight-year conflict in the Donbass region have hardened public opinion against Moscow. Ukrainian forces had received years of training and arms shipments from the United States in several jurisdictions, as well as help to bolster their cyber defenses.

US intelligence had reviewed private polls suggesting strong support in Ukraine for any resistance. In Kharkiv, a mostly Russian-speaking city near the border, citizens learned to shoot guns and practiced guerrilla warfare.

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, witnessed that determination on a trip in December. Wenstrup, R-Ohio, attended a military ceremony in which attendees read the names of every Ukrainian soldier who died the day before on the front lines in Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where separatists supported by Moscow were fighting Ukrainian government forces. since 2014.

“It showed me that they had the will to fight,” he said. “It had been brewing for a long time.”

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.