The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s KGB past didn’t help him with intelligence on Ukraine

The botched invasion suggests that — as happens with many authoritarians — his analysts told him what he wanted to hear

Seen in March 2018, the former prison and regional office of the East German Ministry of State Security in the eastern German city of Dresden, where Vladimir Putin lived and worked as a KGB agent from 1985 to 1990. (Robert Michael/AFP/Getty Images)
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be the most well-known former intelligence officer to be a head of state. Up until his disastrous miscalculation invading Ukraine, conventional wisdom held that Putin’s professional background conferred on him a perspective rarely enjoyed by senior political figures in great powers.

Putin’s comfort and familiarity with the secret world enabled his political rise and was an oft-cited factor in his success in achieving his foreign policy and domestic security agendas. Putin’s ability to interfere in foreign elections, his adroit use of disinformation and his ability to lure former Western leaders closer to Russia with lucrative sinecures seemed emblematic of a potent mixture of charm, ruthlessness and the low cunning of a Soviet counterintelligence officer.

From Putin’s point of view, he had been on a roll. He was able to crush Chechnya, invade Georgia, seize Crimea, intimidate and murder journalists and political rivals at home, poison perceived enemies abroad and prop up rogue states without penalty. He managed to change the Russian constitution to keep himself in power and reportedly built himself a billion-plus dollar retirement home with some of his apparently ill-gotten financial gains. Then came the Ukraine invasion — his first major strategic error and potentially his last (if Russian elites or his security services tire of him). It was a decision that hinged on having solid intelligence about Ukraine as well as a realistic military plan to achieve his conception of victory. How did he get it so wrong?

Putin’s present problems can be reduced to two main options: Either he ignored the advice of his national security and intelligence advisers; or, as with so many authoritarian leaders before him, he set the conditions under which his subordinates only told him what he wanted to hear. Although “truth to power” has become a hackneyed mantra of modern intelligence bureaucracies, it remains the case that sometimes the highest form of service an intelligence agency can provide is to disabuse leaders of the magical thinking that often accompanies their foreign policy agenda.

Putin’s intelligence services may have crafted a politically palatable intelligence assessment as to why a rapid military invasion to topple the Ukrainian government would have been achievable. Before the invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky was not a popular politician, and until recently only a minority of Ukrainians wished to join NATO (although that sentiment was changing, and not in Putin’s favor). Putin had convinced a sizable portion of separatist Ukrainians in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that they should throw their lot in with Russia and take up arms against Kyiv. Further, seizing Crimea in 2014 with “little green men” was as difficult as pushing on an open door, and the international community did little more than shrug when a bogus referendum sealed the deal to return Crimea to Russia. The British government briefly wondered if it should close the City of London to vast sums of Russian wealth, before unsurprisingly deciding not to. Even better, from Putin’s perspective, President Donald Trump sided in 2018 with Putin against his own intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. Putin and his ever-smaller circle of advisers may have decided that a confluence of domestic and foreign factors augured well for his plan.

Stop imagining Putin’s overthrow. Fantasies won’t help Ukraine.

At its best, however, intelligence encourages its political masters to ask the right questions, to consider their assumptions, and ask what might go wrong. Putin did not grasp that since independence in 1991 — and more so since Russia’s incursions into the eastern part of the country in 2014 — Ukraine had become a proud and viable nation state in the ways that he had always twisted history to deny. It may have been hard for even the most talented leadership analysts to predict that Zelensky would rise to the moment so magnificently. But — recalling 2013’s Maidan protests — they should have known that a deep vein of patriotism was ready to be tapped, or at least offered Putin a menu of scenarios that could have included this development as a possible outcome. They probably didn’t because, in Putin’s Russia, intelligence professionalism appears to have been suffocated under the blanket of sycophancy. Compounding his predicament, Putin’s heretofore clever information warfare machine suddenly seemed tone-deaf and ridiculous in the face of Ukrainian resistance; Putin’s spin-doctors were outclassed by an actor finding his inner Churchill and a farmer towing a tank.

Putin’s analysts also appear to have failed to predict what has turned into the Kremlin’s worst-case scenario from an international perspective — that Russia would become an international pariah. This may be more excusable given the relatively mild way the West has responded to other Putin aggressions (in Georgia and Crimea, say). And it may have taken a crystal ball for his analysts to predict that a “brain dead” NATO would come to life to support the defense of Ukraine. It was hardly the most likely occurrence, after all, that Germany would wake from its slumber to take on a more central role in European security, that Britain would get serious about dirty money in London or that the Swiss would finally mix morality and banking.

No, Russia isn’t committing ‘genocide’ in Ukraine

To be fair, Putin was an average counterintelligence officer, never selected to join the elite that served in the West; nor was he trained as an intelligence analyst. If he had been, he might have been more acutely aware that forecasting in the intelligence business isn't clear cut, and that careful analysts should strive to find ways of representing probabilities while expressing uncertainty to their political masters. That doesn’t seem to have happened. Today, Putin is reportedly furious with senior officers in his security service for misleading him about the probabilities of success. Two officers of the FSB, Russia’s domestic security service, are said to be under house arrest for their misreading of Ukraine, but Putin is also guilty of deceiving himself. To modify the old lawyer’s saw, a man who is his own intelligence analyst has a fool for a consumer.

The Chinese general Sun Tzu counseled that, to achieve martial victory, one must know one’s self and one’s enemy. Putin chose a military strategy that was built on faulty assumptions about the Russian resources that it would take to subdue Ukraine, he misjudged the resolve and tenacity of his enemy, and he did not into account the vast amount of international support Kyiv would receive to repulse him. The failings of Putin’s shambolic invasion are well documented, but these are eclipsed by his fumbling of intelligence — an ironic turn of events, given his background.