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Inside the White House preparations for a Russian invasion

A ‘Tiger Team’ of administration officials has spent the past several months preparing a clear series of responses, gaming out scenarios from cyberattacks and limited intervention to an invasion of Ukraine

A soldier takes part in a joint military exercise between Russia and Belarus, part of the recent buildup that is alarming White House officials about a potential invasion of Ukraine. (Agence France Presse/Getty Images)
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As fears grow of potential Russian aggression against Ukraine, a “Tiger Team” led by the White House is quietly gaming out how the United States would respond to a range of jarring scenarios, from a limited show of force to a full-scale, mass-casualty invasion.

The White House team has staged two multi-hour tabletop exercises — including one with Cabinet officials — to bring the scenarios to life and assembled a playbook that outlines an array of swift potential responses, starting with Day One and extending through the first two weeks of an envisioned Russian invasion.

The effort, senior administration officials said, has not only helped them anticipate possible complications, but has also prompted them to take actions ahead of time, such as exposing Russian information warfare before it’s carried out to blunt its propaganda power.

“Our hope is still that there’s a diplomatic path to avoiding all of this so we never have to use the playbook,” said Jonathan Finer, deputy national security adviser to President Biden. “But this is all about making sure we are ready to go if and when we have to be.”

The “Tiger Team” — a term referring to a diverse group of experts who are tackling a specific problem and that suggests alertness and a readiness to pounce — was created after National Security Council officials last October detected troubling signs of a massive Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border.

NSC officials readily admit they may be unable to precisely anticipate the moves of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military leaders. But the exercise and robust planning is still worth it, they said.

“The reality is that what the Russians may end up doing is not likely to be a 100 percent match for any of these scenarios,” Finer said. “But the goal is for them to be a close enough facsimile of what they end up doing that the plans are useful in terms of reducing the amount of time we need in order to respond effectively. That’s really the whole goal.”

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The potential Russian assault on Ukraine is the biggest foreign policy crisis facing the administration since its messy pullout from Afghanistan last year, when the rapid collapse of the government in Kabul caught U.S. officials flat-footed. A suicide attack at the Kabul airport gates killed 13 U.S. service members and about 170 Afghans.

The stakes are especially high now. Following the rocky Afghanistan withdrawal, the administration faces added pressure to avoid a similarly damaging outcome from a Russian invasion, which could abruptly throw Ukraine into weeks of unpredictable chaos and bloodshed.

A number of administration officials are veterans of the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and its push to fuel a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. The Biden team has been able to take lessons from that experience as well as from watching Putin consolidate his power since then.

This time, “it’s remarkable how much warning Washington has been able to give,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former CIA Russia analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “They are far more prepared this time around.”

In 2014, the U.S. investment in intelligence collection on Russia had dwindled following the end of the Cold War and America’s focus on counterterrorism. When Russia invaded Crimea, Kendall-Taylor said, “we were caught flat-footed and unprepared.”

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Feb. 14 that Russia is “doing all the things you would expect” ahead of a possible invasion of Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

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The administration is now working on a two-track push for diplomacy and deterrence, including the information wars unfolding in public. And behind the scenes is the Tiger Team’s private planning and strategizing — which has not been previously reported — to ensure that not just the White House, but all the agencies that would need to respond to an outbreak of hostilities are primed and ready to go.

The Tiger Team was officially born in November, when national security adviser Jake Sullivan asked Alex Bick, the NSC director for strategic planning, to lead a planning effort across multiple agencies. Bick has brought in the Departments of Defense, State, Energy, Treasury and Homeland Security, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development to look at a possible humanitarian crisis.

The intelligence community is also involved, gaming out various courses of action the Russians might pursue and the risks and advantages of each, officials said. They range from a limited assault that captures only a portion of Ukraine to a full-scale invasion that seeks to replace the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and occupy much or all of the country.

“You don’t have to know what they’re going to do,” said an NSC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s internal process. “You choose a series of plausible scenarios and plan against them, on the assumption that any of them might happen.”

The playbook itself goes far beyond battlefield scenarios, looking at questions like how to address Ukrainian refugees who might stream into Poland and Romania, how to secure the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, exactly what sort of sanctions to impose on Moscow, and how to fight back against a sophisticated cyberattack.

The playbook — which synthesizes nearly three dozen papers and intelligence assessments commissioned by the team from various agencies — has been distributed to the various officials, including military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon.

The playbook also considers “second order” consequences, such as Russian retaliation for any penalties. Officials have been putting in place measures, for instance, to ensure that Western Europe has supplies of natural gas should Russia seek to shut off energy flows, while the State Department and USAID have coordinated with partners on steps to alleviate the humanitarian impact of a major invasion.

“As a general matter, you plan against the worst-case scenario and then you calibrate down,” the NSC official said. “Better to do it that way than to plan for an intermediate scenario and get caught flat-footed.”

Military buildup becomes part of scenery in Russian borderland

While the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal hurt U.S. relations with its Western allies, Russia’s bellicose moves have arguably brought them closer, in the face of a common threat. Administration officials say that this time they have gone out of their way to provide intelligence to other countries.

“We shared a ton of information to make sure that everybody was getting on the same page about what we saw coming,” Finer said.

Bick and his team also looked at “black swan” events — highly unlikely but of severe impact if it happens — that might complicate the administration’s ability to respond. Officials would not share examples but, in general, such events might include a highly transmissible new strain of the coronavirus or a major energy crisis arising independently of the situation in Ukraine.

They looked at a “couple dozen different” black swan events “on the spectrum of probability and impact,” the NSC official said. “It’s high probability, high impact that you focus the most attention on. But anything which has a high impact, and the probability is low, requires attention nonetheless.”

This planning has been underway even as other agencies push ahead with their own preparations. The Treasury Department has crafted potential sanctions packages and the Pentagon has planned for additional troop deployments at the same time the White House was finalizing its playbook.

Among the Tiger Team’s top concerns is a Russian effort to promote the false narrative that it is Ukraine, aided by the West, that is preparing to launch an offensive in eastern Ukraine, and that Russia is the victim.

In recent weeks, the U.S. government has declassified intelligence about such efforts, including a potential “false flag” plot in which Moscow would stage an explosion that kills ethnic Russians in Ukraine or in Russia itself, and then blame it on Kyiv as a possible pretext for an invasion.

U.S. officials believe such disinformation is a key part of Russia’s strategy. A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, to discuss the issue said it “has informed the administration’s strategy to expose in near real-time Moscow’s planning of information operations, such as the recent disclosure of the false-flag video.” The United States has accused the Kremlin of planning to create a video of a fabricated attack.

When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the United States and Europe had no sanctions packages ready to go. With the exception of human rights penalties, the United States had never even contemplated sanctions on Russia, said Daniel Fried, who was then the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy.

“We didn’t have the same resources in Europe or muscle memory of addressing Russian aggression,” the NSC official said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”

The administration has now crafted potential sanctions on Russian banks and a set of export controls, which it plans to impose should Moscow move into Ukraine. In a phone call Saturday, Biden warned Putin of “swift and severe costs” in that eventuality.

In December, the Tiger Team held two virtual tabletop exercises to road-test various scenarios and responses. The first brought together deputy secretaries and the second involved Cabinet officials. Biden has reviewed the playbook and was briefed on the results, officials said.

“It’s one thing to consider each of these problems — energy, sanctions, military posture — in isolation. It’s quite another to put them all together and execute a plan on all of them,” the NSC official said. “What I saw over the course of this planning exercise was, including at the most senior levels, lightbulbs go on about the way the pieces fit together.”