• US intelligence agencies have watched Russia closely before and during its invasion of Ukraine.
  • That intel has allowed the US, its allies, and Ukraine to stay a step ahead of Moscow.
  • During Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia, US spies struggled to find Russian forces.

After a month of fighting, Ukraine has defied expectations and is holding its own against Russia's bigger and better-armed military.

Although President Joe Biden has said American troops will not fight in Ukraine, the US is providing intelligence that has bolstered Ukraine's battlefield performance and described many of Russia's moves, often before they happen.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing this month, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, described that intelligence-sharing as "revolutionary."

Berrier echoed CIA director William Burns, who said during a Senate hearing this month that "we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting [Russian] tactics and calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression built on a body of lies and false narratives."

The US intelligence community has not always been so successful in exposing and undermining Russian actions. There have been times in the recent past when it couldn't even see them, according to former US intelligence officials.

Rude awakening in the Caucasus

Russian troops at a checkpoint in the village of Ergneti, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia, August 5, 2008 Foto: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US intelligence community shifted its focus away from gathering intelligence on conventional adversaries and toward combating terrorism and supporting US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The intensity of that new focus was shown in 2008, when Russia entered the Georgian breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and then invaded Georgia itself.

US intelligence was caught off guard. At the time, "the emphasis in the intelligence community had changed so much to counter-terrorism that [it] could not tell the president were the Russian army was." Michael Morell, a former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, said during an event hosted by George Mason University's Hayden Center this month.

Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general and former director of the CIA and the NSA, said at the event that those agencies "had the same problem."

To pinpoint the location of the Russian troops in Georgia, Hayden had to send embassy staff to look for Russian tanks and inform Washington directly.

The 2008 war lasted just over a week and led to Georgia losing control of Abkhazia and parts of South Ossetia. Russia also unilaterally recognized both regions as autonomous and established bases there.

An intelligence reversal

Russian forces gathered in Yelnya, Russia, January 19, 2022. Foto: Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

As the US intelligence community focused on countering terrorism, Russian intelligence operations increasingly focused on influencing the information landscape through disinformation campaigns and false-flag operations.

Russia used that playbook in the lead-up to its invasion of Ukraine in February. This time, however, the US intelligence community was prepared. The US began disclosing intelligence on Russian troop movements and intentions before they crossed into Ukraine.

Morell said that intelligence-sharing was not just to inform the American people but also to take away Russia's chance "to create a precedent for going into Ukraine" and prevent it from establishing a narrative to "sell back at home and perhaps even internationally."

This also had the effect of revealing to Russians that President Vladimir Putin was lying when he said Russia was not going to invade, Morell added.

Alerting the international community to Russia's intentions also enabled a strong international response.

"I don't think we could have done the sanctions, I don't think we could have done the [supply of] military weapons, I don't think we could have done the reinforcement of NATO were it not for laying the groundwork here about what the Russians were up to," Leon Panetta, a former secretary of defense and CIA director, said during the event.

Sharing intelligence publicly can be risky. During the Hayden Center event, former CIA Director John Brennan said there needs to be a balance between "pushing out as much information as possible" and protecting sources and methods that could be used in future intelligence operations.

Beating Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian military General Staff, left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, September 13, 2021. Foto: Kremlin Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The intelligence-sharing between Kyiv and Washington was not "revolutionary" at the outset.

At first, the US only provided strategic intelligence on Russian troop movements, which describes the type of threat and the enemy's general battle plans and is more useful for high-level commanders and policymakers than for battlefield commanders.

On the other hand, real-time tactical intelligence provides the exact position and composition of enemy troops and can therefore be used to conduct strikes or otherwise counter their movements.

The White House said on March 3 that it was sharing intelligence with Ukraine "in real time," though the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said the same day that the US was not providing "real-time targeting."

Russia has said it would view the provision of real-time intelligence as "tantamount to being engaged in the war."

What the US has been sharing and disclosing is having an effect, according to Burns, who served as ambassador to Russia during his 32-year diplomatic career.

"In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians," Burns said this month. "This is one information war I think Putin is losing."

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree in security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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