How the United States found out that Putin would attack Ukraine: Americans have been warning Kyiv since autumn, but they were not particularly believed
Since autumn, the United States has been telling the Ukrainian leadership that Putin has everything ready for a massive attack on Ukraine, but Kyiv did not want to believe it. A large amount of intelligence that America has collected, negotiations between European leaders, diplomatic contacts with Russia - nothing helped stop the war, reports The Washington Post.
On a sunny October morning, the nation's top intelligence, military and diplomatic leaders headed to the Oval Office for an urgent meeting with President Biden. They arrived with a highly classified intelligence analysis, compiled from newly obtained satellite images, intercepted communications and human sources, that represented Russian President Vladimir Putin's military plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
For months, Biden administration officials have watched with apprehension as Putin rounds up tens of thousands of troops and lines up tanks and missiles along Ukraine's borders. As the summer drew to a close, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, focused on the growing volume of intelligence related to Russia and Ukraine. He arranged the meeting in the Oval Office after his own thoughts moved from unsure of Russia's intentions to concern that he was too skeptical about the prospects for military action to anxiety.
The meeting was one of several meetings between officials on Ukraine that fall, but was notable for the detailed intelligence picture presented. Biden and Vice President Harris took their seats in front of the fireplace, while Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined the Directors of National Intelligence and the CIA.
Perfect crazy plan
Tasked by Sullivan with compiling a comprehensive review of Russia's intentions, they told Biden that intelligence about Putin's operational plans, combined with the continued deployment of troops along the border with Ukraine, showed that everything was now ready for a massive offensive.
The US intelligence community has infiltrated many points in Russia's political leadership, spy apparatus and military, from the highest echelons to the front lines, according to US officials.
Much more radical than Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, Putin's military plans included seizing most of the country.
Using maps, Milli showed the positions of the Russian troops and the territory of Ukraine, which they intended to capture. It was a startlingly audacious plan that could directly threaten NATO's eastern flank or even destroy Europe's post-World War II security architecture.
During the briefing, Biden, who took office promising to save the country from more wars, decided that Putin must either be contained or resisted and that the United States should not go it alone. However, NATO was far from unanimous on how to deal with Moscow, and US credibility was weak. After the disastrous occupation of Iraq, the chaos that followed the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, and four years of attempts by President Donald Trump to undermine the alliance, it was far from certain that Biden could effectively lead the West's response to Russian expansion.
Ukraine was a troubled former Soviet republic with corruption, and the response of the US and its allies to earlier Russian aggression was vague and fragmented. When the invasion comes, the Ukrainians will need significant new weaponry to defend themselves.
This account, not previously reported in detail, sheds light on the arduous climb to rebuild confidence in the United States, the struggle to balance the secrecy of intelligence with the need to convince others of its veracity, and the problem of determining how the world's most powerful military alliance will help far. imperfect democracy on the border with Russia to repel the attack without firing a shot from NATO.
The first in a series on the path to war and the military campaign in Ukraine, compiled from in-depth interviews with more than three dozen senior US, Ukrainian, European and NATO officials about a global crisis that has not yet ended. Some spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss important intelligence.
That October morning, when Milley laid out the balance of power, he and others summarized Putin's intentions. “According to our estimates, they are planning to launch a major strategic attack on Ukraine simultaneously from several directions,” Milley told the president. “This is their version of blitzkrieg.
According to intelligence, the Russians will come from the north, on both sides of Kyiv. Some forces were to move east of the capital through the Ukrainian city of Chernigov, while others were to bypass Kyiv from the west, moving south from Belarus through a natural gap between the “exclusion zone” at the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the surrounding swamps. The attack was to take place in winter so that the hard ground would make the terrain easily passable for tanks. Having formed pincers around the capital, Russian troops planned to capture Kyiv in three to four days. The special forces, their special forces, will find and remove President Volodymyr Zelensky, assassinating him if necessary, and install a Kremlin-friendly puppet government.
Separately, Russian troops were to come from the east and pass through central Ukraine to the Dnieper, while troops from Crimea occupied the southeast coast. These actions may take several weeks, as suggested in the Russian plans.
After pausing to regroup and rearm, they would then move west, towards a north-south line stretching from Moldova to western Belarus, leaving to the west the remnants of the Ukrainian state — territory that Putin calculated was inhabited by incorrigible neo-Nazi Russophobes.
The United States received "extreme details" about the Kremlin's secret war plans, which it continued to deny, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haynes later explained. They included not only the disposition of troops, weapons and operational strategy, but also such subtleties as "Putin's unusual and dramatic increase in funding for military operations and the build-up of reserve forces, even when other pressing needs, such as pandemic response, were not addressed." she said. It was not just intimidation, unlike the large-scale Russian deployment in April, when Putin's forces threatened Ukraine's borders but never launched an attack.
Some in the White House found it difficult to grasp the scope of the Russian leader's ambitions.
"It didn't look like anything a reasonable country would do," one of the meeting participants later said of the planned occupation of most of the country, with an area of 603 km² and a population of nearly 700 million people.
