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Opinion U.S. mistakes in Ukraine can’t all be pinned on bad intelligence

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses guests at the Cannes Film Festival in France on May 17. (AFP/Getty Images)
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As Ukrainian forces continue to repel the Russian invaders, the United States now says that Ukraine can “win” the war and has dramatically (if belatedly) increased its military assistance. That hasn’t stopped people in Washington from pointing fingers of blame. Right now, the U.S. intelligence community is getting the heat, but the truth is there is plenty of blame to go around.

Some early mistakes made by the U.S. government are too obvious to ignore. Congressional Republicans rightly blame the Biden administration and Democrats for failing to give Ukraine more and better weapons before the attack and in its early weeks. Ukrainian officials, when asked, claim that this cost their country precious time and lives.

“We would have trained all the people, and the situation on the ground would have been much different, would have been much better,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said last week. “This is where all of us lost time and allowed Putin to gain what he shouldn’t have.”

Senior Biden administration officials say they were being careful not to escalate or provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin. Privately, officials often said they didn’t think Ukraine could win. The Biden administration was preparing to support a Ukrainian insurgency. The United States offered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an evacuation; he refused and asked for more ammunition.

A broader charge is that the United States underestimated the ability and determination of Ukrainians to defend their nation. Last week, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) called out two top intelligence officials for failing to accurately predict the Ukrainian army’s “will to fight” and the Russian army’s lack of morale.

“I realize ‘will to fight’ is a lot harder to assess than the number of tanks or, you know, volume of ammunition or something,” King said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “But I hope that the intelligence community is doing some soul searching about how to better get a handle on that question.”

In response, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines assured King that the National Intelligence Council is already “looking at different methodologies” for how to better assess both the “will to fight” and the capabilities of foreign forces. But then, Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier provoked King’s ire in the hearing by pointing out that “will to fight” wasn’t actually something the intelligence agencies assessed in the first place.

In an interview later, King told me the United States also failed to assess the “leadership potential” of Zelensky and suggested that intelligence analysts use polling and other means to improve their visibility on the ground. King then drew a parallel between blown calls ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the intelligence community’s failure to predict the speedy fall of the Afghan government last August.

“What struck me in this case was the fact that in two cases in less than 12 months, we had intelligence that turned out to be wrong,” he said. “And it had policy implications.”

King is right about the botched assessments, as far as that goes. But the intelligence was only one of factors the Biden White House considered ahead of both the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Russian invasion. And top Biden administration officials, all qualified experts in their own right, didn’t disagree with those intelligence assessments at the time.

U.S. intelligence agencies did a professional job counting Russian tanks and planes and troops, as well as reading Russian leaders’ intentions before the war. But once the shooting starts, smart predictions become scarce; the intelligence community is no better at guessing than anyone else.

Besides, the American military was better situated than intelligence officers to evaluate the Ukrainian military. U.S. diplomats have the job of assessing popular will in foreign countries and the credibility of world leaders. “We made our assessment that not much progress had been made in the Ukrainian military since 2014,” said Margarita Konaev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “But the people who know the Ukrainian military and who helped train them would have known better.”

The intelligence community should stick to what it does best — spying. “We’ve become way too dependent in Washington on the intelligence community to make those kinds of judgments, which require knowledge of history that all of us should have, rather than technical capabilities that only the intelligence community has,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a former State Department official, told me.

King is right to act now to get the intelligence community to identify its mistakes and address its weaknesses. But that doesn’t absolve policymakers of recognizing the other mistakes that were made. We all assumed (wrongly) that Russia would fight according to its written doctrine. We didn’t exert enough skepticism of Russian claims about its own military capabilities. We failed to understand the sheer difficulty of urban warfare. And perhaps most importantly, we failed to trust the Ukrainians when they insisted they could win.

Russian and Chinese leaders are surely learning from the mistakes Putin made in Ukraine, and we would be wise to reflect on our errors. The blame game, although a time-honored Washington tradition, is a dangerous distraction from that effort.