LONDON — In mid-February, Britain’s Defense Ministry started using social media in a way it never had done before: to share military intelligence on a foreign conflict.
The United Kingdom has substantial resources in the region and banks of analysts back in London. These intelligence updates, as they’re called, are just the tip of the intelligence iceberg and sometimes detail what’s available on other open-source outlets. But they are nonetheless a constant feed of tactical information.
Russia has noticed. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman commented last week that Ukraine was “under the leadership of Britain’s highly experienced intelligence services.”
Analysts say British and American officials are making some of their intelligence public in hopes of countering Russian narratives, rallying allies and even reaching people in Russia, though the latter became more difficult last month after the Kremlin restricted social media content within the country.
“The extraordinary thing about this war is how we’ve dominated the information space right from the beginning. We’re doing it to crowd out any propaganda from the Russians,” said Jonathan Eyal, associate director at RUSI, a London-based defense think tank. And compared with 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, “it’s 180 degrees difference from how Putin ran rings around us.”
The release of Western intelligence didn’t deter an invasion of Ukraine. But officials and analysts say it’s helping Ukraine in the information wars, at least in some countries.
For Brits, who are far more clandestine about intelligence activity than Americans, it’s a bit of a new world for them to see so much intelligence out there.
“It’s completely unprecedented. They do not traditionally do live updates of intelligence,” said Rory Cormac, a British academic and author of several books on British intelligence services. “It’s a huge cultural shift.”
The tweets, which began Feb. 17, offer much more detail on Russia’s operations than they do on Ukraine’s.
“‘Propaganda’ is a dirty word. But the West is doing it, Putin is doing it,” Cormac said. “In my opinion, we are doing it for the right reasons and in a much more proportionate way that’s compatible with democracy.”
The United Kingdom has three main intelligence services: MI6, the foreign intelligence service, popularized by the fictional spies James Bond and George Smiley; MI5, the domestic agency; and GCHQ, the eavesdropping service. There is also Defense Intelligence, or DI; many of its 4,500 staffers are experts at poring over satellite images and open-source information. DI isn’t a stand-alone outfit like the others but rather a department within the Defense Ministry, and the ministry’s tweets carry the DI logo.
The entire intelligence community is famously secretive.
The government didn’t officially acknowledge the existence of MI6, the U.K. equivalent of the CIA, for the first 80 years of its existence. Even in 2022, there is technically only one avowed member of MI6 — the chief.
The illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is continuing.— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) April 21, 2022
The map below is the latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine - 21 April 2022
Find out more about the UK government's response: https://t.co/Inm2Kw4HJe
🇺🇦 #StandWithUkraine 🇺🇦 pic.twitter.com/dodwF2a2Nv
Yet the intelligence organizations have gradually moved toward a more public-facing role, even as the thinking about how they should interact with the public has evolved. The first public address by an MI6 chief was in 2010. Today, the agency’s leader is active on social media.
Over the years, of course, British spies tried to put intelligence in the public domain. During the Cold War, this was often done by tapping favorite journalists over boozy lunches. Nowadays, officials here share declassified intelligence in briefings with reporters.
But going direct to a mass audience is a novel approach.
Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, said in a recent speech that a “remarkable feature” of the war in Ukraine has been “just how much intelligence has been so quickly declassified to get ahead of Putin’s actions.”
He listed some examples: “From the warnings of the war, to the intelligence on false-flag operations designed to provide a fake premise to the invasion, and more recently, to the Russian plans to falsely claim Ukrainian use of banned chemical weapons, on this and many other subjects, deeply secret intelligence is being released to make sure the truth is heard. At this pace and scale, it really is unprecedented.”
Officials and analysts say the strategy has effectively countered Russian disinformation. In the lead-up to the war, the effort by the “Five Eyes” spy alliance — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — helped to puncture Putin’s justifications for the invasion and convince European allies that the threat of an invasion was serious.
“Basically, the English-speaking countries ganged up on Europeans, grabbing them by the scruff of the neck, and said, ‘Look, you’ve got a problem,’” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the think tank Chatham House. As a result of the disclosures, “Russia doesn’t have the same grip on world audiences because they are finally being opposed.”
Analysts contrast the approach by U.K. and U.S. leaders, who were warning over the winter that Russia was preparing to attack, to that of their French counterparts, who did not accurately predict the invasion. Éric Vidaud, France’s military intelligence chief, recently stepped down from his post.
Disclosing intelligence is not without risks. Sources or methods used to acquire intelligence could be exposed. And if Western intelligence agencies don’t get things right during this conflict, their reputations could take a hit — as happened after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when their claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction turned out to be false.
On Ukraine, the intelligence tweets are frequent but still on the cautious side, and sanitized.
“When you read it closely, it’s often a hedge,” said Phillips P. O’Brien, a war studies expert at the University of St. Andrews. “So they will say, ‘Russians are having logistics problems.’ Well, okay, what does that mean? Sometimes it’s the mood music that’s more interesting than the evidence.”
What isn’t discussed is also notable: no adverse or revealing news about Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield.
“They aren’t going to release anything that would give Russia any idea about Ukrainian forces,” O’Brien said. “So they will say things like, ‘Russia has withdrawn forces from Kyiv and will try to re-base to Donbas,’ but won’t say anything about what Ukraine is going to do.”
The updates are largely battlefield intelligence and not, say, assessments on Putin’s motivations or decision-making within the Kremlin.
The U.K. agencies still have a well-earned reputation for playing their cards close to their chest. While officials may be more media-savvy now, an entrenched culture of secrecy remains.
As RUSI’s Eyal put it: “The stuff you see on these twice-a-day slides is just skimming the surface.”
Shane Harris in Washington contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.