Parts of Ukraine were deeply anti-Russian, threatening an insurgency even if Putin overthrew the government in Kyiv. Yet intelligence showed that more and more troops were arriving and deploying for a full-fledged campaign. Ammunition, food and the most important supplies were stockpiled in Russian camps.
Biden put pressure on his advisers. Do they really think Putin is likely to strike this time?
Yes, as the advisors confirmed. This is real. Although the administration publicly said over the next few months that it did not believe Putin had made a final decision, the only thing his team could not tell the president that fall day was exactly when the Russian president would pull the trigger.
Restoration of the Russian Empire?
CIA Director William J. Burns, who served as US ambassador to Moscow and had the most direct contact with Putin of anyone in the Biden administration, called the Russian leader obsessed with Ukraine. Control of the country was synonymous with Putin's concept of Russian identity and power. The precision of military planning, combined with Putin's conviction that Ukraine must be re-absorbed into the homeland, left him in no doubt that Putin was ready to invade.
“I thought he was quite serious,” Burns said a few months later, recalling the briefing.
Intelligence confirmed the promise of Putin's own words. Three months earlier, in July, he had published a 7000-word essay, "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," laced with discontent and dubious claims. He argued that Russians and Ukrainians were "one people" - an idea rooted in Putin's claims of "blood ties" - and that Moscow had been "plundered" by the treacherous West.
“I am sure that the real sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia,” Putin wrote.
Just weeks before the essay was published, Biden and Putin held a summit meeting on June 16 that both called "constructive." At that time, Ukraine was a concern, but according to White House officials, it could be dealt with. As the White House delegation left the Geneva meeting, a senior Biden aide later recalled, “we didn’t get on a plane and come home thinking the world was on the verge of a big war in Europe.”
But Putin's subsequent publication "greatly got our attention," as Sullivan later said. “We started looking at what is happening here, what is its purpose? How hard will he push?” he said. As a precautionary measure, on August 27, Biden authorized the removal of $60 million worth of mostly defensive weapons from US stockpiles and their shipment to Ukraine.
By the end of the summer, as they pieced together intelligence from the border and from Moscow, analysts who had dedicated their careers to studying Putin became increasingly convinced that the Russian leader — himself a former intelligence officer — saw the window of opportunity was closing. Ukrainians have risen twice already to demand a democratic future free of corruption and Moscow’s interference, during the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution and the 2013–2014 Maidan protests that preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Although Ukraine was not a member of NATO or the European Union, it was now steadily moving into the Western political, economic and cultural orbit. This drift has fueled Putin's broader dissatisfaction with Russia's loss of empire.
In a grim actuarial assessment, analysts concluded that Putin, who is about to turn 69, knew he had little time to cement his legacy as one of Russia's great leaders — the one who restored Russia's dominance of the Eurasian continent.
Analysts say Putin calculated that any Western response to an attempt to retake Ukraine by force would be impossible. According to them, the Russian leader believes that the Biden administration is punished by the humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan and wants to avoid new wars. The United States and Europe were still struggling with the coronavirus pandemic. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the de facto European leader, was stepping down and handing over power to an untested successor.
French President Emmanuel Macron is facing re-election against a resurgent right wing, and Britain has been in a post-Brexit economic downturn. Much of the continent was dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, which Putin thought he could use as a wedge to split the Western alliance. He had amassed hundreds of billions of dollars in cash reserves and was confident that the Russian economy would be able to weather the inevitable sanctions, as it had done in the past.
Biden, who received new intelligence and analysis at the October briefing, “responded essentially in two ways,” Sullivan said. First, to try to contain Putin, they "needed to send someone to Moscow to sit with the Russians at the highest level and tell them, 'If you do this, there will be consequences'."
Second, they needed to brief their allies on U.S. intelligence and engage them in what the administration believed was to be a unified and tough stance on sanctions against Russia, building and expanding NATO defenses, and aiding Ukraine.
Burns was sent to Moscow, and Haynes was sent to NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Math from Millie's portfolio
Months later, Millie still carried in his briefcase the note cards reflecting the US interests and strategic goals discussed at the October briefing. He could recite them by heart.
Problem: "How to enforce the rules-based international order" against a country with exceptional nuclear capability, "without resorting to World War III?"
- #1: "Do not allow a kinetic conflict between the armed forces of the United States and NATO with Russia."
- No. 2: "Contain the war within the geographic boundaries of Ukraine."
- No. 3: "Strengthen and maintain the unity of NATO."
- No. 4: "Strengthen Ukraine and give it the means to fight."
Biden's advisers were confident that Ukraine would fight back. The United States, Britain and other NATO members have spent years training and equipping a Ukrainian military that is more professional and organized than it was seven years before Russia's attack on Crimea and the eastern region of Donbass. But the training focused less on how to organize internal resistance after Russian occupation than on how to prevent it in the first place. The weapons they supplied were mostly small-caliber and defensive, so as not to be perceived as a provocation by the West.
The administration was also deeply concerned about Ukraine's young president, a former TV comedian who came to power on a huge wave of popular support and a desire for fundamental change, but lost public credibility in part because he failed to deliver on his promise of peace with Russia. Zelensky, 44, seemed no match for the ruthless Putin.
