WASHINGTON – The question was posed at a private briefing to US intelligence officials weeks before the start of the Russian invasion in late February: Was Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy modeled after Britain’s Winston Churchill or Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani?
In other words, Zelenskyy would lead a historical resistance or flee while his government collapsed?
Ultimately, US intelligence underestimated Zelenskyy and Ukraine while overestimating Russia and its president, despite accurately predicting that Vladimir Putin would order an invasion.
But Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, did not fall in a few days, as the United States had expected. And while American spy agencies are credited with supporting the Ukrainian resistance, they now face bipartisan pressure to pre-check what they did wrong — especially after theirs Mistakes in the assessment of Afghanistan last year.
Intelligence officials have begun a review of how their agencies assess foreign governments’ willingness and ability to fight. The review comes as US intelligence continues to play a crucial role in Ukraine, and the White House is stepping up arms sales and support to Ukraine in a bid to predict what Putin may see as an escalation and avoid a direct war with Russia.
President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would give Ukraine a small number of these Mid-range high-tech missile systems, a weapon that Ukraine has long wanted. Since the war began on February 24, the White House has authorized dispatch drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, and millions of rounds of ammunition. The US has repealed early restrictions on information sharing To provide information that Ukraine used to attack critical targets, including the flagship the Russian Navy.
Lawmakers from both parties question whether the US could have done more before Putin’s invasion and whether the White House withheld some support due to pessimistic assessments of Ukraine. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, told officials at a Senate Armed Forces Committee Hearing last month: “Had we had a better handle on the forecast, we could have done more to help Ukrainians sooner.”
Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he thinks the White House and top administration officials have “projected their own biases onto the situation in a way that leads to inaction.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee last month sent a secret letter to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence asking how the intelligence agencies viewed both Ukraine and Afghanistan. CNN reported first the letter.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers in May that the National Intelligence Council will review how agencies assess both “fighting will” and “fighting ability.” Both problems are “pretty challenging to provide an effective analysis, and we’re exploring different methods for doing that,” Haines said.
Though there’s no announced timeline for the review, which began prior to the committee’s writing, officials have found some flaws. Several people familiar with pre-war assessments spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
Despite its huge advantages, Russia could not be made air superiority over Ukraine and failed in basic tasks such as securing battlefield communications. It has lost thousands of soldiers and at least eight to ten generals, according to according to US estimates. Russian and Ukrainian Armed Forces fight now in bitter hand-to-hand combat in eastern Ukraine, far from the quick Russian victory predicted by the US and the West.
While Russia has recently engaged in proxy wars, it has not fought a major land war since the 1980s. That meant many of Russia’s projected and claimed capabilities had not been put to the test, presenting a challenge for analysts to gauge how Russia would fare in a major invasion, some of the people said. Russia’s active arms exports led some people to believe that Moscow would have many more missile systems and aircraft ready to be stationed.
Russia has not used chemical or biological weapons like the US publicly warned it could. One official noted that the US had “very strong concerns” about a chemical weapons attack, but that Russia may have decided it would provoke too much global resistance. Fears that Russia would launch a wave of cyberattacks against Ukraine and allies have not materialized so far.
Other Russian problems were well known, including low troop morale, the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among troops, and the lack of a non-commissioned officer corps to oversee the forces and issue orders from commanders.
“We knew all these things existed,” said retired Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “But it just became a cascading effect of how overwhelming all of that became as they tried to perform even the simplest of surgeries.”
Sue Gordon, the former deputy chief director of national intelligence, said analysts may have over-relied counting Russia’s stockpile of military and cyber tools.
“We’re going to learn a little bit about how we think that ability and use are not one and the same when you evaluate the outcome,” she said at a recent event sponsored by The Cipher Brief, an intelligence publication.
Zelenskyy has gained worldwide recognition for refusing to flee when Russia sent teams to try to capture or kill him. But before the war, there were tensions between Washington and Kyiv over the likelihood of an invasion and whether Ukraine was prepared. One focus, according to people familiar with the dispute, was that the US wanted Ukraine to move troops out of its west to bolster defenses around Kyiv.
Until just before the war Zelenskyy and top Ukrainian officials reduced Warnings of an invasion, in part to quell public panic and protect the economy. A US official said there was a belief Zelenskyy had never been tested in a crisis of the magnitude his country was facing.
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the current director of the DIA, testified in March: “My view was that the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought they should be due to various factors. So I questioned their will to fight. That was a bad assessment on my part because they fought bravely and with honor and are doing the right thing.”
In May, Berrier distanced his own view from that of the entire intelligence community, which he says has never had an assessment “that said 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 the eight-year conflict in the Donbass region had hardened public attitudes toward Moscow. Ukraine’s armed forces had received years of training and arms shipments from the US across multiple administrations, along with help to bolster their cyber defenses.
US intelligence had reviewed private polls that indicated strong Ukraine support for any resistance. in the KharkivA predominantly Russian-speaking town near the border, citizens learned to fire weapons and trained for guerrilla warfare.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, saw this determination firsthand during a trip in December. Wenstrup, R-Ohio, witnessed a military ceremony where participants read the names of all Ukrainian soldiers who died the previous day at the front in Donbass, the region in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists fought Ukrainian government forces have since 2014.
“It showed me that they had a fighting spirit,” he said. “It’s been brewing for a long time.”
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
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