In a packed university hall in Canberra last week, Jeremy Fleming, the chief of British spy agency GCHQ, shared the kind of jaw-dropping classified intelligence that the public rarely hears.
He said Russian soldiers in Ukraine had been refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shot down their own aircraft in a sign of a flagging morale. In recent days US officials have shared corroborating information suggesting Russian President Vladimir Putin has been misled over the scale of his military’s failures.
The recent assessments are the latest twist in a novel strategy adopted by western intelligence officials, led by US agencies, to declassify information at a rapid pace – a striking feature of the spy community’s response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Making such information public and doing so quickly is a significant shift for intelligence agencies, which have traditionally been reluctant to share sensitive knowledge. The conventional thinking had been that declassifying assessments would reveal sources and methods of gathering information, potentially endangering the lives of people overseas recruited by the CIA to spy on their own countries.
Avril Haines, the director for national intelligence, has been instrumental in the decision by the US to start declassifying more intelligence in a strategic effort to counter false narratives from Russia, according to three people briefed on the shift in strategy.
“One should credit Avril Haines for the decision to release the intelligence,” said one European official. “That was a real stroke of genius to deal with the disinformation.”
A US official said the strategy had been planned and co-ordinated by the National Security Council and implemented by Haines, CIA director Bill Burns and others.
As a former seasoned diplomat, Burns has spent much of his career consuming intelligence rather than providing it. That vantage point coupled with his Russia expertise makes him ideally placed to oversee the shift in strategy, according to former officials.
“He’s a diplomat, but he’s also a serious Russia specialist – he knows how they think,” said Daniel Fried, a former US diplomat who ran Russian sanctions policy in the administration of Barack Obama and now works at the Atlantic Council.
Fried said Haines, Burns and other top administration officials including Jake Sullivan, National Security Adviser, have a long history of consuming intelligence and can therefore be judicious in deciding how to use it. “They’re not going to fall prey to amateur temptations,” he added.
The US has been declassifying intelligence at a rapid clip since before the invasion, confidently predicting Putin would invade Ukraine even as allies were more skeptical. But the decision to release granular information about the failures of Russia’s military campaign is an expansion of that effort. It is intended to counter Moscow’s claims that it is serious about peace talks and has successfully completed the “first stage” of its so-called special military operation.
“We had a body of information that allowed us to reveal this,” a senior administration official said. “It underscores the fact that the Russians have been prosecuting this war in a way that has been much less successful than originally planned.”
The western intelligence frames Russia’s pullback from Kyiv as a clear loss rather than a strategic pivot and weakens the country’s bargaining position in peace talks with Ukraine, which the US says Moscow has not approached seriously.
“As we do everything we possibly can to strengthen the hand of Ukrainians in negotiations it is helpful for people to have a better understanding of what information is getting to Putin and what is not getting to Putin,” a US official said.
A western official said the recent push by the US and UK to release more information was partly intended to increase the chances that Moscow elites and Russian citizens would receive a more accurate picture of the situation in Ukraine.
Eugene Rumer, a former top US intelligence official on Russia now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said apparent divisions between Putin and his military leaders support the American assessment of the Russian president’s miscalculations since the war began.
“It underscores to the world the futility, the foolishness, the insanity of Putin’s approach to Ukraine,” the official said. “Hopefully this will also reach the Russian public and will feed into the domestic Russian narrative.”
The revelations are a plank of a wider strategy that has been in place since the start of the war to declassify information about Russia’s plans and movements to rally international support for Ukraine and combat Russian efforts to carry out “false flag” operations and spread disinformation.
Last autumn, President Joe Biden gave a green light to the public information campaign and the proactive downgrading and declassification of intelligence about Russia’s intentions, US officials said.
The US also began sharing intelligence information with allies and partners more widely than usual, with Haines and Burns traveling to Europe in the lead-up to the war to share information beyond countries that are part of the “Five Eyes” signals intelligence sharing arrangement – the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
The information goes through a standard declassification process, with more staff and resources being added to the intelligence agencies to speed things up.
The US shared information about the scale of the Russian build-up on the border with Ukraine and the assessment by Washington that Putin was preparing to attack. That helped shore up support for the sanctions that followed and persuade skeptical allies such as France and Germany about Putin’s seriousness about invading.
Between early November and mid-February the Biden administration conducted more than 300 meetings and calls with allies and partners on the Ukraine crisis, including many that focused on intelligence sharing, a US official said. The participants included the president, Sullivan, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and Lloyd Austin, defense secretary, among others.
The US has been emboldened by the fact that most of its assessments of Russian operations in Ukraine have been correct, in contrast to recent intelligence failures in Afghanistan, where the administration expected the Afghan army to repel the Taliban for several months rather than quickly surrendering. It has also helped win over skeptical allies who recall the botched claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Other countries have been wrongfooted in their assessments, including France, where the head of military intelligence reportedly lost his job after failing to predict Russia’s invasion.
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Since the invasion’s start, the UK has also become more aggressive in releasing information that would have previously remained classified, partly because officials concluded the west had not been aggressive enough in sharing intelligence when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, or when the The Kremlin intervened to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2015.
“It needs to be done because it makes it harder for Russia to deny what it is doing, which was a problem back in 2008, in 2014 and in Syria,” said one western official.
Washington will continue to aggressively declassify and disseminate intelligence information that is predictive as well as other information that it deems useful, US officials said.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former senior CIA operations officer, said the more open approach was a “new paradigm for intelligence”.
Now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, Mowatt-Larssen added: “It shows intelligence should be actively involved in the conflict to maximize the power of its impact.”