Mathematics was not in favor of Ukraine. Russia had more troops, more tanks, more artillery, more fighter jets and guided missiles, and had demonstrated in previous conflicts its willingness to force its weaker adversaries into submission, regardless of civilian casualties.
Kyiv might not fall as quickly as the Russians expected, the Americans concluded, but it would.
On November 2, Burns was escorted to the Kremlin office by Yuri Ushakov, Putin's foreign policy adviser and former ambassador to the United States. Ushakov's boss was on the other end of the phone line, talking to Burns from the resort town of Sochi, where he had secluded himself during another wave of coronavirus infections in Moscow.
The Russian leader cited his usual complaints about NATO expansion, Russian security threats and illegitimate leadership in Ukraine.
“He was very dismissive of President Zelensky as a political leader,” Burns recalled.
Having learned to listen to Putin's rants from his years in Moscow, Burns delivered his own compelling message: The United States knows what you're up to, and if you invade Ukraine, you'll pay a huge price. He said he was leaving a letter from Biden confirming the punitive consequences of any Russian attack on Ukraine.
Putin "was very prosaic," Burns said. He has not denied intelligence that points to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The CIA director also met with another Putin adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, a former KGB officer from Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, who ran Russia's Security Council.
Patrushev thought Burns had flown to Moscow to discuss the next meeting between Putin and Biden, and seemed surprised that the CIA chief had come with a warning about Ukraine.
He echoed Putin's displeasure with NATO almost exactly in his discussions with Burns. There seemed to be no room for serious engagement, and the CIA director had to wonder if Putin and his small circle of aides had set up an echo chamber of their own. Putin did not make an irreversible decision to go to war, but his views on Ukraine hardened, his risk appetite increased, and the Russian leader believed that his window of opportunity would soon pass.
“My level of concern has gone up, not down,” the intelligence chief told Biden.
While Burns spoke to Putin, Blinken sat with Zelensky in Glasgow, Scotland, on the sidelines of an international summit on climate change. He laid out an intelligence picture and described the Russian storm that was coming to Ukraine.
“We were just the two of us, two meters apart,” Blinken recalled. It was a "difficult conversation," he said.
Blinken had already met the Ukrainian president and thought he knew him well enough to speak frankly, although it seemed surreal "to tell someone that his country was going to be invaded."
He found Zelensky "serious, thoughtful, steadfast," a combination of faith and disbelief. He said he would inform his commanders. But Ukrainians "have seen a number of Russian tricks in the past." Zelensky was clearly worried about the economic collapse if his country began to panic.
Blinken's presentation and Zelenskiy's skepticism set a pattern that would be repeated both privately and publicly over the next few months. The Ukrainians could not afford to completely abandon the findings of American intelligence. But from their point of view, the information was speculative.
Zelensky heard US warnings, he later recalled, but said the Americans were not offering Ukraine the weapons it needed to defend itself.
“You can say a million times: “Listen, there may be an invasion.” Okay, maybe an invasion - will you give planes? - Zelensky said. “Will you give us air defense?” "Well, you're not a member of NATO." Oh well, then what are we talking about?”
According to Zelenskiy's foreign minister, Dmitry Kuleba, the Americans provided little specific intelligence to support their warnings "until the last four or five days before the invasion began."
Less than two weeks after the meeting in Glasgow, when Kuleba and Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy's chief of staff, visited the State Department in Washington, a senior US official greeted them with a cup of coffee and a smile. "Guys, dig trenches!" the official began.
“When we smiled back,” Kuleba recalled, “the official said: “I’m serious. Start digging trenches. … You will be attacked. Large-scale attack, and you need to prepare for it. We asked for details; they weren't."
If Americans were frustrated by Ukraine's skepticism about Russia's plans, Ukrainians were no less dismayed by increasingly public US warnings of an impending invasion.
“We needed to find a balance between a realistic risk assessment and preparing the country for the worst … and preserving the economic and financial position of the country,” Kuleba said. “Every comment from the United States about the inevitability of war was immediately reflected in the Ukrainian currency.”
A number of US officials have disputed the Ukrainian memories, saying they provided the Kyiv government with specific intelligence early on and in preparation for the invasion.
However, when it came to Ukraine, US intelligence was hardly an open book. Officials have banned intelligence services from sharing tactical information that Ukraine could use to launch offensive attacks on Russian positions in Crimea or against pro-Kremlin separatists in the east.
Ukraine's own intelligence apparatus was also riddled with Russian moles, and US officials were suspicious of classified information falling into Moscow's hands. After the war broke out, the Biden administration changed its policy and shared information about Russian troop movements in Ukraine on the basis that the country was now on the defensive against invasion.
In a side meeting during the GXNUMX conference in Rome in late October, Biden shared some of the new intelligence and findings with America's closest allies - the leaders of Britain, France and Germany.
In mid-November, Haynes used a previously planned trip to Brussels to brief a wider range of allies: NATO's North Atlantic Council, the 30-member alliance's main decision-making body. Speaking to a large audience, she limited her remarks to what the intelligence community thought the evidence showed and offered no policy recommendations.
“A number of members asked questions and were skeptical that President Putin was seriously preparing for the possibility of a large-scale invasion,” Haynes recalled.
French and German officials could not understand why Putin was trying to invade and occupy a large country where 80 to 000 troops are believed to be stationed on the border. Satellite imagery also shows troops moving back and forth from the border. Others have argued that the Russians were conducting exercises the Kremlin itself had insisted on, or were playing a game of deceit to cover up a non-invasion target.
Most expressed doubt and noted that Zelensky seemed to think that Russia would never attack with the ambition and force that the Americans predicted. Didn't Ukraine understand Russia's intentions better than anyone?
Only the British and the Baltic states were completely sure. At one point, an official from London stood up and gestured at Haynes. "She's right," the official said.
But Paris and Berlin were mindful of the strong US claims about Iraqi intelligence. The shadow of this deeply flawed analysis hung over all discussions before the invasion. Some also felt that just a few months ago, Washington grossly overestimated the resilience of the Afghan government at the time of the US withdrawal. The government collapsed as soon as the Taliban entered Kabul.
“American intelligence is not considered a reliable source,” said François Heisbourg, a security expert and longtime adviser to French officials. “She was considered politically manipulative.”
Europeans divided into three camps
“I think there were basically three options,” said a senior administration official. “For many in Western Europe, what the Russians were doing was “completely coercive diplomacy, Putin was just going to see what he could get. He's not going to invade... that's crazy."
Many of the new NATO members in Eastern and Southeastern Europe thought that Putin “could do something, but it would be limited in scope,” as the official put it, “…another bite of the Ukrainian apple,” similar to what happened in 2014.
But Britain and the Baltic states, always nervous about Russia's intentions, believed a full-scale invasion was coming.
When more intelligence was requested by skeptical member states, the Americans provided it but refrained from disclosing all the information.
Historically, the United States has rarely disclosed its most important intelligence to such a diverse organization as NATO, primarily for fear of leaking secrets. While the Americans and their British partners did share a significant amount of information, they withheld the raw intercepts or the nature of the human sources that were important in determining Putin's plans. This particularly angered French and German officials, who had long suspected that Washington and London sometimes withheld the basis of their intelligence information to make it appear more reliable than it actually was.
Some of the alliance's countries have presented their own findings, Haynes said. The United States has also created new mechanisms for real-time information sharing with its foreign counterparts in Brussels. Austin, Blinken and Millie talked on the phone with their colleagues, shared opinions, listened, persuaded.
Over time, as one senior European official at NATO recalled, “intelligence was passed on repeatedly, consistently, clearly, credibly, with a lot of detail, with a very good script and supporting evidence.”
Macron and Merkel had dealt with Putin for years and found it hard to believe that he was irrational enough to start a catastrophic war. A few weeks after the Biden meeting in Geneva, they tried to organize an EU-Russia summit but were rebuffed by skeptical members of the bloc, who saw it as a dangerous concession to Russia's aggressive stance.
Months later, despite new US intelligence, the French and Germans insisted there was a chance for diplomacy. The Americans and the British had little hope that any diplomatic efforts would pay off, but were willing to keep the door open if the Europeans gave something in return.
“A big part of our focus,” Sullivan recalled, “was to tell them, 'Look, we're going to take the diplomatic route and we're going to take it seriously … and we're going to take sanctions seriously, too.'
Each side was convinced that it was right, but was willing to act as if it was wrong.
Over the next few months, the Americans sought to show Western Europeans and others that they were still willing to seek a peaceful solution, even though deep down they were convinced that any attempt by Russia to negotiate was a farce. “It basically worked,” Sullivan said of the management strategy.
On December 7, Putin and Biden spoke via video link. Putin said the eastward expansion of the Western alliance was a major factor in his decision to send troops to the border with Ukraine. He argued that Russia was simply protecting its interests and territorial integrity.
Biden responded that Ukraine was unlikely to join NATO anytime soon and that the United States and Russia could come to an agreement on other Russian concerns about deploying American weapons systems in Europe. Theoretically, there was room for compromise.
For a while, while Blinken led US diplomatic efforts, making repeated visits to NATO capitals and the alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Ukrainians continued their contacts with European governments, which still seemed much less convinced of Putin's intentions than the Americans.
Kuleba and other members of the government believed that there would be a war, as Ukraine's foreign minister later said.
“But on the eve of the invasion, I could not believe that we were facing a war of this magnitude. The only country in the world that persistently told us "with such certainty" that there would be missile strikes was the United States of America. … All other countries did not share this analysis and instead said: yes, war is possible, but it will be more of a local conflict in eastern Ukraine,” Kuleba said.
“Put yourself in our shoes,” Kuleba said. “On the one hand, the US is telling you something completely unimaginable, and everyone else is blinking their eyes at you and telling you that this is not what we think will happen.”
In fact, British and some Baltic officials considered a full invasion likely. But Kuleba was far from alone in his skepticism. His president shared this, according to Zelenskiy's aides and other officials who briefed him.
“We took all the information our Western partners gave us seriously,” recalled Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff. “But let's be honest: imagine if all this panic that so many people were pushing would take place. Creating panic is the Russian method. … Imagine if this panic had started three or four months before. What would happen to the economy? Could we hold out for five months like now?”
