Failures in Intelligence: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is underscoring the importance of accurate information necessary to inform organizations’ decision-making.  The Kremlin undertook an ambitious plan to invade the largest country in Europe based on years of intelligence gathering and military planning.  Following a months-long buildup of forces along the Ukrainian borders in Russia and Belarus, many analysts forecasted that a Russian incursion of some kind would be on the near horizon.  However, most underestimated the scale of the Russian plan or ambition.  Whatever ambitions the Kremlin may have had at the start of the invasion, it is clear that it has not been going well for Russia on a tactical, strategic, or diplomatic level.  President Vladimir Putin was either supplied with inaccurate intelligence or disregarded accurate assessments of the viability of this invasion.  Indications point to the former with reports of the Kremlin placing high-level intelligence officials under house arrest.  Putin is clearly becoming dissatisfied with his intelligence officials throughout the course of this invasion.

Russian airstrikes targeted military sites across the country, from the far Western regions around Lviv, to the port of Odessa in the South.  Nevertheless growing evidence is indicating that the Russian invasion has completely stalled, and they are facing a variety logistical failures.  The cost of these failures will be increasingly exacted on the Ukrainian civilian populations.  Russia initially avoided indiscriminate targeting civilians in the early stages of the invasion.  But as the invasion has continued Russian Armed Forces are increasingly targeting  civilian locations. 

On the tactical level, it would appear that Russian military planners either overestimated their ability to achieve strategic objectives, or underestimated the level of Ukrainian resistance that they would encounter.  The operation to capture the Hostomel Airport in the early hours of the invasion is one example that illustrates the type of intelligence failures that have prevented the success of the Russian invasion.

The initial Russian invasion, comprised aircraft and targeted missile strikes on key Ukrainian military locations around the country.  These airstrikes were intended to support an armor and infantry led ground invasion, in conjunction with airborne deployments capturing forward strategic locations.  One such key location was the Antonov Airport in Hostomel, just north of Kiev.  In the initial hours of the invasion, Russian airborne forces were tasked with capturing this airfield.  Such an objective could have supported advancing Russian divisions with the necessary logistical support and reinforcements, and placed Russian forces in immediate striking distance of Kiev on day 1. 

In the early hours of the assault roughly 30 Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters entered Ukrainian airspace, flying low to evade radar detection, and began striking the Hostomel’s defensive infrastructure.  The Russian Ministry of Defense recently released footage of these air-attacks on Hostomel. 

Shortly following the initial air attack, a wave of Mi-8 transport helicopters began landing at the airport and inserting Russian airborne units on the ground.  While the number of Mi-8s in the wave remains unclear, each are capable of carrying around two dozen airborne soldiers.  Russian forces initially secured the airfield, and began awaiting the arrival of over a dozen Ilyushin Il-76 military transport planes, each capable of carrying 60 passengers or two shipping containers worth of cargo.  The success of this operation could have deployed a sizeable Russian force just outside Kiev. 

What Russian units failed to do was secure the areas around the airfield, and special forces attached to the Ukrainian Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense were able to mount a formidable counterattack.  Ukrainian reports indicated that units of the Prince Svyaltoslav Brigade (3rd Special Forces Regiment) killed at least 50 Russian fighters and recaptured Hostomel.  Reports also indicated that Russian Maj. General Andrei Sukhovetsky, a senior figure in the Russian airborne, a veteran of Chechnya, the annexation of Crimea, Syria, and Abkhazia was killed during the fighting by Ukrainian sniper fire.  While there are differing accounts, his direct involvement in this operation could indicate two important points, the necessity of the success of this operation to Russian command, and the overconfidence of the Russian planners to place such a high-value target in the direct line of fire. 

Fighting raged on at the airport over the next week, and Russia and Ukraine both claimed to have established control over the airfield.  A Russian armor unit advancing to reinforce the airport, was stalled and stopped by Ukrainian anti-armor attacks, and Russia’s failure to establish air-superiority ultimately led to the catastrophic failure to take the airport and hold it. 

While the airport has since fallen under Russian control, the element of surprise was completely lost, and the strategic value for which it was targeted in the early stages of the invasion diminished critically.  But Hostomel was just one case of a Russian intelligence failure on the battlefield.  The variety of these failures are turning what Russian planners believed would be a short military special operation into a protracted conflict.  While Hostomel illustrates the breakdown in Russian intelligence and planning, similar instances are playing out across Ukraine, at a high cost for invading Russian forces. 

Ukrainian officials have claimed that as many as six top Russian commanders have been killed since the start of the conflict.  In a conversation with CNN, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus who also served as the head of CENTCOM and ISAF in Afghanistan claimed that Ukrainian snipers are “picking [Russian commanders] off left and right.”  Petraeus among others noted that due to intelligence failures, Russian forces are being forced to use unsecure communications networks, leading to loss of senior leaders on the battlefield.  As Petraeus noted, “their command and control has broken down.”

Russian Commanders Likely KIA

The failure to accurately assess the sentiment of the Ukrainian people, is another indicator that Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin were not supplied with accurate intelligence.  Due to Ukraine’s complex history and relationship with Russia the nations are often referred to in both countries as “brotherly nations.”  For much of the 20th century, Ukrainian history was intertwined with Russian history.  Multiple leaders of the Soviet Union, including Nikita Khruschev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev were all Ukrainian, and Ukrainians were represented throughout the upper-echelons of Soviet power throughout its existence.  Thus Russian leaders since the collapse of the Soviet Union have long regarded Ukraine as an indispensable part of Russia’s sphere of influence.  A Ukraine apart of a so-called “russkiy mir” or Russian world is unacceptable for Russian leadership.  Many Ukrainians despise this notion, and increasingly look westward toward their nation’s future, and see Russia as a part of their past. 

Ukrainian demographics also underline the intertwined nature of Russian and Ukrainian peoples.  In the Eastern and Southern portions of Ukraine, the Russian language dominates, and its level of usage diminishes in the further western portions of the country.  A March 2015 survey indicated that in Kiev alone, over 70% of respondents claimed to use Russian within their home.  Thus, the complex relationship between Ukrainian nationalists in the West, that have campaigned to marginalize the Russian language in the country has not only angered Russia, but marginalized Russian speakers and civil society in the country.  As recently as January 2022, prior to the Russian invasion, provisions of a 2019 law came into effect, that required the Ukrainian language to dominate in most aspects of public life.  These actions further marginalized the Russian language and by result Russian speakers in the country.  The Council of Europe asserted that the law failed in applying a fair balance and safeguarding minorities linguistic rights, a key principle in many European Union Member States.  Thus, a Kremlin narrative about Ukrainian efforts to discriminate against the Russian segments of the population are not entirely without merit.  Furthermore, it is likely these efforts by Kiev, that factored into Russian intelligence estimates that the Russian speaking segments of the population would be receptive to Russian forces.  In the Kremlin’s mind, Russian speakers in Ukraine would great Russian forces as liberators.  However, this has been far from the case as waves of protestors have started confronting advancing Russian troops and occupation forces even in the predominately Russian speaking areas. 

Not only did the Kremlin underestimate the Ukrainian population’s sentiment towards the war, but they also underestimated that of their own.  In the early days of the invasion Russian police started detaining anti-war protestors around the country.  These anti-war demonstrators were fined for violating rules on public gatherings and Russian officials warned Russian citizens not to engage in these demonstrations or face a permanent criminal record.  Nevertheless, an independent Russian monitoring group OVD-info has logged over 15,000 detentions in the first month of the conflict alone. 

While the Kremlin likely expected some level of backlash from segments of Russian society, it is unlikely that Putin expected the Russian population to react at such a level across the country.  Russian censorship has also kicked into overdrive as the Kremlin has blacklisted any mention of the special operation as a “war,” and made spreading false information about the situation in Ukraine punishable by up to 15 years in prison. 

Even Russian oligarchs such as: Roman Abramovich, Evgeny Lebedev, Oleg Deripaska, Mikhail Friedman, and Oleg Tinkov, have joined calls for peace.  Since the downfall of Mikhail Khordokovsky, Russian oligarchs have by-in-large stayed out of politics.  In return, the Kremlin has not targeted them for corrupt investigation, and allowed them to maintain their wealth.  Thus, it is unclear if the Kremlin provided permission to these oligarchs to say what they needed to say to protect their wealth or this marks a turning point for the Kremlin’s relationship with the oligarchs.  As many oligarchs have had their assets frozen, confiscated, or targeted since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin was likely unprepared for the coordinated Western response.  The Russian oligarchs had little time to prepare for the economic levers the West would pull to punish and pressure the Kremlin.  For example, Roman Abramovich is currently moving his superyachts from one safe port to another in an effort to avoid their confiscation. 

A final level of intelligence failure influencing Russian decision-making is understanding the reaction from Western governments to their actions in Ukraine.  While NATO members and Washington had warned Russia that a significant economic package of sanctions would target Russia’s economy should they invade, it is unlikely they foresaw this level of response.  Sergei Lavrov recently confirmed as much.   While the threat of sanctions did not prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, they are exacting a heavy cost on the Kremlin for its decision. 

On 11 March 2022, the US froze the assets of elites closest to President Vladimir Putin, including VTB Bank’s management board, and Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.  Furthermore, US President Biden issued a new executive order prohibiting the exportation of USD banknotes to Russia, new investments in the Russian economy, the exportation of luxury goods to Russia, and the importation of Russian alcohol, fish, and diamonds.  While the Kremlin likely expected many of these actions from the US it is unclear if they expected the EU to follow suit.  On 15 March 2022, the EU implemented trade restrictions for the import of Russian iron, steel, and prohibited all transactions with a handful of Russian state-owned enterprises.   The EU also prohibited investments in the Russian energy sector and imposed an export restriction on equipment, technology, and services for the Russian energy sector.

While Russia indeed expected a set of sanctions to target their economy, it is unlikely that the Kremlin expected this level of response from around the globe.  Afterall, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and has participated in an ongoing conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Eastern portion of Ukraine since that time.  While a few rounds of sanctions were established against Russia for these actions, the EU remained unable to boycott Russian energy entirely due to their reliance on Russian oil and gas.  But Brussels is now seeking to diversify their energy imports away from Russian sources.  Calls from governments around the globe have denounced the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, in an unprecedented show of solidarity with Ukraine.  In the UN General Assembly on 2 March 2022, only five countries including Russia, voted against a resolution to condemn Russia’s activities in Ukraine: North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, and Belarus, also a party to the conflict. 

The Russian economy remains in free fall, and the Russian stock market closed from 24 February 2022 to 21 March 2022, while only re-opening to initial bond trading.  These sanctions on the Russian economy are unlikely to deter Russian actions, and will further drive a wedge in-between Moscow and the West.  It also remains unclear for how long the West can stand united on a boycott of Russia. 

The Kremlin’s intelligence failures are playing out for the world to see, and Putin’s growing dissatisfaction with his intelligence services is becoming increasingly apparent.  Andrey Soldatov, a longtime Russian security service watcher, reported on telegram that Sergei Beseda the Chief of the FSB’s Fifth Service for Operational Information and International Relations and his deputy were placed under house arrest.  Soldatov underlined that providing false information about the political situation in Ukraine was a key reason for their arrest.  Additionally, prior to the invasion, a clip of Russia’s Security Council meeting on 20 February 2022 went viral when Putin berated the chief of the SVR (the foreign intelligence service) Sergei Naryshkin.  In the clip, the top foreign intelligence official in the Kremlin was seen stammering and struggling to provide the answer that Putin wanted to hear. 

Both of these episodes indicate Putin’s growing dissatisfaction with his intelligence officials.  Furthermore, they indicate a key breakdown in the Russian intelligence cycle.  Whether top intelligence officials are not providing Putin with the information he needs to inform his decision-making, or just telling him what he wants to hear, somewhere in the process there is catastrophic failure.  While the Russian invasion rages on, intelligence failures will continue to not only cost Russia economic viability, and relations with the West, but Russian lives.

Ukraine estimates that over 12,000 Russian soldiers have been killed on the battlefield.  While these numbers are likely inflated, US estimates place Russian losses around 7,000 troops, Russia is undoubtedly experiencing significant losses.  In Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003 onwards, US Forces reported around 4,500 fatalities.  Russian forces cannot sustain this level of loss, and likely did not foresee this level of casualties. 

While the outcome of this conflict remains undecided, organizations in the West will face new compliance challenges, to decouple themselves from Russia.  Oftentimes, Russian actors have undertaken great strains to obscure their beneficial ownership and evade sanctions.  Thus, with sweeping sanctions targeting the Russian economy, the challenge of navigating these risks grows.