In new front of information war, U.S. repeatedly declassifies intelligence on Ukraine and Russia

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In 2014, amid Russia’s last major assault on Ukraine, U.S. officials picked up some disturbing intelligence: A “major politician” and “confidante” of Russian President Vladimir Putin was privately calling for the Russian military to march toward the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

The Russian politician was arguing that “we should take [Kyiv], because we could, it wouldn’t take long,” that it was “only so many miles” to the Ukrainian capital, so “let’s keep going,” recalled a former CIA official. CIA experts considered it enough of a legitimate threat that they took it “up the chain,” recalled the former official.

Russia, of course, did not launch a military attack on Kyiv in 2014, and the intelligence about the Russian official’s advocacy for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine stayed secret.

But now, with growing fears that Moscow is preparing for a full-scale invasion, the Biden administration has abandoned the U.S.’s normally tight-lipped attitude toward releasing intelligence information and is pursuing a strategic — and according to former officials, unprecedented — declassification campaign aimed at exposing Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

In recent days, U.S. officials have called out a number of Russian “false flag” operations that they say are designed to provide a pretext to invade Ukraine. These have included allegations of a potential Russian-authored chemical assault designed to look like Ukrainian aggression, and even a plot to create a detailed yet fake movie showing the lethal aftermath of a Ukrainian attack. Officials have also publicly named Russian military intelligence as responsible for a disruptive cyber operation that targeted Ukraine’s defense ministry and banks earlier this week.

Experts say the revelations have been aimed at throwing Russia off balance by exposing their plans before they’re brought to fruition — and showing that the U.S. has the capability to surveil many of Russia’s actions.

By the end of the Trump administration, U.S. spy agencies had developed a “much better understanding of what the Russians are doing in a strategic sense,” said a former senior CIA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive capabilities. “There were some extraordinary sources, obviously those are really fragile, so I’m not sure if those accesses are still in place, but I have to imagine they are.”

The CIA declined to comment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last Thursday. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters)

Though many were supportive of the declassification effort, former intelligence officials who spoke with Yahoo News were divided over whether the Biden administration’s strategy could actually change Russia’s decision to invade. President Biden’s own recent remarks on Putin’s decision to attack Kyiv seems to underline the inability for the U.S. to compel Putin to de-escalate.

But the strategy has other benefits, according to former officials — including vitiating Russia’s pretexts for war in the court of public opinion, and by exposing potential technical or human compromises within the Russian government, which could send Moscow’s counterintelligence experts spinning out on time-consuming hunts for the sources of the intelligence. However, there is also the risk that the Russians will succeed in identifying those U.S. intelligence sources and shut them down.

The Russians are “going to lie anyway, and try and shape a narrative,” said Michael van Landingham, a former CIA Russia analyst. “And what you’re seeing now is the U.S. committing to preemptive selective de-classification” in the hope that the exposure will force the Russians to de-escalate or push onward without the cover provided by Russia-authored fake justifications for war.

The high-stakes confrontation could also have Putin wondering about the bona fides of Russia’s own U.S. agents, according to a former senior counterintelligence official. “He’ll be questioning, and doubting, anything that comes from his U.S. sources,” said the former official. “That’s good for us.”

The distrust of intelligence can cut both ways. Particularly when it comes to Russia, it’s hard not to believe that there isn’t “a game within a game within a game within a game,” said the former CIA official.

Much of what had been obtained by U.S. intelligence on the false flag operations attempting to justify an invasion could have been purposely planted by Russia to be picked up by U.S. spying efforts, according to Dan Hoffman, the former CIA chief of station in Moscow. The Biden’s administration’s strategy of releasing intelligence is a “double-edged sword, and it has not demonstrated that it has changed Putin’s calculus,” said Hoffman. “Putin is a KGB guy, so he might be feeding us disinformation.”

Civilians take part in a military training course in Kyiv, Ukraine
Civilians take part in a military training course in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Some Ukrainian officials have also been skeptical about the ultimate purpose of the intelligence they’ve received. While they’re being fed high-quality signals intelligence by the U.S. and other allies about Moscow’s plans, some Ukrainian officials “aren’t really sure” what to make of it, said a former senior CIA official in close contact with Ukrainian security officials.

The Ukrainian officials believe “that the Russians want to show us all this stuff” being picked up by the U.S. and other intelligence services, that “they want us to be on edge,” said the former official. So while the Ukrainian security officials believe they’re “taking all prudent measures,” they’re not “panicking” over the information being passed to them, said the former official.

The confusion by the Ukrainian security officials about how to read the intelligence is exacerbated by a lack of confidence in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s handling of the crisis. “There’s a lot of angst [by the Ukrainian security officials] that the presidential administration is not very professional,” said the former senior agency official. (The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return a request for comment.)

Biden administration officials share this view, said a former national security official in touch with colleagues in government. “Their interactions with Kyiv have been frustratingly fruitless,” said the former official. Administration officials “understand, on the public side, Zelensky’s trying to keep his economy and own polity from collapsing.” But officials — to no avail — kept hammering to their Ukrainian counterparts that an invasion was likely, telling them, “No, no, seriously: It’s coming.”