The Russian invasion of Ukraine defied many expectations, not least the Kremlin’s. Prior to the ‘special military operation’ launched by President Vladimir Putin last February, the Russian government expected minimal organised military resistance from the Ukrainians. A quick victory was assured, much like the 2014 annexation of Crimea but on a grander scale, with the decapitation of the Ukrainian government as a likely result. Yet, more than one year later, Ukraine remains very much in the fight, in defiance of Russian expectations. Evidently, the Russian military and political elite launched the invasion based on flawed assumptions. The question now, is what role did Russia’s intelligence services play in forming these false assumptions and why did they go unchallenged?
Much of the blame may rest on Putin himself according to a paper published in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations in December last year. Before the invasion, it was widely assumed that the Russian President’s ability to use strategic intelligence was virtually unrivalled on the world stage. Unlike other world leaders, Putin possesses a professional background in intelligence, having been both an officer in the KGB and director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), between 1998 and 1999. Russia’s swift and surprising annexation of Crimea and ability to disrupt targets with hybrid warfare was further evidence of Putin’s strategic acumen. However, the events leading up to and during the war in Ukraine cast the Russian President in a different light, as a deeply flawed intelligence manager and consumer.
One issue highlighted by the paper’s authors is that intelligence agencies within authoritarian regimes are blindsided by ‘a frequent inability to accept dissenting judgements as being offered in good faith.’ This appears to have been true of the Russian intelligence agencies prior to the invasion of Ukraine. Instead of offering their primary intelligence customer an intellectually honest assessment of the situation in Ukraine, the intelligence services appear to have disseminated intelligence that merely confirmed his biases. As explained by a group of experts in May last year, ‘Putin believes Ukraine is or ought to be Russian and whatever passed for intelligence preparation for the invasion may have confirmed this in his mind… We can infer that Russian intelligence services supported Putin’s view of Ukraine as a state ready to be absorbed.’
Ultimately, the officers of Russia’s intelligence agencies, be it the FSB, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), or Main Intelligence Directorate (GU), are dependent on Putin for their advancement, prosperity, and survival. This encourages a culture whereby the intelligence services compete for his approval, which is far from useful in terms of generating dispassionate and unbiased intelligence products. Years before the invasion, in 2017, Professor Brian D. Taylor argued that independent thinkers had largely left the Russian intelligence services, the implication being that they were now staffed by individuals who were content to conform with the dominant viewpoint. This has led to the formation of an institutional culture compromised by groupthink.
A very public example of the Russian intelligence community’s hesitancy to speak truth to power came in February 2022, when Director of the SVR Sergey Naryshkin was humiliated by Putin during a televised meeting of the Security Council. When questioned whether Russia should recognise the two self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, Naryshkin suggested giving the West one final chance to return to the Minsk agreements. This was evidently not what Putin wanted to hear and he pressed a now visibly nervous and stuttering Naryshkin until the latter agreed that it would be the right course of action for Russia to recognise the two breakaway republics. Of course, this was a clear example of political theatre, but it does not bode well that Putin was willing to publicly humiliate one of his intelligence chiefs. Whilst it is not known what goes on behind close doors, there has been increasing scrutiny of Putin’s behaviour which suggests that the Russian leader has put an unhealthy amount of distance between himself and his top officials.
This is not to say that Putin micromanages the intelligence services or that he predetermines every decision without any recourse to their advice. Indeed, the intelligence services wield a tremendous amount of influence over high-level decision making. The problem is more so that the intelligence services are institutionally incentivised to say what they think Putin wants to hear. His views on Ukraine were well-publicised before the invasion, and no doubt senior intelligence officials would have been familiar with his frame of mind. His dismissal of there being a legitimate sense of Ukrainian nationalism and a belief that Ukrainians would be willing to join Russia and reject Western moral decadence and degradation were hardly secrets. For the intelligence services competing to win approval, there would have been few incentives to contradict this official narrative. Russian intelligence preparation for the invasion therefore likely served to confirm the Russian President’s biases.
There is some evidence to the contrary. According to US intelligence documents leaked in April, the FSB accused Russia’s Ministry of Defence of underreporting Russian casualties in Ukraine. Allegedly, the FSB was critical of the Ministry of Defence for failing to record the losses suffered by the Russian National Guard, the Wagner Group, or fighters under the command of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The FSB’s casualty estimates were reportedly roughly double those given by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in December. This does indicate a willingness to break bad news and contradict the official narrative. However, in this particular case, the FSB stands to enhance its own standing with Putin by undermining the Russian Ministry of Defence, thus fitting the broader pattern of institutional rivalry.
Naturally, much remains unknown about the activities and procedures of the Russian intelligence services prior to and after the invasion of Ukraine. What the available evidence does suggest however, is that Russia’s intelligence services are burdened by political considerations and biases which interfere with their ability to plan, direct, collect, process, analyse, and disseminate valid and useful intelligence. The Russian President bears much of the blame for the creation of a professional culture which does nor prioritise the truth as the highest good. Consequently, Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine based on faulty assumptions and was unable to forecast the Ukrainian reaction with much accuracy.