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Russian Officials Predicted A Quick Triumph In Ukraine. Did Bad Intelligence Skew Kremlin Decision-Making?


Destroyed Russian tanks are seen in the Sumy region of Ukraine on March 7. Was the Kremlin plan to invade Ukraine based on flawed intelligence? Or was it good intelligence that was misused?

The day after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a Russian lawmaker who also happens to be the grandson of one of the most famous diplomats of the 20th century gave a speech in parliament.

In his speech, Vyacheslav Nikonov quoted his grandfather, Vyacheslav Molotov, who negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop deal that carved up Poland and much of Eastern Europe -- and made a prediction.

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“The enemy will be defeated and victory will be ours. And I have no doubts about this,” he said.

Sixteen days into Russia’s war, Nikonov’s prediction, echoed by other Russian politicians, has not come to pass.

Bigger, better equipped, more powerful, the subject of extensive reforms and restructuring, Russia’s military was supposed to steamroll Ukraine’s much smaller armed forces. In the Kremlin’s forecasts, Russia’s forces were supposed to be welcomed -- if not with open arms, then with simple resignation. Ukraine’s government was supposed to collapse or flee, leaving a vacuum that would be filled quickly by Moscow-appointed officials.

None of that has happened. And the mismatch of predictions and reality has sent analysts scrambling to figure out where they went wrong. But it has also raised a question: Are the decision-makers in the Kremlin making bad decisions based on bad information?

'Everything Is Going To Plan'

In a March 11 video conference with President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s defense minister argued against that conclusion.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich, everything is going to plan," said Sergei Shoigu, who is one of Putin’s closest confidants. "We report this to you every day this week."

The CIA thinks otherwise.

WATCH: In the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, instructors are giving last-minute training to members of the 112th Territorial Defense Brigade as the Ukrainian military prepares to defend the city from Russian attack. Some of the trainees are new recruits with no previous military experience.

Kyiv Volunteers Get Last-Minute Training On Powerful Anti-Tank Weapons
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Its director, William Burns, told a hearing of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on March 8 that Putin and his top advisers underestimated the fight that the Ukrainian military would put up.

“I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” Burns said. “His own military’s performance has been largely ineffective.”

Avril Haines, the director of U.S. national intelligence, echoed that during the same hearing.

“Moscow underestimated the strength of Ukraine’s resistance and the degree of internal military challenges we are observing, which include an ill-considered plan, morale issues, and considerable logistical issues,” she said.

Black Box Decisions

Kremlin decision-making is renowned as a black box, famously difficult for foreign intelligence services to penetrate and understand. For months leading up to the February 24 invasion, U.S. and Western intelligence reported that Putin’s circle of advisers had markedly shrunk.

It’s unclear how much of that was dwindling trust in his advisers. Or even if it was a function of the COVID-19 epidemic that led the Kremlin to institute unusually strict rules for quarantining and disinfecting people looking to meet with Putin.

Regardless, Putin’s closest advisers are now widely reported to be some of the most hawkish officials in the government, including the heads of the Federal Security Service, the Defense Ministry, and a handful of others. At least one, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Putin’s Security Council, has voiced support for conspiracy theories about the Soviet collapse.

Another, according to a published report by Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, is Yury Kovalchuk, a wealthy banker and longtime ally and friend of Putin’s dating back to his days in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, before his rise to power. Kovalchuk is an ideologue who shares Putin’s worldview “that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories, and hedonism.”

“In my opinion, our decision-makers not only did not have expertise on Ukraine (as well as on the former space of the U.S.S.R. as a whole), but they did NOT WANT to have [it],” Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in an e-mail.

“They are in the captivity of their own understanding of reality and ideological points,” he said, like Russky Mir, or the Russian World -- a loosely defined historical concept promoted by the Kremlin that envisions Russia’s borders encompassing lands once held by imperial Russia in the 19th century.

Like many intelligence services, the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, has units that do political analysis and intelligence that help guide service chiefs’ decision-making -- and ostensibly the Kremlin’s.

The FSB unit that conducts foreign political analysis -- the Ninth Directorate of the Fifth Service – commissioned public opinion polls in Ukraine earlier in February, weeks before the war.

According to the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank that said it reviewed the surveys, the polls showed widespread distrust among Ukrainians for government institutions, among other things.

“It is notable that Putin, in his preinvasion televised address, spoke extensively about the failures of Ukrainian governance in terms that mirrored the picture painted by the FSB’s surveys,” the RUSI report said. “While the FSB survey may have been accurate in measuring opinions at the time it was conducted, it told the Russians little about how sentiments would evolve in the aftermath of an invasion.”

“The information is very good,” said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst for land warfare at RUSI and one of the co-authors of the report on the public opinion surveys. "The way they’ve utilized it has been suboptimal.”

WATCH: More than 2 million people have fled from Ukraine to escape the onslaught of Russia's military forces. On March 8, Current Time spoke to Ukrainians on the move in Kyiv and Lviv who hope to find a safe haven inside or outside the country.

'Evil People Kill': What Ukrainians Are Saying As They Flee Russian Attacks On Civilians
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“The surveys were part of the decision-making, and it seems that they misused the data. It’s only a snapshot of where public opinion stands,” he told RFE/RL. The surveys suggest that Ukrainians’ main concerns prior to the war were mundane things: food prices, energy prices, corruption.

“If that was used…if that was the basis for a decision -- ‘If we roll into Ukraine, people will welcome us’ -- then that info was grossly misused,” he said.

Kremlin Intrigue

Amid the rosy public assessments in Moscow, there’s been only hints of criticism and dissent about the war in Russia. That’s due mainly to the fact that Russian authorities have censored any honest press coverage within Russia, forcing independent media and social networks to shut down, and even going so far as to ban the use of the word “war” or “invasion.”

On March 11, however, a report by another well-sourced Russian journalist said that the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service and his deputy had been arrested and suspected of embezzling funds earmarked for Ukraine operations.

The report by Andrei Soldatov said they were also accused of knowingly feeding bad information about the political situation in Ukraine.

“I see by the quality of the analytics that is available in Russia today, by the way it assesses its place in the world, how it assesses its relations with neighbors, how it assesses the ongoing processes-- it's all very far from reality,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukraine’s president, said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

“In principle, they do not have a real picture of what is happening in the world, including in Ukraine,” he said.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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