Negotiation attempts and increased military presence
In early January, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led a diplomatic delegation to Geneva and met with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Ryabkov, whom she knew well. He reiterated Moscow's position on Ukraine, formalized in mid-December in two proposed treaties, that NATO should cease its expansion plans and cease all activities in countries that joined the alliance after 1997, including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states.
Rejecting a proposal to close NATO's doors and downgrade existing members, the administration instead proposed talks and confidence-building measures in a number of security areas, including stationing troops and weapons on NATO's eastern flank along the border with Russia. The proposal was conditioned by the de-escalation of the military threat in Ukraine. Ryabkov told Sherman that Russia was disappointed with the American position.
The White House saw Sherman's meeting with Ryabkov as "a chance to see if the Russians were seriously concerned and if there were ways to move forward with some form of diplomacy," said Emily Horne, then White House press secretary.
“I think it became clear pretty quickly that the Russians were playing a game and not really doing diplomacy. They even did it frivolously,” she said.
“All Western allies wanted to show that there is an alternative path that involves dialogue and respect for Russia as a great power,” said a senior British government official who participated in the talks. “What was becoming more and more obvious was that Russia was not interested.”
As the United States followed the diplomatic path, it also deployed forces to protect NATO, all of which were visible to Moscow and the Europeans and showed American willingness to invest in the game. While Biden has repeatedly said that there will be no American troops in Ukraine, the Pentagon has increased its pre-positioned stockpiles of weapons in Poland and deployed a helicopter battalion from Greece there. Paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Division were transferred to the Baltic states. Additional troops were sent from Italy to eastern Romania, and others to Hungary and Bulgaria.
Over the next few months, the US military presence in Europe increased from 74 to 000 troops. The four airborne fighter squadrons became 100, and the number of surface combatants in the region increased from five to 000. Combat air patrols and reconnaissance were on missions around the eastern flank of the alliance around the clock.
"We were like, 'Look, we're serious about diplomacy, but we're so concerned about it that we're actually moving forces and weapons,'" Sullivan recalled.
With the permission of the National Security Agency, the United States has established a direct line of communication between the Ukrainian military and the US European command. The highly secure system allowed the Americans to maintain direct contact with their Ukrainian counterparts as events unfolded.
The administration also sent weapons to Ukraine. In December, Biden authorized the removal of an additional $200 million worth of weapons from US stockpiles — even though the Kiev government, many in Congress, and some in the administration itself argued that if the United States truly believed a full-scale invasion was coming, the weapons were not enough.
But every step in the administration's campaign was designed to avoid direct US involvement in a military confrontation. The prevailing White House preoccupation with provocation influenced every decision about what aid and what weapons to provide to Ukrainians in self-defense.
“I don’t apologize that one of our goals here is to avoid direct conflict with Russia,” Sullivan said of the pre-war period.
The Russians were going to do what they were doing regardless of what the Allies were doing, a senior official involved in the decision said, and the administration found the idea "incredible" that "if we had only given the Ukrainians more weapons," none of this would have happened. did not have".
“There is no clear and simple mathematical formula. … There has always been a balance between what is required for an effective defense and what Russia would view as a provocation,” the official said.
Ukrainian officials have expressed endless gratitude to the United States for what it has provided since the start of the war. “No country in the world has given Ukraine more necessary weapons than the United States since February 24. No other country in the world,” Kuleba said recently. But from the outset, he said, he and other Ukrainian officials felt the strategy of "non-provocation" was wrong.
“I think that this war — with thousands of dead and wounded, lost territories, destroyed part of the economy… — is the best answer for those who still advocate Russia’s non-provocation,” Kuleba said.
As part of its ongoing campaign to convince the world of what is coming and dissuade the Russians, the White House decided by the end of 2021 to challenge the reluctance of intelligence agencies to divulge some of their most sensitive information.
US intelligence has uncovered false flag operations planned by the Russians, in which they will organize attacks on their own forces as if they came from Ukraine. Public exposure of these plans could make it impossible for Putin to come up with an excuse to invade, administration officials say.
As a first step, the White House decided to reveal the extent of the ongoing troop buildup near Ukraine's borders. In early December, the administration released satellite photos, as well as a map created by US analysts showing Russian troop positions, as well as intelligence community analysis of Russian planning.
The analysis says that the Russians were planning a "wide movement" of 100 battalion tactical groups involving up to 175 troops, as well as armored vehicles and artillery. The picture, which administration officials had worked out in secret for several weeks, was now seen by the whole world.
In anticipation of more selective intelligence disclosure, Sullivan set up a regular process at the White House in which the team determined whether particular information, if released, could interfere with Russian plans or propaganda. If the answer is yes, it will be shared with the intelligence community for advice on whether and how it should be released.
In late January, the British government publicly accused Russia of conspiring to install a puppet regime in Kyiv. The accusation, based on US and British intelligence, was unraveled in a highly unusual press statement by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, delivered late at night in London, but just in time for the Sunday morning papers.
And in early February, the Biden administration reported that Moscow was considering filming a fake Ukrainian attack on Russian territory or Russian-speaking people based on a false flag discovered by intelligence. Officials say the propaganda film will be spectacle-packed, with graphic explosions, corpses, fake victims and mourners pretending to mourn the dead.
