WASHINGTON – Top U.S. intelligence officials admitted Thursday that they underestimated Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russia’s invasion, a mistake for intelligence agencies that have otherwise been lauded for accurately predicting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention to launch a war.
“My view was that, based on a variety of factors, that the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought they should be,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Therefore, I questioned their will to fight. That was a bad assessment on my part because they have fought bravely and honorably and are doing the right thing.”
The White House has faced Republican criticism that it isn't providing enough weapons or intelligence to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Biden administration is currently opposed to a Polish plan to donate old Russian-made warplanes to Ukraine, out of concern that Putin may view that as an escalation by the U.S. or NATO.
Berrier testified alongside other top officials before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Generally, U.S. intelligence agencies have won praise from lawmakers of both political parties for their handling of the crisis.
Much of the hearing focused on the unprecedented U.S. campaign to declassify intelligence about alleged attempts by Russia to create a fake pretext for its invasion. Even though Putin ordered the invasion anyway, lawmakers say the campaign helped develop support for sanctions that have crippled Russia's economy and pushed previously reluctant Western countries to give military aid to Ukraine.
Two weeks into its invasion, Russia has failed to win control of Ukraine's airspace or subdue the capital of Kyiv or other major cities. But the war has had devastating consequences already: An airstrike hitting a maternity hospital, attacks on nuclear plants, and more than 2 million refugees having already fled the country with accounts of possible war crimes.
There's no sign Putin intends to de-escalate. Russian propaganda outlets in recent days have promoted false theories that the U.S. and Ukraine are developing chemical weapons. The White House in turn has warned Russia is setting the pretext for its own chemical or biological attack.
Berrier, who leads the Pentagon’s primary intelligence arm, said at Thursday’s hearing that just as Putin appeared to have misjudged his army’s ability to subdue Ukraine's much smaller armed forces, so did the U.S.
“We made some assumptions about his assumptions, which proved to be very, very flawed,” said Berrier. “I think assessing will, morale, and a will to fight is a very difficult analytical task. We had different inputs from different organizations and we — at least from my perspective as the director — I did not do as well as I could have.”
Berrier's admission follows another misjudgment in Afghanistan, whose U.S-backed government collapsed far more quickly to the Taliban than Washington expected. Officials believed the Afghan forces — long trained and funded by the U.S. — could hold out for potentially months after the American withdrawal. Instead, lacking U.S. air power and intelligence support, Afghan forces gave up many cities without a fight last summer.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that Putin had underestimated the resistance he would face from the Ukrainians. But Haines added: “We did not do as well in terms of predicting the military challenges that he has encountered with his own military.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who questioned Berrier and Haines, noted that assessing a foreign military's will to fight was particularly difficult.
“But these mistakes had potentially real-world policy implications about the willingness of the president or other NATO leaders to provide weapons that they thought might have fallen into the hands of Russians in a matter of hours,” he said.
Cotton and several other Republicans on the intelligence committee criticized the Biden administration’s current refusal to support a Polish plan to donate Russian-made warplanes to Ukraine. Biden administration officials have warned that Putin might view that as an escalation of the conflict. They say planes would go beyond the weapons the Pentagon and Western allies have already given Ukraine, including anti-tank systems and surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Russian aircraft.
Asked if the White House was pressuring analysts to assess that the transfer of planes would be seen as escalatory, Haines responded that objectivity was a “core ethic” of intelligence.