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What U.S. intelligence got right and wrong about the war in Ukraine


Nearly six weeks into war in Ukraine, how is intelligence on the war holding up? How is it shaping the war as it unfolds? U.S. intelligence was remarkably accurate in the runup to war, predicting, among other things, that Russia would indeed invade and would go big - all-out, whole-country combat. On the other hand, U.S. intelligence also predicted the capital would fall within a couple of days. But today, the Ukrainian flag still flies proudly over Kyiv, and Russian troops have retreated from the area.

Well, joining me now - Fred Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, and NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey there. Welcome to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

FRED KAGAN: Thank you.

KELLY: Fred, I'm going to start with you and just let people listening know your background as a strategist who advised the U.S. command in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that in past have presented huge intelligence challenges. How do you rate the quality of intelligence, the performance of U.S. intelligence so far on the war in Ukraine?

KAGAN: Well, I think it's - I mean, it's actually impossible for anybody who's not seeing the classified intelligence to rate it fairly. All we can rate are the leaks that come out and what people choose to say.

KELLY: But there's been a lot of that so far.

KAGAN: There has been. And we thought that the Russians would encounter a lot of the kinds of problems that they did encounter, which is one of the reasons why they thought - why we thought that they wouldn't do this. So the U.S. intelligence got the top line right. We got the next level below that right but got the top line wrong, which is another way of saying that it's really, really hard to assess these things.

KELLY: Tom Bowman, let me get you in here. So far, just on the question of what U.S. intelligence got right, what they got wrong in the runup to war - that prediction we mentioned that Kyiv would fall and would fall fast, the top U.S. military officer in Europe, General Tod Wolters, has said, in his view, there was an intelligence gap that prevented the U.S. from clearly seeing what would happen. What was it?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, General Wolters - the top officer in Europe, General Tod Wolters - he didn't get specific when he's talking about the supposed intelligence gap. But the sources I talk with say there were too many assumptions by the U.S. The U.S. saw the Russians victorious in 2014 in Crimea with little resistance. Of course, the Russians were brutal and had successes in Chechnya, Syria. And there was, as you know, this mass of Russian armor poised on the border in Ukraine.

But clearly, the Russian forces were not ready to fight - problems with planning, logistics, leadership. And all of that kind of fell through the cracks, it seems. So a big question going forward will be, how did the U.S. miss that? And if lower-level Russian units were lying to their military bosses about their readiness, how can the U.S. be better at capturing that?

KELLY: You know, I have wondered whether part of the challenge in trying to measure the strength of the military has been, you can look. You can count those troops on the border. You can count planes. You can count the number of tanks. But that may not add up to a prediction of how those troops will fight, whether they're organized, whether their heart is in it. Is that part of what's going on here, Tom?

BOWMAN: Here's the thing, Mary Louise. They were never coordinated in any effective way - it's called combined arms - that would allow them to move forward quickly and overcome the Ukrainians. There were also some miscalculations and missteps by the Russians. One of the reasons that convoy we talked about for weeks was backed up outside of Kyiv was because the ground...

KELLY: That's the 40-mile convoy, the Russian tanks that looked so terrifying. Yeah.

BOWMAN: Right. The ground was supposed to be frozen this time of year, but it was unusually mushy and soft. Here's another thing. The will to fight - the Russians had conscript forces who were not battle-tested, and some of them were not even told this was an invasion, told it was a training mission.

KELLY: In terms of things we haven't seen, in terms of things that U.S. intelligence seemed to be expecting, cyber - there was this huge expectation that whatever was unfolding on the ground or in the air, that Russia would cripple Ukraine from the get-go, would shut down its electric grid, would hack into everything and cripple Ukraine that way. We haven't seen that. Why?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, a couple of people I talk with say they're really surprised that people can, you know, use the internet, people can communicate openly. There's speculation that the Russians didn't want to take that down because they could push their propaganda forward. Also, the Russians appear to be having trouble with their encrypted communications. So they are, in many instances, operating in the clear. And consequently, their communications are being picked up by the U.S. and other intelligence agencies and sometimes broadcast on television.

KELLY: Fred?

KAGAN: I think that that's part of the explanation. I also think we need to consider the possibility that Russian cyber capabilities are not everything we think they are and also that...

KELLY: That we overestimated cyber in the way that we overestimated their ground forces? But, I mean, the U.S. knows well just how capable Russia can be with cyber.

KAGAN: Well, yes and no. I mean, you know, cyber is also one of those things where you make assessments about what adversary capabilities might be based on things you've seen. But until they actually try to pull the switches, you don't necessarily know how it's going to play out. And it is very clear that the one way in which Putin has managed to recreate the Soviet Union is by recreating the Soviet military, where everybody has been lying to everybody else in the Russian military about what they can do and what is going on.

KELLY: What about Russian intelligence? What can we glean about the performance of Russia's spy services, what they have been telling Vladimir Putin?

KAGAN: Well, the Russian intelligence has obviously been abysmal, and it's very clear that they completely misunderstood the mood of the Ukrainian people or else just misreported it to Putin. And, you know, it's interesting that Putin staged one of his public National Security Council meetings a couple of days before the invasion. And in that meeting, he publicly humiliated Sergei Naryshkin, his spy chief, in a way that we've never seen before.

KELLY: Just humiliating to watch that, yeah.

KAGAN: It does suggest that Putin had begun to understand that there was a problem.

KELLY: Well, let me start to bring it to a close by looking ahead and where the battle appears to be headed, which appears to be eastern Ukraine, Donbas, including areas that has proven very difficult in past for U.S. intelligence and Ukrainian intelligence to operate. What opportunities do you both see, what challenges do you both see in terms of the role of intelligence moving forward?

KAGAN: I think that our intelligence seems to have a pretty good picture of what's going on at this point and has been doing a very good job of balancing between getting the story out and helping people understand, also blowing Russian information operations and protecting their sources. So I'm not - I don't think that the quality of our intelligence is going to degrade just because the war has shifted to the east.

KELLY: Tom Bowman, last word.

BOWMAN: Yeah. Mary Louise, one of the important things to point out here is one of the intelligence successes is information provided to the Ukrainians about the location of Russian forces, as well as - get this - details about where the Russian missiles are located and what Ukrainian targets they are focusing on. Now, this has allowed the Ukrainians to move troops and, let's say, air defense equipment to avoid being hit. Now, that kind of information will become even more important in the coming weeks as the war moves to the east, more Russian troops and equipment come in and the fighting becomes even more bitter.

KELLY: We've been speaking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and defense analyst Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks to you both.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KAGAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUATARA'S "DUELING SHAMANS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Miguel Macias
Miguel Macias is a Senior Producer at All Things Considered, where he is proud to work with a top-notch team to shape the content of the daily show.
Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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