Joe Biden is running a brilliant information operation, and most of the press isn’t covering it. Probably they don’t see it. They are drawn to the drama of weapons fired, tanks blown up or towed away by Ukrainian tractors, ships sunk. An information operation provides no photos, and its most important outcomes may be things that do not happen.
Since last November, the Biden administration has been using intelligence in innovative ways, molding the narrative and perhaps the course of the war. In past administrations, we’ve become accustomed to intelligence as something to be kept secret, in few hands.
But intelligence is to be used. Think Bellingcat: they use intelligence methods on open-source information in order to expose Russian spies and war crimes. They may keep their materials and investigation secret until it’s done, but then they share it publicly. What Biden is doing is more like that than it is like what the US government has done for some time.
There have been three phases of the information operation so far. Their purpose has been to disrupt Russia’s plans for their war on Ukraine and prevent some of Russia’s worst actions. What we see of them in the news is likely the top of the iceberg. Although this innovative strategy relies on making intelligence public, there still are things we’re not going to hear.
Phase 1. Before the War
In February, the administration began warning that Russia was ready to attack Ukraine. We were told that Russia would likely set up a pretext for an attack, claiming that the Ukrainians (probably Nazis) were endangering Russian speakers or Russia itself. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine was unhappy with the continuing drumbeat of warnings. It appears that he didn’t entirely believe what the US was saying. But the US continued the warnings anyway.
It was obvious that Russia was preparing for an attack. They had been massing troops around the Ukrainian border since last fall. It’s hard to believe that they would have emplaced 150,000 to 200,000 troops with equipment and not attacked. But the timing was not obvious. Russia, of course, maintained that their actions were purely peaceful.
It’s now clear that Vladimir Putin expected a quick victory, possibly in time for the anniversary of his annexation of Crimea. That, as the Biden administration reminded us, was done with a military without markings, which Russia denied were theirs. Gaslighting works; nobody did anything about those “little green men” until it was too late, even though we all pretty much knew where they were from. The purpose of the intelligence offensive was to prevent something like that, and it worked.
It’s likely that the information offensive slowed down Russia’s plans for a week or two. On February 28, a news story of Russia’s victory in Ukraine was published on Russian news outlets. Looks like they scheduled it and forgot to change the scheduling. The three day offensive hadn’t worked.
My estimate of a week or two is also based on mud season in Ukraine, which swallowed up Russian military vehicles. Putin’s performance with his Security Council and speech to “recognize” Donetsk and Luhansk provinces as independent showed him agitated and upset, perhaps because his plans were already being disrupted. Russia mounted no pretext for the invasion on February 24.
2. Preventing a Chemical Attack
In March, American officials began warning that Russia might mount an attack with chemical or biological weapons. In return, Russia began claiming that Ukrainian laboratories were, with American help, developing chemical and biological weapons. The debunking of the Russian claim came thick and fast, including from me.
The persistence of the American warnings, every few days, suggested that the US had reliable intelligence. In Syria, after most of the chemical weapons had been destroyed, Bashir al-Assad’s government used tanks of chlorine for chemical attacks. Chlorine is used for water purification, so it couldn’t be removed from the country as were the war chemicals.
Tank cars of ammonia were located around Ukraine for fertilizing the fields for spring planting. They could have been used in the same way, or Russia might use war chemicals against civilians. Chemical weapons are terror weapons – of limited effectiveness on the battlefield, but effective in killing civilians and frightening survivors.
Because the US had prepared the information ground before the war, Russian claims were immediately questioned. There was no chemical attack, not even a leaking tank car of ammonia. Russia has continued their information offensive, as recently as today, claiming that Ukraine is planning such attacks. But being first with such accusations is the stronger position, along with the general pre-emptive debunking of Russian claims.
It’s possible, of course, that Russia never intended a chemical attack. Given the atrocities they have left behind in the towns they occupied, it’s clear, though, that they are capable of one.
3. “We helped the Ukrainians”
More recently, a couple of Biden administration officials said something about sharing targeting information with the Ukrainians. It sounded like they were saying they had helped the Ukrainians to target all those Russian generals that have died in the war. I won’t go into the details of exactly the words they used or the media’s interpretation of them. Then Biden and others walked the claims back. Information sharing, yes; targeting, no.
It’s the same pattern as when Biden said that Putin should be removed. Statement, uproar, and walkback. But the statement remains out there, slightly fogged up. Ambiguities remain both in the intention of the statements and the intelligence behind them. This is not a bad outcome. The people saying that the statement goes too far are placated. Putin is deprived of a reason for retaliation, although he will claim victim status because that is his strategy.
The information offensive is ongoing. Early on, Biden said clearly and explicitly that the United States will not send military personnel to fight in Ukraine. That is intended to place the onus for any escalation on Russia. The probability of escalation, and the triggers for it, lie in Russian minds, most particularly Vladimir Putin’s.
Biden also said that Putin should not remain in power. Like the targeting statements, this one was walked back. Exactly how far to go will always be a tricky call with no guarantees. When it looks like the offensive may have overreached, it is walked back, with the ambiguity that action incurs.
The information offensive has a number of audiences – Russia’s decisionmakers, American allies, and the American public. But this post is long enough. More to come.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner