How did the five largest intel agencies in the world misjudge the outcome of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine? Intel agencies in Russia (FSB), America (CIA), Germany (BDN), France (DRM) and to a lesser extent Britain (MI6) concluded that Ukraine could not defeat a Russian invasion and their political superiors acted on that by trying to persuade Russia not to invade. In the immediate aftermath of the February 24th invasion, it became apparent that the intel agencies had overestimated Russian military capabilities and vastly underestimated what the Ukrainians were capable of.
The intel agencies had done this before. They misinterpreted the situation inside Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and in the Soviet Union after the collapse of communist government throughout Eastern Europe in 1989. These intel failures are common because large bureaucracies find comfort in sharing the same assessments that turn out or be wrong. It spreads the blame.
The details of how Ukraine won were known before the invasion, reported in some specialized media and even more so in Ukrainian mass media. There are translation programs to produce English, and other language versions of Ukrainian print and electronic media. Spoken Ukrainian, especially in newscasts, is understandable to Russian speakers. Intel agencies tend to prefer classified data rather than OSINT (open-source intelligence) and have to deal with command influence. This last item is senior customers for the intel agency assessments preferring certain outcomes, usually for political or personal reasons. These people are senior enough that their preferences must be satisfied.
The Ukrainians knew why the 2014 Russian surprise attacks, that seized the Crimean Peninsula and half of two provinces in eastern Ukraine known as Donbas (the Donets River Basin industrial area), did not go as planned. Ukrainian resistance mobilized faster and with more combat capabilities than Russia expected. The intel agencies missed or downplayed the Ukrainian response after 2014 as they began examining how a more massive Russian attack would be carried out. Less effort was made examining Ukrainian preparations, which proved far more effective against the 2022 Russian invaders. The Ukrainian preparations were no secret. It was all shared in the media, including Ukrainian assessments of how the Russians would invade, assessments that proved quite accurate. So were descriptions of the Ukrainian preparations revealed openly. These preparations were also very visible, especially the psychological edge Ukrainian troops had over their Russian counterparts. The Ukrainians were willing to fight the Russians, had done so successfully several times in the last century and learned from their mistakes.
No so the Russians who were having serious problems finding Russians willing to join the military either as well-paid “contrackti” (longer term volunteers) or one-year conscripts. Draft-dodging became a major economic activity and Russian conscription officials were eager to make some cash on the side by keeping fortunate sons out of uniform. The Russians continued to have problems with military leadership. There were too many officers and hardly any career NCOs. This not only meant troops were poorly trained and had little effective leadership in combat, but that the troops were also lax in maintaining their equipment, especially vehicles. This is an unpopular chore in all militaries but in those with career NCOs, who know from personal experience how important good maintenance is, the work gets done.
Another widely reported story was the problems Russia was having updating their Cold War era equipment. This was especially true with tactical radios. In this the Russians were decades behind the West when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian officers who specialized in tactical communications knew that the solution was simple because modern military tactical radio tech was available in high-end commercial radios and after 1991 that tech was now available to Russia. The problem was that in the 1990s the Russian military was broke, with barely enough money to pay, feed and house the troops. That often failed because the meager defense budget was often plundered by corrupt officers or civilian officials. This became news in Russian mass media when parents of conscripts discovered their sons had died from starvation or cold in some isolated base where there was not enough food or heat in the barracks because of corrupt officers. The government responded to calls for reform by making promises they would or could not keep and declaring such bad news were state secrets. Draft-dodging increased and morale in the military remained debilitatingly bad.
Meanwhile Russian troops were not getting their new tactical radios in sufficient numbers and these were not tested under realistic conditions to fix problems that later emerged once Russian troops were inside Ukraine and discovered that they could not communicate with each other. In peacetime exercises battlezone problems, like the inability to install and maintain the communications repeaters, were not a major problem. When there were problems with the new radios troops learned to quietly fall back on cell phones, because after the 1990s nearly every Russian had one and cell phone companies were a growth industry. Ukrainians knew of the Russian battlefield communications problems, ensured that Ukrainian soldiers would not have them, and measures were taken to degrade Russian communications as much as possible.
Another bit of OSINT was that the Ukrainians solved their version of these problems after 2014 while the Russians played “let’s pretend” and declared the truth a state secret that was treasonous to reveal. As the invasion date approached the Ukrainian military published their assessments of how the attack would be conducted, using over fifty battalion size units called BTGs (Battalion Task Groups). The Ukrainians did not talk about the sorry state of Russian unit leadership and training. After all, that was widely known, at least in Ukraine. The Ukrainians had organized a nationwide network of territorial battalions that were local defense organizations with the ability to quickly arm and train lots of volunteers if the Russians did invade. Some of those territorial units had organized small groups armed with modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. These had been purchased or received as military aid since 2014. The fifteen brigades of the Ukrainian army had them as did some territorial units. These weapons proved decisive in defeating the initial Russian attacks, which included a Russian attempt to grab an airport near the capital Kyiv using commandos transported in low-flying helicopters, to be followed by large transport aircraft carrying more troops and vehicles. The plan failed because the Ukrainian troops had anti-aircraft weapons that defeated the defensive systems on the helicopters and prevented the airport from being seized. Russian BTGs moving down roads from the border were ambushed by army or territorial teams armed with anti-tank weapons that often-rendered entire BTGs ineffective because so many armored vehicles were destroyed or disabled. Later these teams, especially territorial ones that knew the neighborhood much better than the invading Russians, ambushed supply trucks and cut off essential supplies the BTGs that did get close to cities needed to keep fighting.
Back in Moscow, the Russian Stavka (General Staff) had officers who could do an accurate COF (correlation of forces) analysis and it is unknown if one of those was done. During the Cold War those honest COF studies were sometimes done, and they showed how a Russian attack on NATO countries would be a disaster. This usually meant the author of the embarrassing COF was transferred to some distant posting and his accurate SOF study was denounced but often filed away. Some of these were found and became accessible, for a few years, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Considering the number of FSB and Stavka personnel who lost their jobs in the last few weeks, there may well have been one of those accurate COF studies done before the invasion and locked away only to surface later to the embarrassment of many.