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Why is the U.S. intelligence community so chatty about Russia?

Trying to understand the raft of leaked intelligence stories

President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz after an Oval Office bilateral meeting on Monday. Biden hosted Scholz to discuss the buildup of Russian forces on the border of Ukraine and other concerns. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

As the crisis over Ukraine continues to worsen, we have shifted from the multilateral gatherings of January to the “high-stakes diplomacy” meetings of February. On Monday, for example, President Biden met with new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz while French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soon both Macron and Scholz will head to Ukraine.

With this flurry of activity, it can be difficult to pause for a second and attempt to detect patterns behind various foreign policy moves. The hardworking staff here at Spoiler Alerts, however, is very much in favor of taking pauses during crises to do that very thing. And here is what I am noticing: The U.S. intelligence community sure has been chatty as of late about what it thinks Russia is doing.

Late last week, senior administration officials told Julian Barnes of the New York Times that “the United States has acquired intelligence about a Russian plan to fabricate a pretext for an invasion of Ukraine using a faked video that would build on recent disinformation campaigns.”

Over the weekend my Washington Post colleagues published an article about intelligence briefings concluding that “Russia is close to completing preparations for what appears to be a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could leave up to 50,000 civilians killed or wounded, decapitate the government in Kyiv within two days, and launch a humanitarian crisis with up to 5 million refugees fleeing the resulting chaos.”

Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times followed up with a report noting that “US military and intelligence officials believe that Russia is planning to hold a big nuclear weapons exercise this month as a warning to Nato not to intervene if President Vladimir Putin decides to invade Ukraine.” Sevastapulo’s report was rich with details, including “the US believes that the optimum time for a Russian invasion would be from mid-February to the end of March.”

On Monday, CNN’s Natasha Bertrand, Jim Sciutto and Katie Bo Lillis reported on additional U.S. intelligence, saying that “intercepted communications obtained by the US have revealed that some Russian officials have worried that a large-scale invasion of Ukraine would be costlier and more difficult than Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin leaders realize, according to four people familiar with the intelligence.”

The CNN story further noted: “The [Russian] officials have also grumbled about their plans being discovered and exposed publicly by western nations, two of the sources said, citing the intercepted communications.”

These articles have had the rare effect of simultaneously annoying both Ukraine and Russia. Last month, the Ukrainian leadership publicly pushed back on U.S. warnings as excessively gloomy, and did so again Monday. The latest flurry of intelligence briefings also rankled Russia’s leadership. According to my Post colleagues, “Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that those predictions were contributing to the ‘tense’ atmosphere over Moscow’s demands for security assurances regarding its neighbor.” Other Russian officials dismissed U.S. estimates as “madness and scaremongering.”

Part of the explanation for the flurry of reports is that intelligence analysts have to brief lawmakers from time to time, and information from those briefings tend to find their way to the press. That said, these warnings seem designed to ratchet up both tension and attention, which is not the Biden administration’s standard modus operandi. Is there a method to these reports — particularly given the U.S. intelligence community’s acknowledgment that it lacks any assets within Putin’s inner circle?

There are two possible explanations. The first is that by shining a light on Russian activity surrounding Ukraine, the United States is raising the costs of Putin taking aggressive military action. Every time the United States announces intelligence indicating that Russia is preparing for war, that is one more instance of Putin being deprived of the element of surprise (something he used to good effect back in 2014). Russian officials then have to deny any hostile intent toward Ukraine despite the massing of troops. Perhaps the public glare is designed to deter Putin just a wee bit.

While possible, ratcheting up tensions also increases the costs to Putin for backing down. Another possibility is simpler: The United States wants to signal to Russia that it is fully aware of its plans and can engage in some information operations of its own. The CNN report about reluctance within the Russian military about a full-scale invasion is a classic example of this.

It seems unlikely that any of this will affect Putin’s decision-making in the end — the combined effect of these stories are on the margins, and Ukraine is clearly central to Putin’s self-conception of Russia. Still, even effects on the margin might matter.