Has Biden got inside Putin’s head?

Speaking before the UN Security Council, Antony Blinken distilled in just a few minutes Washington’s most dire warnings about Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine — ones that America and its allies fear could become true within days.

The secretary of state ran through what he said was Vladimir Putin’s playbook: the misleading military pullback, the false pretexts for war and the manner of the potential attack on his neighbour, using tanks, troops, missiles and cyber attacks.

Yet Blinken knew that in order to be credible in levelling such accusations, America had to deal with the legacy of Colin Powell and the George W Bush administration. Speaking to the very same body in February 2003, Blinken’s late predecessor gave a now infamous presentation about Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction — an assessment that would later be roundly debunked.

“I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out,” Blinken said on Thursday. “But let me be clear: I am here today not to start a war but to prevent one.”

Blinken’s words were the latest salvo in a high-stakes information war between Moscow and Washington over the fate of Ukraine — one that Joe Biden’s administration has openly embraced. Having been blindsided by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and its 2015 intervention in Syria, Washington wants to dominate the narrative before any conflict breaks out.

The US effort has included an almost unprecedented, methodical real-time declassification of sensitive information — in many cases, co-ordinated with western allies.

Antony Blinken, Biden, Putin and Sergei Lavrov meet last June. Blinken this week outlined the US’s direst warnings about Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine © Peter Klaunzer/Swiss Federal Office of Foreign Affairs/Bloomberg

Not only have US and western officials detailed the huge build-up of Russian military forces along Ukraine’s border, but they have also warned repeatedly of “false-flag” operations, plots to create a puppet government in Kyiv and the many ways that an assault might unfold.

A senior Biden administration official told the FT that their purpose was to make an “invasion harder to execute, and then should it be executed, to make it harder to claim legitimacy”. But the US official added that it was also about openly countering Russia’s repeated use of misinformation over the past 15 years to gain strategic advantage.

“We have learned a lot about how Russia uses the information space as part of the theatre of war. We have seen them run these kinds of plays before in Ukraine and Georgia, across Europe, in Syria,” the senior Biden administration official said. “We have not just learned from that and learned how to counter it, I think we have learned to take the fight to them”.

If accurate, the published intelligence suggests that US officials have managed to get to the heart of Putin’s methods and reasoning in a way that they have struggled to do for decades.

However, some in Europe and Ukraine fear that the US approach might exacerbate the risk of conflict by making diplomacy more complicated. US officials also know they face a strong tide of public mistrust — not least because of the intelligence used to justify the Iraq war.

The western claims have been derided in Moscow as inaccurate, fanciful and provocative. Russian officials accuse Washington of stoking tensions and undermining any chance of a diplomatic solution to the stand-off. Russia has denied it has any plans for a full-blown invasion of Ukraine.

Troops in the US 82nd Airborne Division listen to instructions before being deployed to Poland at Fort Bragg, North Carolina on February 14
An estimated 3,000 US soldiers will be deployed to Poland as tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine © Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty

“Please announce the schedule of our ‘invasions’ for the coming year. I’d like to plan my holiday,” quipped Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry.

Putin’s small circle

The barrage of intelligence about Putin’s plans has been especially striking because it has become harder to spy on the Kremlin over the past three decades.

One former US intelligence official says that in the early 1990s, the arrival of mobile phones and the “indiscreet” nature of Russia’s elite meant its government could be read “like an open book”.

But Putin, a former KGB officer, is harder to analyse. Meetings with him are limited to a small circle of trusted advisers, which means the chances of getting information leaked from the heart of the Kremlin are slim.

Putin’s circle has shrunk further still due to his extensive social distancing precautions. Even defence minister Sergei Shoigu was forced to sit at the other end of a comically long table from the president at a meeting on Monday.

“Nowadays Russian politics is a lot more controlled . . . it’s not what it was in the 1990s, and we see a lot less of it,” says the former US intelligence official. “These people now are trained security operatives and so their discipline is much better.”

Still, some developments have worked in the west’s favour. “We have good technology and we have good overhead capabilities, and we can get into other country’s computer networks,” said the former intelligence official. 

Former US secretary of state Colin Powell at a UN Security Council meeting on Iraq in February 2003
The legacy of Colin Powell’s infamous speech on WMD in Iraq still looms large for Blinken © Shawn Baldwin/Bloomberg

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, speaks during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington, D.C in March 2019
As US ambassador to Russia, 2012-14, Michael McFaul wishes he could have shared intelligence about Russia publicly © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

There is also a growing abundance of so-called “open-source” intelligence — meaning it is available to anyone who knows where to look — which is increasingly used by intelligence agencies. Examples include social media postings, military publications, information made available on the Russian internet and even newspaper articles. 

“We have some very, very good [intelligence] collection on Russia,” the former US intelligence official said. “Often the problem is not so often getting the information, but processing the information.”

“It’s piecing a puzzle together, and more often than not there are a lot of missing pieces and you can’t construct the puzzle. A lot of the time it’s judgment.”

Going public

The US started ramping up its strategy of sharing and releasing intelligence on Russia’s plans for Ukraine back in October when the signs of a military build-up along the border became an increasing concern.

