The Biden Administration spent nearly a year distributing intelligence about Russian military deployments, before warning all Americans to leave Ukraine. It claims February 16 as the likeliest date for a Russian invasion. But Ukraine itself denies that an invasion is imminent. Ukrainians go about their normal business, hit the ski slopes on weekends, and protest that they’re not leaving.
How to explain the differing U.S. and Ukrainian postures?
The xenophobic assumption is that the Ukrainians don’t know any better. But Ukraine has the best human intelligence on its own borders. The United States has the best technical intelligence, such as imagery, signals intercepts, and hacks. Technical intelligence can easily prove military deployments, but human intelligence proves intent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already proven aggressive, expansionist intentions in Ukraine. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv, in response to Kyiv’s pro-Western revolution. Putin is an opportunist. Just because he wants more of Ukraine given the opportunity, doesn’t mean that he is intent on invading when the Biden Administration says so.
More importantly, the Biden Administration’s frequent claims that invasion is “imminent” are self-fulfilling prophecies. Biden is desensitizing everybody to the shock of yet another aggressive war in Europe. The more desensitized we are to Putin’s wars, the less risky they are for Putin.
An apologist, Daniel Baer, has just opined that the Biden Administration’s steady drip-drip of sensational claims is actually a clever strategy to put Russia on the verbal defensive. But Baer is really the one on the defensive: he was one of Barack Obama’s appointees to Europe in 2014. At the time, the Obama Administration was frozen in intelligence failure and policy indecision.
The Biden Administration seems to think that the lesson from 2014 is that it should spew public claims about secret intelligence. But the Biden Administration has been caught spinning bad intelligence too frequently for it to be taken on trust.
In August 2021, the U.S. intelligence community failed to reach a consensus about the origins of COVID-19, despite a presidential directive for a community-wide reassessment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan collapsed before Biden’s scheduled withdrawal. Biden blamed the estimates. The intelligence community leaked estimates that predicted collapse. But they were still off by weeks to months. A U.S. drone subsequently killed an Afghani aid worker and his family, whom the Biden Administration touted as the controller of the Islamic State suicide bomber who had killed 13 American military personnel at Kabul airport.
The normally loyal American media this week questioned the administration’s claim that the Islamic State’s leader in Syria blew up himself and his family rather than be taken by U.S. special operators. The Biden Administration slapped down journalists’ requests for evidence of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi’s alleged familicide.
In the same week, the Biden Administration claimed that Russia had filmed a fictional crime by fictional Ukrainian troops as a pretext for war. Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesman (and a former CIA officer), briefed journalists about “declassified intelligence,” then refused to produce it. During an impatient rebuttal, he unguardedly revealed that the community is not “confident” enough to release this intelligence.
What ultimately discredits the Biden Administration’s intelligence is the indecisiveness of America’s response. If the United States knew that Putin was intent on war, the administration should have reconciled its policies and forces back in November, when it warned of 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border—or back in April, when it expressed alarm about Russian military exercises on the same border.
For months, the Biden Administration has described an invasion as “imminent.” Nevertheless, the State Department evacuated diplomatic personnel and transferred military personnel to Ukraine’s neighbors in the last couple of weeks. These movements, by the way, won’t complete until after the supposed optimum date for the Russian invasion, which is Wednesday.
To be fair, Putin’s intentions are unusually difficult to estimate. Putin is deploying forces on bare steppes for every satellite to see, but capabilities do not prove intent. In November, anonymous intelligence officials leaked their community’s assessment that either Putin hadn’t yet decided what to do, or had kept his decision to a tight circle. (Years ago, his regime took to recording certain correspondence on electric typewriters that cannot be hacked.) On January 26, Biden said, in one of his rare unscripted comments, “I don’t even think his people know for certain what he will do.”
Overestimating the risk prepares the public for bad news. If Putin were to invade Ukraine, Biden could say, “I told you so.” Then he is less likely to be criticized for ignorance or unreadiness. Indeed, this might have been the root motivation for the Biden Administration to overestimate the risk all along.