Putin Should Have Known His Invasion Would Fail

Russian intelligence ignored facts in favor of wish-casting.

By , a British Academy Global Professor at the King’s College London Department of War Studies and a history fellow for the Army Cyber Institute at the U.S. Military Academy, and , a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Gostiny Dvor conference center in Moscow on Feb. 21. MIKHAIL METZEL/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s War in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” of late February 2022 was the Kremlin’s biggest miscalculation since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But could Putin have known at the time that his initial invasion plan would turn into a brutal quagmire?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” of late February 2022 was the Kremlin’s biggest miscalculation since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. But could Putin have known at the time that his initial invasion plan would turn into a brutal quagmire?

Putin got his Ukraine assessment so wrong for two primary reasons, as an article co-written by one of us recently showed in detail. First, Putin’s distorted views of Ukraine’s viability and legitimacy as an independent nation state beyond Russia interfered with his ability to consider dissenting perspectives. And second, Putin sits atop an intelligence and policy machinery that tells him only what he wants to hear. Russian intelligence and security services are clear that the path to success is giving the boss assessments that mirror his own.

Underscored by such sycophancy masquerading as intelligence, Putin’s invasion was thus predicated on a theory that a lightening drive toward Kyiv to topple the Zelensky government would enable the Ukrainian people to free themselves from the West’s decadent temptations and dutifully—if not gleefully—return to the fraternal embrace of imperial Russia.

But what could Putin have known if he had bothered to look? Quite a lot, including publicly available polling from researchers in Ukraine in addition to a secret survey conducted at the behest of his own security services. But institutional habits and Putin’s own blinkered view prevented him from taking the totality of such sentiments from Ukraine seriously. Russian leaders (and their intelligence services) have a long history of prizing ideology over understanding and dismissing publicly available information. It must not be worth knowing if it isn’t stamped “secret” or purloined by a secret agent. As a popular idiom in Russia goes, “The only free cheese is in a mousetrap.”

This belief led Putin’s intelligence agencies, especially the Federal Security Service (FSB) and military intelligence service GU (formerly GRU), to dismiss or ignore the wealth of publicly available useful information upon which to base a strategic assessment about Ukrainian views. For instance, a 2021 study conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in conjunction with the Moscow-based Levada Center showed that, as of November 2021, 41 percent of Ukrainians had a “mostly good” to “very good” attitude toward Russia, whereas 42 percent had a “mostly bad” to “very bad” attitude toward Russia—and those attitudes toward Russia were getting worse.

Likewise, a 2020 study conducted by the International Republican Institute’s Center for Insights in Survey Research would have offered several relevant takeaways related to Ukraine, including the attitudes of the Ukrainian people toward their economic and political situation, public services and goods, opportunities and freedoms, public safety, and degree of national pride. Perhaps more importantly, the study also included attitudes toward other countries and international institutions. The often paranoid worldview of Russian intelligence agencies may have led it to dismiss this study—if they were aware of it at all—because of the institute’s funding, but they could have used it—even with a grain of salt—to glimpse into the Ukrainian people’s attitudes toward several internal and external matters.

Instead, FSB’s 9th Directorate, a branch of the FSB’s Department of Operational Information that is responsible for collecting intelligence on Russia’s “near abroad,” conducted its own survey in February 2022. The survey results revealed that most Ukrainians (67 percent) distrusted the president, and it claimed that some 40 percent would not join the armed forces to defend Ukraine. The survey painted a rather bleak picture, with the majority of Ukrainians being dissatisfied with the government and its institutions.

While the FSB could have compared its findings with those from open sources to create a more nuanced picture, the organization’s confirmation bias and distrust toward other sources got in the way. The Kremlin’s analysts thus cherry-picked what they considered to be suitable data to show their boss that a majority of Ukrainians were not enthusiastic about the political direction of their country. Perhaps left unremarked upon by anyone who wanted to keep their job was the 48 percent who were ready to fight and another 12 percent who may have been persuaded to fight once the question was no longer theoretical—and in a contentious democracy, people give answers about hypotheticals mostly as a political statement, not as an expression of what they would really do. Just because Ukrainians expressed serious domestic concerns did not mean that they wished to be invaded by an aggressive authoritarian neighbor.

These methodology challenges also applied to those Ukrainians living in the eastern parts of the country, whose opinions were more favorable toward Russia. As so often happens, it seems the Russians felt they found the evidence they were looking for all along—that Ukraine was ripe for the taking. The FSB’s erroneous presumptions helped establish a false causal relationship between the Ukrainians’ dissatisfaction with their political apparatus and their potential favorable reception of Russia’s incursion.

Despite the enormous analytical value of publicly available information, Putin and his intelligence machinery continued to believe that valuable intelligence (useful information about their target) would not be left in the open and unprotected. Instead, the data was gathered by a secret organization that served the purpose of reinforcing preexisting skewed ideas about the Ukrainian people.