“I have watched too many times Putin spin a false narrative,” said another U.S. official. “Now you could see what he planned quite specifically. It was pretty accurate."
The intelligence revelations themselves had an air of theatricality. The initial discovery of satellite images could have been confirmed by commercial footage, although the analysis was unique to the intelligence community. But whether the public believed the subsequent revelations depended on the credibility of the government. And Biden administration officials knew they were facing a public at home and abroad that could be deeply skeptical of "intelligence" in the wake of the Iraq war and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Overall, the public awareness campaign in the US has worked.
The attention of the whole world was riveted on the buildup of Russian troops. The idea that Putin would falsify the reasons for his invasion seemed plausible, perhaps because in 2014 he completely denied the presence of his troops in Crimea, a claim that led to the description of "little green men" in military uniforms without insignia occupying part of Ukraine.
Given how skeptical some allies were about the intelligence, the most powerful effect of revealing it was to shape Russia's behavior and make it impossible for Putin to use disinformation, according to US officials.
Zelensky and risks
On January 12, Burns met Zelensky in Kyiv and gave a frank assessment. The intelligence picture only made it clear that Russia intended to launch a lightning strike on Kyiv and decapitate the central government. The United States has also discovered a key element of battlefield planning: Russia will first try to land its troops at an airport in Gostomel, a suburb of the capital where massive Russian transports of troops and weapons can be accommodated on runways. There will begin the assault on Kyiv.
At one point in their conversation, Zelenskiy asked if he or his family were in personal danger. Burns said Zelenskiy needs to take his personal safety seriously.
The risks for the president were growing. Intelligence at the time indicated that Russian assassination teams might already be in Kyiv waiting to be activated.
But Zelenskiy has resisted calls to move his government and has been adamant that he is not panicking.
“You can’t just tell me: ‘Look, you have to start preparing people now and tell them that they need to save money, they need to stock up on food,’ Zelensky reminded. – If we had reported this - and this was wanted by some people whom I will not name - then I would have been losing $ 7 billion a month since October last year, and at the moment the Russians attacked, they would have captured us within three days. ... In general, our inner instinct was correct: if we sow chaos among the people before the invasion, the Russians will devour us. Because in times of chaos, people flee the country.”
For Zelensky, the decision to leave the people in the country where they could fight to defend their homes was the key to repelling any invasion.
“As cynical as it sounds, these are the people who stopped everything,” he said.
Ukrainian officials remain annoyed that the Americans do not disclose details of their intelligence sources. “The information we received was, I would call it, a statement of facts without disclosing the origin of these facts or the background of these facts,” Kuleba recalled.
But it wasn't just Western intelligence that Zelensky should be preparing for a full-scale invasion. Some Ukrainian intelligence officials, though skeptical that Putin would strike, were planning for the worst. Kirill Budanov, head of Ukraine's military intelligence, said he removed archives from his headquarters three months before the war and stockpiled fuel and ammunition.
The American warnings were repeated on January 19, when Blinken paid a brief visit to Kyiv for a face-to-face meeting with Zelensky and Kuleba. To the Secretary of State's dismay, Zelenskiy continued to argue that any public call for mobilization would cause panic, as well as a capital flight that would push Ukraine's already staggering economy to the brink.
While Blinken stressed, as in previous conversations, the importance of ensuring the security and integrity of Zelensky and his government, he was one of several senior U.S. officials who denied reports that the administration had urged them to evacuate the capital. “We said two things to Ukraine,” Blinken later recalled. We will support you in everything. We encourage you to look at … how you can ensure the continuity of the government depending on what happens.” This could mean hiding in Kyiv, moving to western Ukraine, or moving the government to neighboring Poland.
Zelensky told Blinken that he was staying.
He began to suspect that some Western officials wanted him to flee so that Russia could install a puppet government that would come to a negotiated settlement with the NATO powers. “Western partners wanted – I’m sure that everything was fine with me, someone was very worried about what would happen to me and my family,” Zelensky said. “But someone probably just wanted to get it over with quickly. I think most of the people who called me – well, almost all of them – didn’t have faith that Ukraine could stand up to this and endure.”
Similarly, he said, warning Ukrainians to prepare for war, as some partners wanted, would weaken the country economically and make it easier for the Russians to take over. “Whether it was right or wrong, let people decide in the future,” the Ukrainian leader reminded. “But I know for sure and I believe — we discussed this every day at the National Security and Defense Council — I had a feeling that the Russians wanted to prepare us for a soft surrender. And it's scary."
Confidence in attack and warning
At a press conference on January 19, Biden said he thought Russia would invade. Putin has gone too far to back down. “He has to do something,” the president said.
Biden promised that the West would respond to the Russian attack. “Our allies and partners are ready to cause serious damage to Russia and the Russian economy,” he said, predicting that if Putin ordered an invasion, it would be a “disaster” for Russia.
It was one of Biden's strongest warnings at the time. But the president also muddied the waters by suggesting that a "minor invasion" by Russian troops, as opposed to a full-scale invasion, might not elicit the harsh response he and his allies threatened.
