In a private briefing a few weeks before Russia launched its offensive in late February, US intelligence officials were asked: “Did Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky follow the example of Britain’s Winston Churchill or Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani?”
In other words, will Zelensky lead the historic resistance or run away when his government collapses?
Ultimately, US intelligence agencies overestimated Russia and its president, underestimating Jelensky and Ukraine, and correctly predicted that Vladimir Putin would order the attack.
But in a matter of days, the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, did not collapse as expected by the United States. And while US intelligence agencies are credited with supporting Ukraine’s resistance, they have already faced bilateral pressure to review what they did wrong – especially after their mistake in judging Afghanistan last year.
Intelligence officials have begun reviewing how their agencies judge foreign governments’ willingness and ability to fight. With US intelligence playing a key role in Ukraine and the White House increasing arms deliveries and support to Ukraine, Putin is increasingly trying to predict what he will see and try to avoid a direct war with Russia.
President Joe Biden’s administration has announced that it will provide Ukraine with a small number of high-tech, medium-range rocket systems, a weapon that Ukraine has long wanted. Since the war began on February 24, the White House has approved shipping drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, and millions of rounds of ammunition. The United States has lifted initial sanctions on intelligence partners to provide information that Ukraine used to attack key targets, including Russian naval flagships.
Lawmakers on both sides have questioned whether the United States could have done more before Putin’s invasion, and whether the White House has withdrawn some support because of Ukraine’s pessimistic assessment. Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King told officials at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month that “if we had handled the forecast better, we could have done more to help the Ukrainians first.”
Mike Turner, a top Republican on the Ohio Republican House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he thought the White House and top administration officials “presented their own biases in the situation in 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 intelligence agencies would assess both Ukraine and Afghanistan. CNN reported the first letter.
Avril Haynes, director of National Intelligence, told lawmakers in May that the National Intelligence Council would review how agencies evaluate both “willingness to fight” and “ability to fight.” Both issues are “extremely challenging to provide effective analysis and we are looking at different ways to do that,” Haynes said.
Although the review schedule, which began before the committee’s letter arrived, has not been announced, officials have identified some errors. Many people familiar with the pre-war assessment spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
Despite its enormous advantages, Russia failed to establish air superiority over Ukraine and failed in basic tasks such as securing its battlefield communications. The U.S. estimates it has lost thousands of troops and at least eight to 10 generals. Russian and Ukrainian forces are now fighting a fierce, close battle in eastern Ukraine, far from predicting a quick Russian victory by the United States and the West.
Although Russia has recently entered a proxy war, it has not fought a major land war since the 1980s. That means Russia’s much-anticipated and claimed capabilities have not been put to the test, posing a challenge for analysts to assess how Russia will perform in a major offensive, some say. Russia’s active arms export industry has led some to believe that Moscow would be ready to deploy more missile systems and aircraft.
Russia has not used chemical or biological weapons, as the United States has publicly warned. An official commented that the United States had “very serious concerns” about the chemical attack, but that Russia may have decided to call for more global protests. Russia’s fears of a wave of cyber-attacks against Ukraine and its allies have not materialized.
Other Russian problems were well-known, including low military morale, the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among the military, and the lack of a non-commissioned officer corps to oversee the army and provide instructions from commanders.
“We knew all these things existed,” said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “But it was only a cascading effect on how heavy they all became when they tried to perform the most simple operations.”
Sue Gordon, a former deputy director of national intelligence, said analysts could rely heavily on Russia’s list of military and cyber equipment.
“We’re going to learn a little bit about how we think about capabilities and how to use them when evaluating results,” she said at a recent event sponsored by The Cipher Brief, an intelligence publication.
Zelensky has received worldwide acclaim for refusing to flee when Russia sent a team to try to capture or kill him. Churchill in Britain, during World War II, watched the year-round blitz in London by German fighter jets, often watching bomb blasts from rooftops and making special efforts to walk the streets in the thousands killed.
Ghani, on the other hand, fled Afghanistan on Sunday, a few months after a top US diplomat urged him to remain united as the withdrawal of US troops approaches. Ghani also told other political leaders negotiating a peaceful handover of power with the Taliban that he was not leaving. His sudden and secret departure left the capital, Kabul, without a hitch as US and NATO forces were in the final stages of returning chaos from the country after 20 years.
For Zelenskyy, before the war, there was tension with Washington about the possibility of a Russian invasion and whether Ukraine was ready. According to those familiar with the dispute, one flashpoint was that the United States wanted to move troops from the west to help Ukraine strengthen its defenses around Kiev.
Shortly before the war, Zelensky and top Ukrainian officials issued warnings of an attack to reduce public panic and protect the economy. A U.S. official said there was a belief that Jelensky had never been tested in the crisis facing his country.
The current director of the DIA, Lt. Gen. Scott Barrier, testified in March that “my view was that, due to various factors, the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought. So I questioned his willingness to fight. Are doing the right thing. ”
In May, Barrier distanced himself from the entire intelligence community, which he said “never assessed that the Ukrainians lacked the will to fight.”
There was ample evidence of Ukraine’s determination before the war. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and eight years of conflict in the Donbass region have sharpened public sentiment against Moscow. The Ukrainian military has received years of training and shipments of weapons from the United States to various administrations to help strengthen its cyber defenses.
The U.S. intelligence passed a statement calling for a boycott of the by-elections in Ukraine. In Kharkiv, a mostly Russian-speaking town near the border, civilians were learning how to use guns and guerrilla warfare.
Member of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Brad Weinstrap witnessed that determination during his December trip. Weinstrap, R-Ohio, witnessed a military ceremony where participants read the names of each Ukrainian soldier who had been killed earlier in the day in Donbass, the area of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists were fighting Ukrainian government forces. Since 2014.
“It just made me want to fight them,” he said. “It’s been going on for a long time.”
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
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