The Weapon the West Used Against Putin

The way in which the U.S. disclosed intelligence ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could drastically change geopolitics in the future.

A manila envelope in the colors of the Russian flag.
The Atlantic

About the author: Amy Zegart is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. She is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, and the author of Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks like a horrific Cold War throwback. Once again, a strongman rules in Moscow, Russian tanks are rolling across borders, and a democratic nation is fighting for its survival, street by street, day by day, armed with little more than Molotov cocktails and a fierce belief in freedom. For all the talk of emerging technologies and new threats, the violence in Ukraine feels raw and low-tech, and the world suddenly looks old again.

And yet, amid all these echoes of the past, Russia’s invasion has ushered in one development that is altogether new and could dramatically change geopolitics in the future: the real-time public disclosure of highly classified intelligence.

Never before has the United States government revealed so much, in such granular detail, so fast and so relentlessly about an adversary. Each day over the past several weeks seemed to bring new warnings. Not vague, “Russia may or may not be up to something” kind of warnings, but “Here’s the satellite imagery showing up to 175,000 Russian troops in these specific locations near the border” kind of warnings. Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that he had no plans to invade and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky complained that the U.S. was hyping the threat and roiling his economy, the intelligence disclosures kept coming—detailing updated troop numbers and locations, invasion timetables, casualty estimates, and more. It felt like watching a hurricane barreling toward landfall.

The disclosed intelligence wasn’t just about military movements. It was about secret plans at the core of Russia’s intelligence operations. American and British intelligence agencies sounded the alarm about plots to stage a coup in Kyiv, install a puppet regime, and conduct “false-flag operations” designed to generate phony pretexts to justify a real invasion. According to U.S. officials, one Russian scheme involved sending saboteurs to Eastern Ukraine to attack Russian separatists there, making it look like Ukraine was the aggressor and Putin’s troops were coming to the rescue. Another involved making a phony video depicting Ukrainian atrocities, complete with actors and corpses.

It is hard to overstate how much of a shift this represents. Intelligence is a closely guarded world, one where officials are loath to publicly air what they know, or how they know it, for fear of putting sources at risk or revealing to their rivals just how much information they have. In the past, the U.S. has openly shared intelligence only with the closest of allies, and restricted its use. Why has the White House been so open this time? So far, the Biden administration isn’t saying much about the aims of its radical-candor intelligence strategy. But three explanations seem likely.

The first has to do with inoculating the world against information warfare by getting the truth out before the lie. The essence of U.S. and allied intelligence disclosures has been “Don’t believe a word the Kremlin is going to tell you. It’s all a con.” The Russians are deception pros, and in previous episodes—as recently as the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the 2016 U.S. election—they’ve had the upper hand. Putin’s strategy has been to flood the zone with falsehoods, spreading disinformation early and often. Psychology research suggests why this is so effective: Once lies are believed, they are hard to shake, even in the face of overwhelming facts. The first-mover advantage in information warfare is huge. Getting the truth out before the con helps rally allies and shore up support in the U.S. and abroad.

Revealing intelligence also generates friction for Putin, knocking him off-balance. Instead of calling the shots and managing the Ukraine crisis on his schedule, Putin has to react to Washington. And instead of acting with impunity, he has to spend his most precious asset—time—worrying about his own intelligence weaknesses. How do the U.S. and its allies know what they know? What will they do with this advance knowledge? What Russian-intelligence vulnerabilities must be fixed? The more Putin stews about his own intelligence lapses, the less attention he can devote to hurting others. U.S. Cyber Command adopted a similar approach in 2018 called persistent engagement. The idea is simple but powerful: Weaken an adversary’s offense by making it work much harder at defense. Putin is an ideal target for this kind of strategy. He’s a former Russian-intelligence operative with a paranoid streak who obsesses about domestic enemies, not just foreign ones. You can take the man out of the KGB but not the KGB out of the man.

Finally, proactively disclosing intelligence makes it much harder for other countries to sit out the conflict or provide quiet support to Putin by hiding behind his fig-leaf narratives. Think of it as covert action in reverse—a forced outing of what’s really going on so that everyone has to take a side.

In covert action, governments conceal their official involvement in an activity. One of the key benefits of covert action is that it enables other countries to help on the sly. Even if everyone knows the truth, they pretend not to, and history suggests even the flimsiest of excuses can give countries surprising room to maneuver. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, for example, the U.S. launched a huge covert operation to arm the Afghan mujahideen. The Soviets knew what the U.S. was doing, and the U.S. knew that the Soviets knew. But the covert action enabled Pakistan and Egypt to quietly help American efforts without fear of Soviet reprisal. It benefited the Soviets, too, keeping a proxy war in Afghanistan from spiraling into a hot war against the U.S. and its nuclear arsenal.

In the current Ukraine crisis, intelligence disclosures are doing the opposite. By removing the fig leaf, the U.S. and its allies are leaving precious little room for other countries to stay on the sidelines or assist Putin easily. Switzerland, a country famous for its neutrality and willingness to bank with bad guys, signed on to European Union sanctions. Germany is wobbly no more, finally nixing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and moving from NATO defense-spending laggard to leader with head-spinning speed. On Tuesday, about 100 diplomats literally turned their backs on Russia, walking out of a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov was speaking. Even China has issued a relatively muted response over the invasion, calling for diplomatic solutions.

To be sure, it’s early days. World unity on any crisis never lasts that long. China still tilts heavily toward Moscow in almost everything. And intelligence is just one among many factors at play. No country wants to be caught in the cross fire of global sanctions, castigated as the weak link in NATO, or seen as being on the wrong side of history. But intelligence disclosures have become a powerful new tool in the mix. It’s a lot harder for countries to hide behind Russia’s false narrative when the narrative is debunked before it even comes out of Putin’s mouth.

This intelligence strategy is new and clever. But it’s not risk-free. Using secrets now may mean losing secrets later. Anytime intelligence is publicly disclosed, there’s a danger that sources and methods will be discovered by the enemy, threatening the lives of people on the ground and jeopardizing the ability to keep collecting intelligence from technical and human sources in the future. That’s why intelligence agencies have always so fiercely resisted disclosures.

Intelligence disclosures can also make crises harder to manage. Going public with an adversary’s secret intentions and capabilities can be humiliating. That may feel good, but the key to resolving crises isn’t backing your enemy into a corner; it’s finding face-saving exits. Diplomacy is giving the other guy a way out even if you hate him for what he’s done.

Finally, in a radical-disclosure world, intelligence successes can be misconstrued as failures. Imagine, for example, that the intelligence revelations about Putin’s invasion plans had changed his mind, and he decided not to invade Ukraine. The intelligence would have been accurate and effective, but it would have looked wrong and feckless. Many would have concluded that Putin must never have intended to invade in the first place, and that U.S. spy agencies—criticized over the Iraq war, the failure to stop 9/11, and countless other missteps—had erred again. Confidence in America’s intelligence community would erode, even though it shouldn’t.

So far, however, evidence from the Ukraine crisis suggests that the rewards of this intelligence-disclosure strategy far outweigh the risks. Until now, cyber-enabled deception seemed to have the upper hand—whether it was COVID misinformation or Russian interference in the 2016 election. Ukraine has taught us all that truth and disclosure can still be powerful weapons, even in the digital age.