According to the senior Biden administration official, the US began to hold a series of videoconferences and in-person meetings to share intelligence about Russia with other countries, moving beyond its traditional Five Eyes intelligence alliance and also involving the North Atlantic Council, Nato’s main decision-making body.

“We wanted to have a shared understanding with allies and partners so that we could co-ordinate what our policy responses to these developments would be. It’s harder to keep allies together if people have different understanding of what the facts on the ground are,” the US official said.

Russian tanks leaving for Russia after joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus
US and western officials have detailed the huge build-up of Russian military forces along Ukraine’s border © Russian Defence Ministry/AFP/Getty

The next step was to share the information publicly, which began in December with the release of the first details of Russia’s troop build-up along the Ukrainian border. But this involved overcoming the intelligence community’s traditional reluctance to release their findings for fear of compromising sources and methods.

“I remember being in meetings and learning things that I thought it would be useful to tell the American people about and to tell the world about,” says Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia. 

“And there were so many times that our intelligence community said, well, we can’t do that because that would expose the ways by which we acquired this intelligence,” he adds.

John Sipher, who served as a former CIA agent based in Moscow, says there were periods when the US would routinely hold back intelligence in the hope of building a better relationship with Moscow. “We had a tremendous amount of information on Putin’s money and his efforts to murder people and so on,” says Sipher. “And the administration would not want to publish it and would say — ‘no, let’s give him a chance and mend relations.’”

However, after a very tumultuous relationship between the White House and the intelligence community under Donald Trump, and a rough start under Joe Biden with the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan last year, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, and Bill Burns, the CIA director, appear to be working in lockstep with the rest of the administration.

Avril Haines, director of US national intelligence, at the US Capitol
After the frictions of the Trump era, the US intelligence community, led by Avril Haines, director of US national intelligence, seems to be on the same page as the rest of Biden’s team © Rod Lamkey/CNP/Sipa USA/Reuters

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visits soldiers during a military drill outside the north-western city of Rivne
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has played down some of the Russian intelligence disclosures © Ukrainian Presidency/dpa

“To do this sort of thing quickly and seamlessly, they would all have to agree on the strategy and be a part of it. If people did not want to do this there would obviously be sniping and moaning, and you’re not seeing that,” says Anthony Vassalo, a former US intelligence officer now at Rand’s national security research division.

A danger for dialogue?

The US drive to share intelligence has generally been supported by its European allies, though some worry the strategy could hurt the chances of dialogue with Moscow.

“It’s a way of saying — we know what you’re up to. And that’s a way to put pressure on the Russians. [But] we believe you shouldn’t escalate in public,” says one German official.

“Germany’s intelligence assessment is the same as the US and UK one. The Russians have everything in place for an invasion. But the question is: how do you interpret this information? The US and UK assume he’s going to act. But we see it slightly differently,” said another German official.

In Ukraine, officials including Volodymyr Zelensky, the president, have played down and at times bristled at some of the intelligence disclosures, for fear that they would sow panic in the country. But others say they have been effective and necessary.

“We would rather build a worst-case scenario because . . . it’s better that we prevent something from happening than to actually learn that it was true after that happens,” says Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister and current adviser to the Zelensky administration.

“If you are reactive, you are already catching up with Russia, and Russia already has the initiative,” he says.

“Undoubtedly the regular public release of intelligence is working as a massive deterrent,” adds Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Business School in Kyiv and the author of the book Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War. “Putin has been completely deprived of any element of surprise.”

A satellite image shows Russian troops and equipment in Kursk training area near the Ukraine border on February 14
Satellite image shows Russian troops in Kursk, near the Ukraine border. Russia denies it plans a full-blown invasion © Maxar Technologies/AFP/Getty

The senior Biden administration official concedes that intelligence is just a “series of reports and inputs” that can offer a “picture” but “almost never a perfect smoking gun”. Yet overall it showed a “remarkable consistency” about Putin’s plans, helping to push US allies and partners towards a more muscular stance that they hope has put the Russian leader off kilter and maybe even changed his calculations.

“If one of Putin’s objectives was to divide the transatlantic alliance, or to create confusion . . . that has already demonstrably failed,” the administration official says, adding: “We would love nothing more than to be wrong about all of this. We can’t let the hope that we’re wrong about this block us or hinder us from telling the truth about what it is we are seeing”.

But the strategy could have unintended consequences. Some in Washington question the tactics. “Every time [the US] pre-bunks information or exposes these plans, it runs the risk of looking like the boy who cried wolf. In always talking about the pretexts for the invasion, my fear is people tune out or that strategy loses its potency,” says Andrew Lohsen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

In Moscow, Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says in Russia the intelligence leaks are already being portrayed as the west’s version of disinformation. “We don’t know whether the US has really good intelligence or not. I think a lot of the assessments could be worded a lot more carefully, and we know that Biden has a habit of slips of the tongue. But what I think the current flow of information really undermines is the belief in Russia in global media . . . they have become partisan, don’t check facts, and just basically believe everything the government tells them,” says Gabuev.

The most damning critique of the US tactics comes from a Kremlin official who suggests they might be pointless.

“This is all in one man’s head. Only he knows when and how to escalate or tone things down,” the Russian official says. “He has decided that this is the right place and time to make these demands. He worked in security for so many years — you and I can’t even imagine all the threat scenarios he sees in his head.”

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Moscow and John-Paul Rathbone in London

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