international analysis and commentary

The Russo-Ukraine-Western Intelligence War


In December 2021, several Western news outlets reported that that Moscow had massed some 70,000 troops on or close to Ukraine’s border with a further 175,000 of its most capable troops, mainly from the Western and Southern Military Border on a high state of alert. Critically, some 100 Battalion Tactical Groups were in position, as well as several Combined Armies and flagship formations, such as the First Guards Tank Army. The reporting was, in effect, a warning to Russia through the public use of actionable intelligence and a mark of how such intel is used in a digital age.

Russian troopers taking a selfie in Izium, Ukraine


Strategic intelligence and the Russo-Ukraine War

The Russo-Ukraine war has been an intelligence-led war with Western powers very much engaged. Consequently, the effectiveness of that intelligence has been notably more effective on the Ukrainian side than the Russian side. Since 2014 Kyiv has been actively supported by the intelligence agencies of several Western partners, most notably the US, Britain, and Poland. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that such support has given Ukraine and its partners a perfect picture of Russian intentions and actions. Intelligence, be it signals, digital and/or human intelligence is always imperfect knowledge and only ever as good as the strategic judgement of political leaders, many of whom are unschooled in tradecraft. What can be said is that after the disaster in 2014 when Russian forces seized Crimea and several Western leaders retreated into denial the intelligence apparatus has been overhauled to provide a far better picture of Russian intentions and actions.


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To understand the reason for the 2014 intelligence failure one need only look back at the events elsewhere that year. Much of the Western intelligence effort was focussed on counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and Daesh, the Syrian civil war, and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia had slipped down the ‘actionable’ agenda since the heady days of the Cold War with many European states, most notably France and Germany, but also to an extent Britain, more interested in appeasing Russia than confronting it. There was also a paucity of Russian analysts who could interpret the data, which was partially offset by academic expertise.

For all that, between early 2021 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, Western intelligence agencies not only successfully picked up on Russian intentions, they by and large predicted what would happen. The problem? Many of the political leaders they served, mired as they were/are in the fall-out from Covid, preferred to avoid acting upon the intel they were receiving beyond the training and other support activities they had been providing the Ukrainians since 2014.

A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbass region


MH 17

The shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17 on July 14th, 2014, which killed the 298 people on board, was a key moment in the evolution of Western intelligence. Within a very short time fingers were being pointed by Western intelligence at a BUK 11 surface to air missile belonging to the 53rd Anti-Missile Brigade of the Russian Army based at Kursk. It appeared to have been part of a disastrously (and not atypical) miscalculated operation led by Russia’s FSB and GRU (or GU) intelligence agencies in support of pro-Russian partisans in the Donetsk region.

By early 2021, Western intelligence agencies were devoting far more resources to a possible Russian threat to Ukraine. The focus was further intensified in July 2021 when President Putin published an article entitled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. The tendency of President Putin to tell the world exactly what he intended to do certainly made intelligence-gathering easier, even if some Western political leaders remained in denial. Her hopes, and those of President Macron, that the Minsk process could avert hostilities was not shared by many in American, British, and Polish intelligence.


Acting on intelligence

The fact that such intelligence existed, allied to the scope and extent of it, intensified the political pressure on Western politicians to prepare Ukraine for a possible Russian onslaught. Interestingly, it also led to a re-consideration by Western powers of when and how to use de-classified information to both prepare their respective publics and send a message to Moscow that they know of Russian intentions and preparations. In a sense, Western powers used intelligence to pre-empt Russian ‘strategic Maskirovka’ – the use of fake news and hybrid warfare. It was reinforced by both OSINT (open-source intelligence) and civilian agencies such as the non-governmental Bellingcat that both confirmed the official intelligence picture and transmitted it to an increasingly concerned wider public audience.

Over the 2021-2022 Western intelligence agencies also began to effectively monitor Russian military communications, movements, and exercises (Zapad 21) in and around the Russo-Ukrainian border. This led to a growing consensus in the intelligence community that sufficient evidence existed to suggest that President Putin was at least contemplating an invasion. It was an assessment supported by other circumstantial evidence that if Russia was ever to invade and destroy Ukraine that was the time to do it.


Read also: The invasion of Ukraine as a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy based on policy mistakes


The West seemed divided and irresolute in the post-Covid world. Brexit had rocked the EU, America had withdrawn from Afghanistan with disastrous consequences, and there was growing European energy dependency on Russia. Moreover, China’s tacit support for Russian, the 2013 failure to make the Assad regime pay for crossing Barack Obama’s ‘red lines’ by using chemical weapons, and Russia’s September 2015 intervention in Syria, suggested to Kremlin analysts that whilst the West may huff and puff a bit if Russia invaded Ukraine, it would not blow Russia’s house down. Worse, even by late 2021 Western Allies disagreed about the implications of Russia’s post-ZAPAD troop movements with said disagreements tending to reflect the political perspectives of the respective powers. While the Americans, British and Poles became convinced the Russians intended to invade, the French and Germans were far more circumspect.


Operational intelligence and the Russo-Ukraine War

As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine the Western intelligence effort switched to a far more operational focus designed to bolster the effect of Ukraine’s defence by providing real-time intel to Ukrainian leaders and commanders across the signals, digital, human intelligence spectrum. This enabled Ukrainian forces to use their relatively more limited forces and resources to far better effect than might otherwise have been the case.

Nor should Ukraine’s own adept ability to generate and act upon operational and tactical intelligence be underestimated. The Ukrainian forces  gained much experience about Russian operational methodology in the wake of Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and the conflict in the Donbas. Their own methodology has also been dynamically aligned with that of the NATO Alliance over the same period, particularly where it concerns all-important interoperability and ‘actionability’ between intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.  Ukraine’s use of such intel has been further reinforced by the adoption of a distributed small group action mission command doctrinal culture giving commanders in the field the ability to understand their own decisions in a military-strategic context far better than their clunking Russian counterparts. This use of dispersed intelligence has been reinforced using emerging and disruptive technologies, such as OSINT and various types of drones.

Above all, Russia’s clumsy and frankly unintelligent use of its own tradecraft has revealed an arrogance and failure of assumptions in Moscow that the Ukrainians and their Western backers have exploited to effect. Moscow, like the Wehrmacht back in 1940 and 1941, counted on a short, lethal campaign. Neither its intelligence resources nor its forces were geared for the war of attrition that has now developed. Its use of ‘comms’ has also been lethally shoddy, and its technology has operated far below expectations leading to the excessive use of open-source identifiable and unencrypted systems. This has allowed Western-enabled Ukrainian counter-fires to be devastating in their ability to destroy critical and often not-so forward deployed military headquarters, logistics hubs, and to the deaths of a host of senior and experienced Russian commanders.

Having said all this, will Ukraine win? Not necessarily. The Ukrainians have also suffered significant losses that they can ill-afford. However good the strategic, operational and tactical intelligence it does not fight the hard yards such wars demand of people and equipment in enormous numbers. What can be said is that Western intelligence has helped keep Ukraine in the fight. If that is to remain the case, it will need to be backed up by political will and concrete support possibly for many years to come.