- Many US officials assumed that Russia’s attack on Ukraine would be a quick victory for Moscow.
- As the conflict nears its fourth month, these US officials are reconsidering their assumptions.
- The erroneous assessments reflect the hereditary difficulty of analyzing another military’s capabilities.
More than 100 days after Russia renewed its attack on Ukraine, the world has seen that the Russian military is not what it thought it was.
The Russian force, which the US military and intelligence agencies believed was a near-equal opponent, has not emerged. The force that emerged was weakened in its main thrust by smaller Ukrainian units. After suffering heavy losses and achieving few objectives, Moscow withdrew its troops and lowered its ambitions.
Something was wrong in US assessments of the Russian military, and the Pentagon and intelligence agencies have admitted they missed evidence that Moscow is indeed fielding a “hollow force.”
A hit and a miss
US intelligence is conducting an internal review of its processes after underestimating Ukraine’s resolve and overestimating Russia’s military capabilities.
The flawed assessment in Ukraine comes after the Pentagon’s extremely poor assessment of the Afghan military, which US leaders believed could hold off the Taliban for months following the US withdrawal.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in May, lawmakers questioned Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, and Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of defense intelligence, on their agencies’ assumptions in Ukraine, focusing on assessments that Kyiv in three to four days and the war would last only two weeks.
“We estimated that their ability to withstand the size of the Russian forces amassed on their border would become very difficult for them,” Berrier said of the Ukrainians.
“What we didn’t see from the inside was a kind of hollow force” that lacked an effective NCO corps, leadership training and effective doctrines, Berrier said of the Russians. “These are the intangibles that we as intelligence agencies need to really understand.”
Under pressure from lawmakers, Berrier said the DIA will look closely at what it missed, stressing that “across the entire operation, there have been many more successes than failures.”
While US intelligence agencies misinterpreted the effectiveness of the Russian and Ukrainian military, they provided accurate information about Russia’s intentions in the months leading up to Russia’s attack, which began on February 24.
These accurate assessments – many of which the White House has shared with allies and the public – helped rally international support for Ukraine and boosted US credibility.
How the US views foreign militaries
Intelligence analysts face several hurdles when assessing an adversary’s capabilities.
“When dealing with a foreign actor, analysts can fall into a number of mental traps, from confirmation bias, availability bias, or even favoring existing lines of analysis over new information,” says Michael E. van Landingham, a former CIA Russia analyst , insiders said.
“Analysts must constantly try to scrutinize themselves and each other through a variety of formal and informal methods of analysis to ensure they are not making any misjudgments,” added van Landingham.
US intelligence agencies rely on several intelligence-gathering methods to aid in the analysis process.
Human intelligence, the most traditional method, can be the most valuable, depending on the source, as it can provide direct insight into an opponent’s plans and intentions. Signal intelligence is gathered from intercepting electronic communications.
Open-source intelligence, the new kid on the intelligence block, muddles together publicly available information from sources like press reports or social media. Imagery Intelligence relies on images taken by satellites or aircraft to document an opponent’s movements.
Analysts rely on all of the above methods to inform policymakers, but analysts – and policymakers – must accept that they will rarely know the full picture.
The gaps in coverage are often wider and more sinister when it comes to adversaries skilled in deception and counterintelligence, particularly the Russian security services, known for their aggressive and complex methods.
“Capture gaps result from a lack of complete information. Maybe you lost access to a technical source or never had it. Perhaps you lack a human perspective on high-level considerations,” said van Landingham, the founder of risk analysis and research firm active measures.
“In either case, many policymakers will ask for more information than they could hope for, or there is a critical ‘known unknown’ that prevents an analyst from having high confidence in a judgment,” added van Landingham.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.