Although some of the data gathered by the FSB seemed to coincide with the aforementioned open-source studies, the amount and kind of data gathered (or at least used) to inform Putin’s decision was carefully filtered to create a picture that supported Putin’s beliefs—namely, that he was pushing on an open door in Ukraine. It may also be the case that Ukrainian informants clandestinely recruited by Russian intelligence were also doing what Russian intelligence itself was doing at a higher level in Moscow: keeping the money flowing by providing politically palatable reports. In an ironic twist, despite Putin’s penchant for secrecy, he would have been far better served had he just googled Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia and read the results of publicly available opinion polling.

Instead, Putin relied on an intelligence apparatus that showed him what he wanted to see. As one recently defected Russian diplomat explained, the failure to provide objective information to the Kremlin lies in the fact that any “inconvenient” statements must be buried deep inside reports filled with propaganda lest they upset the Kremlin. This practice was revealed in a 2021 Russian foreign ministry cable assessing the strength of the Ukrainian armed forces, which had increased compared to its capabilities in 2014 when Putin invaded Crimea. However, this fact would be integrated into what the former Russian diplomat called a “lengthy paean to the mighty Russian armed forces” and, therefore, might have been easily overlooked if not intentionally ignored. This was a major error. The Ukrainians overhauled their armed forces after Crimea in hopes of joining NATO. Thus, the Ukrainian armed forces of 2022—supported by the United States and other NATO countries—increased in size, becoming better trained and equipped from what the Russians saw in 2014.

Even though the Russian foreign ministry knew the perils of Putin’s plot, the internal propaganda it disseminated helped obscure Ukraine’s real strength, deceiving the Kremlin into believing everything would go according to plan. Putin had an anchored bias about Ukraine’s military capabilities and the overall political situation. The FSB did not dare contradict these ideas. Instead, Putin was informed that “after the first attack, everyone would run, crowds of angry Kyiv citizens would come out, and [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky would be overthrown, followed by chaos,” according to Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov.

For decades, Russian military theorists have stressed the importance of accurate and timely intelligence for decision-making in the context of hybrid war, which (in the Kremlin’s eyes) the West is—and has been—waging against Russia. For instance, retired Russian Col. Aleksandr Bartosh, writing for Voennaya Mysl (Military Thought, a journal of the defense ministry), https://vm.ric.mil.ru/Stati/item/441390/the importance of assessing one’s adversary and their capabilities—including not only their military strengths and vulnerabilities but also their strategic culture, which would dictate an adversary’s behavior.

However, what the Kremlin’s strategists missed—or dismissed—is that it was their own invasion of Crimea that helped nurture and invigorate Ukraine’s sense of national identity as distinct from a Russian client state. This feeling across the country, coupled with important military developments, has been at the root of Ukraine’s determination to resist.

If Putin set out to reorient Kyiv’s westward drift by force, then the world is instead witnessing the political birth of a clearly recognizable Ukrainian nation state, its founding myth strengthened by the shared trauma of conflict and common hardships. Ukraine’s westward orientation is now a goal reciprocated by Western countries that have embraced Ukraine as one of their own culturally and morally, even if membership in institutions like the European Union and NATO aren’t on the table yet. Far from the FSB’s polling presaging an easy Russian blitzkrieg, Putin’s latest invasion has hardened and consolidated Ukraine’s national resolve—creating the very thing he sought to strangle at birth: a politically confident and culturally separate nation firmly backed by the West.

In the run-up to the war, Putin’s underlings ignored openly available research and cherry-picked supposedly secret information they knew their boss would favor. It is hard to envision a scenario in which Putin would have changed his mind about his invasion, but had Russian intelligence agencies and the foreign ministry worked in tandem to provide the Kremlin with an objective and realistic assessment incorporating publicly available information like polling data, the war might have taken a different form—perhaps more advantageous to Russia if Putin’s military planners better understood what determined foes faced them in Ukraine. Putin threw the cream of his military into an increasingly vainglorious cause and has set back his country decades in the process. He could—and should—have known it would fail.

David V. Gioe is a British Academy Global Professor and visiting professor of intelligence and international security in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He is also an associate professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy and a history fellow for its Army Cyber Institute. Gioe is director of studies for the Cambridge Security Initiative and is co-convener of its International Security and Intelligence Program. His analysis does not necessarily reflect any position of the U.S. government or Defense Department. Twitter: @GioeINT

Marina Miron is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Her research areas include Russian strategic thought, Russian military technologies, Russian information war, cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, human augmentation and other novel military technologies, counterterrorism, and military ethics. Currently, she is focusing on Russia’s approaches to information war and how to counter it as part of a project funded by the British Academy.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.