“It’s one thing if it’s a minor invasion, and then we have to argue about what to do and what not to do and so on,” Biden said, making it clear that NATO is not unanimous in opposing Russia’s use of force.
“But really, what Putin does will determine the extent to which we can achieve full unity on the NATO front,” he said.
Biden's comments exposed flaws in the planning of his own administration, as well as in NATO. Blinken was in Kyiv, vowing that the United States would support Ukraine in every way, except using its own forces, if the country was attacked. But in private, administration officials have been considering for weeks how they would respond to a "hybrid" attack in which Russia could launch a devastating cyber strike on Ukraine and a limited strike on the country's east.
Zelensky and his aides, who were still unsure if Putin would go to war, responded to Biden's comments about a "minor invasion" with a scathing tweet.
“We want to remind the great powers that there are no small invasions and small nations. Just as there are no small victims and a little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power,” Zelensky wrote.
The next day, Biden clarified that if "any assembled Russian units cross the Ukrainian border, it will be an invasion" that Putin will pay for. But White House officials quietly resented that while the administration is trying to win Ukraine's support, Zelenskiy is more interested in poking the president over a clumsy comment.
“It was unpleasant,” the former White House official said. “We took steps to help him, and it felt like he was defending his own political brand, either in denial or showing confidence because that was important to him at the time.”
A Zelenskiy aide who helped create the tweet said it was meant to be a rebuff to Biden and light and humorous to defuse rising tensions. Zelenskiy's inner circle worried that Washington's predictions that war was just around the corner could have unforeseen consequences.
As Biden elaborated, the Zelensky team tried to appease Washington with a conciliatory message.
"Thank you @POTUS for the unprecedented diplomatic and military assistance to Ukraine," Zelenskiy tweeted with US and Ukrainian flag emojis.
August 16 in an interview The Washington Post Zelenskiy said: “Everyone was afraid of the war. Nobody wants to fight with Russia. Look, no one wants to fight Russia. Everyone wants Ukraine to win, but no one wants to fight Russia. That's all. This is a complete stop. And so we had to decide how to stay strong. If no one wants to fight them, everyone is afraid to fight them - sorry, then we will decide how to do it, right or wrong. But the war will go further, deeper into Europe, so please send us weapons, because we are also protecting you. And they started sending.
January 21st was a cold, overcast day in Geneva, with gusty winds raging on the surface of the usually calm lake that bears the name of the Swiss city. As Blinken and his aides sat across from their Russian counterparts at a table laid out in the ballroom of a luxury waterfront hotel, the secretary offered the crests of waves on a lake as a metaphor. Perhaps, Blinken told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they could calm the turbulent waters between the two countries.
They exchanged tense pleasantries and touched on other issues — a quarrel over the size and operation of their embassies in each other's capitals, the Iran nuclear deal — before turning to Ukraine. Blinken reiterated the US positions. If Putin had legitimate security concerns, the United States and its allies were willing to talk about them. But once the invasion of Ukraine begins, Western sanctions will be swift and merciless, isolating Russia and hurting its economy, and the alliance will provide Ukraine with massive military assistance. If a single Russian soldier or missile touches even one inch of NATO territory, the United States will protect its allies.
Blinken found Lavrov's answers harsh and inflexible. After an hour and a half of fruitless throwing back and forth, it seemed that there was nothing more to say. But as their assistants began to leave the ballroom, Blinken restrained himself and asked the Russian minister to speak to him in private. The two men entered a small adjoining conference room and closed the door as the US and Russian teams stood awkwardly together outside.
During the nearly 18 years that Lavrov served as Russia's foreign minister, a number of American diplomats found him harsh and doctrinaire, but sometimes outspoken and realistic in relations between their two countries.
After discussing the situation with Ukraine once more, Blinken stopped and asked, "Sergei, tell me what are you really trying to do?" Was all of this really related to the security concerns that Russia has raised over and over again - NATO's "encroachment" on Russia and the perceived military threat? Or was it Putin's almost theological belief that Ukraine was and always will be an integral part of Mother Russia?
Without answering, Lavrov opened the door and left.
This was the last face-to-face meeting between senior Russian and US national security officials before the invasion.
Biden spoke to Putin again on the phone. On Feb. 12, the White House said it had told the Russian president that "while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy in full coordination with our allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios."
The dots are placed
A day earlier, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace flew to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, who helped create Putin's badass image.
Wallace wanted to ask again if there was room for talks on Putin's demands for NATO expansion and the alliance's activities in Eastern Europe. According to him, the Russians showed no interest in entering the negotiations.
Wallace warned Shoigu that Russia would face fierce resistance if it invaded Ukraine. “I know Ukrainians — I have been to Ukraine five times — and they will fight,” Wallace said.
“My mother is Ukrainian,” Shoigu replied, implying that he knows people better. "It's all part of our country."
Wallace then raised the issue of sanctions. Shoigu replied: "We can suffer like no one else."
"I don't want anyone to suffer," Wallace said.
Shoigu presented a long and now familiar list of complaints and said that Russia could not tolerate Ukraine's western course. “In some respects it was incomprehensible,” said a British official who attended the meeting. “Everyone wanted the talks to continue.”
As the British officials prepared to leave, Shoigu approached Wallace directly. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘We have no plans to invade Ukraine,’” Wallace recalled. “It shows how much of a lie it was.”
A week later, on February 18, Biden called the leaders of several NATO allies and told them about the latest US analysis. Later that day, Biden told reporters in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, “At this point, I am convinced that he has made the decision to invade. We have reason to believe so."
However, the French continued to look for a way out of the crisis.
On February 20, Macron called Putin and asked him to agree to a meeting in Geneva with Biden. The conversation led the French president to believe that Putin was finally ready to seek a settlement.
“This proposal deserves to be taken into account,” Putin said, according to a recording of the conversation shown a few months later in the French TV documentary President, Europe and War.
Macron put pressure on the Russian leader: “But can you say today, at the end of this conversation, that you agree in principle? I would like a clear answer from you on this matter. I understand your resistance to setting a date. But are you ready to move forward and say today: “I would like to meet face to face with the Americans and then with the Europeans”? Or not?"
Putin made no commitments and seemed to have more pressing matters to attend to: “Honestly, I wanted to go play hockey because I'm at the gym right now. But before I start training, I assure you, I will first call my consultants.
“Je vous remercie, Monsieur le President,” Putin concluded, thanking him in French.
Macron can be heard laughing with pleasure as he hangs up. The French president and his advisers believed they had made a breakthrough. Macron's diplomatic adviser Emmanuel Bonn even danced.
But the next day, in a televised address, Putin formally recognized two separatist Ukrainian regions in the Donbas, including territory controlled by Kyiv, as independent states. It was a clear sign that Putin, apart from his French courtesies, was intent on dismembering Ukraine.
As the UK and France made their final diplomatic efforts, world leaders gathered in Munich for the annual security conference. Zelensky was present, raising fears among some US officials that his absence could give Russia the perfect moment to strike. Others questioned whether the Ukrainian leader believed Russia would attack, or whether he took the opportunity to leave the country before the bombs began to fall.
In his speech, Zelensky reminded the audience that his country is already at war with Russia, and Ukrainian troops have been fighting against eastern separatists since 2014.
“In order to really help Ukraine, it is not necessary to constantly talk only about the dates of a possible invasion,” Zelensky said. “Instead, the European Union and NATO should welcome Ukraine into their organizations.”
Some European officials were still not convinced that an attack was coming. One of them told a journalist: "We ourselves have no clear evidence that Putin made a decision, and we have not seen anything that would indicate otherwise."
“It seemed like something otherworldly,” said a British official. In behind-the-scenes conversations, American and British officials were convinced of an imminent invasion, but "there was no such mood in the hall."
They came to the same conclusion - Russia would invade. But despite the US diplomatic campaign and the intelligence-sharing campaign, it was still hard to grasp.
"If you discover someone's plans to attack a country and those plans seem completely crazy, chances are you'll react rationally and think it's so crazy that it won't happen," said Huysbourg, a French security expert.
“Europeans have overestimated their understanding of Putin,” he said. “The Americans, I guess… instead of trying to get inside Putin’s head, they decided that they would act on the basis of data and not worry about whether it made any sense or not.”
There were many reasons to be puzzled. American intelligence showed that the Kremlin's military plans did not reach the field commanders who were supposed to carry them out. The officers did not know their orders. The troops appeared on the border, not realizing that they were going to war. Some US government analysts have been baffled by the lack of communications in the Russian military. Analysts thought things were so strange that Russia's plans might fail. But this remained clearly a minority opinion.
For Kuleba, the turning point came a few days after the Munich Conference on February 18-20, when he again traveled to Washington. “Those were the days when I got more specific information,” he recalled. And in Russia, he was told, five transport planes were already on full alert, ready at any moment to receive paratroopers and deliver them in the direction of a specific airport in Ukraine.
“It is there that you see the sequence of events and the logic of what is happening,” he said.
Western intelligence officials, looking back at Russia's indiscriminate attack on Kyiv, admit they overestimated the effectiveness of the Russian military.
“We assumed that they would invade the country in the same way that we would invade the country,” said one British official.
Early on the evening of February 23, the White House received urgent intelligence information. There was a "high probability" that an invasion had begun. Troops were on the move and the Russians fired missiles at targets in Ukraine. The President's top advisers gathered; some met in the situation room, while others joined over a secure line.
Sullivan spoke to Yermak, Zelenskiy's chief of staff. There was an "extremely high level of agitation" in Kyiv, said a person familiar with the call. “Nothing got out of control. It was just very emotional, but as you would expect,” he said.
Yermak told Sullivan to wait - he wanted to call Zelensky on the phone to speak directly to Biden. Sullivan transferred the call to the Treaty Room, the second floor part of the White House residence used as an office, and called the president.
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Zelensky asked Biden to contact as many other world leaders and diplomats as possible immediately. He should tell them to speak up publicly and call Putin directly and tell him to "stop it."
“Zelensky was alarmed,” the official recalled. “He asked Biden to give them all the intelligence they can get now. He said, "We will fight, we will defend, we can hold on, but we need your help."
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