More On: Putin
Biden was so preoccupied with the Ukraine conflict that he missed Putin's progress in other important places
The manner in which the United States revealed intelligence prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine could have a significant impact on geopolitics in the future.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine appears to be a horrifying Cold War relic. Once again, a strongman governs in Moscow, Russian tanks roll across borders, and a democratic nation fights for its existence, street by street, day by day, armed with only Molotov cocktails and a fervent conviction in freedom. Despite all the rhetoric about developing technology and new threats, the violence in Ukraine feels visceral and low-tech, and the world appears to be turning back the clock.
Despite all of these parallels of the past, Russia's invasion has ushered in one entirely new trend that has the potential to profoundly alter geopolitics in the future: the real-time public exposure of highly classified intelligence.
Never before has the US government published so much about an adversary in such fine detail, so quickly and so ruthlessly. Every day for the past few weeks appeared to bring a fresh set of warnings. Not nebulous, "Russia may or may not be up to anything" warnings, but "here's the satellite imagery showing 175,000 Russian troops in these exact spots along the border" warnings. Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that he had no plans to invade and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky complained that the US was exaggerating the threat and causing havoc in his economy, the intelligence leaks continued—detailing updated troop numbers and locations, invasion timetables, casualty estimates, and other details. It felt like we were watching a hurricane make landfall.
The revealed intelligence did not only concern military movements. It was about classified plans at the heart of Russia's spy operations. American and British intelligence agencies warned of attempts to stage a coup in Kyiv, install a puppet administration, and carry out "false-flag operations" to provide artificial pretexts for a genuine invasion. One Russian plot, according to US sources, entailed deploying saboteurs to Eastern Ukraine to target Russian separatists, giving the impression that Ukraine was the aggressor and Putin's soldiers were going to the rescue. Another entailed the creation of a bogus video depicting Ukrainian horrors, complete with actors and bodies.
It's difficult to exaggerate how significant this is. Intelligence is a carefully guarded world, where officials are hesitant to openly air what they know or how they know it for fear of jeopardizing sources or revealing how much information they have. Previously, the United States publicly shared intelligence exclusively with its closest friends and limited its use. Why is the White House being so forthcoming this time? So far, the Biden administration has been tight-lipped about the goals of its radical honesty intelligence approach. However, three hypotheses appear to be plausible.
The first is to immunize the world against information warfare by getting the truth out ahead of the falsehood. The essence of US and ally intelligence revelations has been "Don't believe anything the Kremlin says." It's all a ruse." The Russians are masters of deceit, and they've had the upper hand in prior incidents, including the 2014 takeover of Crimea and the 2016 U.S. election. Putin's aim has been to flood the zone with lies, disseminating disinformation early and frequently. According to psychology study, this is highly powerful because: Once lies are believed, they are difficult to disprove, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. In information warfare, the first-mover advantage is enormous. Getting the truth out before the con helps to unite allies and shore up support in the United States and around the world.
Providing intelligence also causes friction for Putin, throwing him off-balance. Instead of making decisions and managing the Ukraine problem on his own timetable, Putin must respond to Washington. And, instead of acting with impunity, he must waste his most valuable asset, time, worrying about his own intelligence flaws. How does the United States and its allies know what they know? What will they do with this foresight? What Russian intelligence flaws must be addressed? The more Putin ruminates on his own intelligence failings, the less concentration he has to dedicate to causing harm to others. In 2018, the United States Cyber Command implemented a similar strategy known as persistent engagement. The concept is simple but effective: weaken an opponent's offensive by making it work considerably harder on defense. Putin is a perfect target for this type of strategy. He's a former Russian intelligence operator with a neurotic tendency who is obsessed with home foes as much as international ones. You can take the man out of the KGB, but not the other way around.
Finally, proactive intelligence disclosure makes it far more difficult for other countries to sit out the battle or provide quiet assistance to Putin by hiding behind his fig-leaf narratives. Consider it covert action in reverse—a forced outing of what's really going on so that everyone is obliged to choose a side.
Governments engage in covert action to conceal their official involvement in an activity. One of the primary advantages of covert operations is that it allows other countries to assist on the sly. Even if everyone knows the truth, they pretend not to, and history shows that even the most flimsy of justifications may offer governments unexpected leeway. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, for example, the United States undertook a massive clandestine campaign to arm Afghan mujahideen. The Soviets were aware of what the United States was doing, and the United States was aware that the Soviets were aware. However, the covert action allowed Pakistan and Egypt to quietly assist American efforts without fear of Soviet retaliation. It also aided the Soviets by preventing a proxy conflict in Afghanistan from escalating into a full-fledged fight against the United States and its nuclear arsenal.
In the current Ukraine conflict, information leaks are having the opposite effect. By eliminating the fig leaf, the US and its allies are leaving little room for other countries to remain neutral or simply aid Putin. Switzerland, a country known for its neutrality and readiness to do business with criminals, agreed to European Union penalties. Germany is no longer unstable, having ultimately scrapped the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and vaulting from NATO defense-spending laggard to leader with dizzying speed. On Tuesday, over 100 ambassadors walked out of a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov was speaking. China, too, has released a comparatively restrained response to the invasion, urging diplomatic solutions.
To be sure, it's still early. World solidarity in the face of a crisis never lasts that long. In practically every aspect, China continues to lean significantly toward Moscow. And intellect is only one of several elements at work. No country wants to be caught in the crossfire of global sanctions, be labeled as NATO's weak link, or be viewed as being on the wrong side of history. However, intelligence releases have emerged as a potent new tactic in the mix. It is much more difficult for countries to hide behind Russia's bogus narrative when the narrative is discredited before Putin ever speaks.
This intelligence strategy is novel and ingenious. However, it is not without risk. Using secrets today may result in the loss of secrets later. When intelligence is publicly published, there is a risk that the adversary may discover the sources and techniques, endangering the lives of people on the ground and risking the ability to collect intelligence from technical and human sources in the future. That is why intelligence organizations have always been adamantly opposed to revelations.
Disclosures of intelligence information can also make crisis management more difficult. Making an adversary's hidden intents and skills known can be humiliating. That may seem wonderful at the time, but the key to resolving crises isn't boxing your adversary into a corner; it's finding face-saving exits. Giving the other guy a way out, even if you despise him for what he's done, is diplomacy.
Finally, in a world of radical transparency, intelligence accomplishments can be misinterpreted as failures. Consider the possibility that intelligence discoveries about Putin's invasion intentions swayed his decision, and he opted not to invade Ukraine. The intelligence would have been correct and effective, but it would have appeared incorrect and inept. Many would have concluded that Putin had no intention of invading in the first place, and that US intelligence agencies, which had been chastised for their role in the Iraq war, inability to prevent 9/11, and a slew of other gaffes, had miscalculated once more. Even while it shouldn't, trust in America's intelligence community would deteriorate.
So far, information from the Ukraine conflict indicates that the benefits of this intelligence-disclosure method much outweigh the hazards. Until now, it appeared that cyber-enabled deception had the upper hand, whether it was COVID misinformation or Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Ukraine has taught us all that, even in the digital era, truth and exposure can be potent weapons.