What I Learned about how the U.S. Handled the Run-Up to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School

A few thoughts on Politico’s mammoth oral history.

Last Friday, on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Politico dropped a lengthy oral history of how U.S. and allied countries detected and responded to Russia’s massive buildup of forces along the border of Ukraine. It’s a long read. With the caveat that there is always some self-serving commentary in these exercises, this particular oral history contained some interesting self-reflections and observations. Here’s what stood out to me after reading it:

First, contrary to the narrative being pushed by some, U.S. officials believe that the primary reason for Putin’s decision was perceptions of Russian weakness rather than U.S. weakness. It seems clear from the oral history that Russia was preparing to act well before the Afghanistan withdrawal. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said explicitly, “Some people said that the invasion of Ukraine was a result of the withdrawal. I don’t agree. It’s obvious the invasion was planned before the fall of Afghanistan.”

So why did Putin do it? CIA Director Bill Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines give similar answers:

BILL BURNS: My own impression, based on interactions with him over the years, was a lot of this had to do with his own fixation on controlling Ukraine. He was convincing himself that strategically the window was closing on his opportunity to control Ukraine.

AVRIL HAINES: He saw Ukraine inexorably moving towards the West and towards NATO and away from Russia…. if you were looking at it through the lens of somebody who perceived Ukraine moving away from Russia as being something that you had to stop at all costs, you could begin to see how it wasn’t going to get any easier over time.

Negative expectations about the future makes people do terrible things.

The second takeaway is that U.S. officials learned a lot about using intelligence as a form of statecraft. The Biden administration’s decision to declassify significant amounts of intelligence to persuade allies of what was happening was an important step. It seems clear that the declassifications and public presentations did persuade a lot of allies while wrong-footing the Russians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims that the invasion was delayed for at least a week “precisely because we were able to call Putin out publicly. The fact that we were able to continue to declassify information, call him out at the Security Council, have the president use the ultimate bully pulpit to call him out — that put them a little bit off the timeline that we had seen.” If nothing else, it helped to change the perception of U.S. intelligence from the debacle of Colin Powell’s UNSC presentation before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The third takeaway is that the argument for pre-emptive sanctions was appropriately viewed as nonsensical by Biden officials. Last January I explained why pre-emptively sanctioning Russia before the invasion made little sense. Some members of Congress disagreed. So it was pretty funny to see these comments from Senator Lindsey Graham sandwiched between observations from NSC advisor Matthew Miller:

MATTHEW MILLER: There was a constant push from the Hill to do more, do something different, or do it earlier. There was talk of legislation to sanction Russia in various ways before the invasion, but our belief was always if there was a chance that the hammer of sanctions could at all dissuade Putin from invading — and that was by no means a sure thing — we shouldn’t deploy that hammer too soon.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: There’s no question in my mind where we had a window of opportunity to change the calculation of the Russians and we didn’t take it — that would have been severe pre-invasion sanctions and flowing weapons into the Ukraine to defend themselves. I thought the buildup of force, threatening to dismember a democracy, was enough reason to sanction Russia.

MATTHEW MILLER: I don’t recall anyone that believed there was any strategic value in sanctioning Putin beforehand. It gets you nothing to do it three weeks in advance. There was never any real debate over doing that.

I cannot stress this enough: pre-invasion sanctions would have not deterred Russia in the slightest. Anyone who tells you differently knows nothing about coercive diplomacy.

Also interesting was NSC director Daleep Singh’s explanation for why they seized yachts and other property from the oligarchs: it was less about economic pain and more about highlighting Russian corruption:

In 2014, we didn’t win the narrative within Russia — so this time, let’s seize the physical assets of the kleptocracy, the yachts, the fancy cars and luxury apartments — not so much because we thought the owners of those assets would influence Putin, but it was intended to be a demonstration to the Russian people that they’d been getting ripped off for a very long time.

My fourth takeaway was that the intel on Russia’s invasion was good enough to convince U.S. officials that it was going to happen despite the ways that U.S. policymakers could envision this going sideways for Russia. In other words, U.S. officials stopped assuming that Putin’s preferences were the same as theirs:

JAKE SULLIVAN: What was hard to process was that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was going to happen, and yet the intelligence also overwhelmingly pointed to the fact that this was — I think the technical term is — “a crazy thing to do.” It’s weird to process both of those at the same time: OK, this is going to happen, and it is really strategically, morally bankrupt, and bereft of common sense — yet, there they were, going off to do it. There was an element of “What the hell are you guys thinking?”

My final and most important takeaway is that no one should generalize too much from this response to any other element of U.S. foreign policy. This was a set of extraordinary circumstances, the most important of which was that the Biden administration knew what was coming more than six months before it happened. As deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer explained: “It’s a very rare thing in international affairs that you get such a clear, unmistakable and advanced warning of a major geopolitical event. More often, they just happen and you’re forced to scramble and respond and react.”

Although I give the Biden administration high marks for how it has handled Russia’s invasion, this much advance planning is rare in foreign policy. Perhaps the only generalizable conclusion to draw is that it helps to have really good intelligence on what other actors in world politics are doing. And, for once, the U.S. had good intel. Maybe let’s make that a habit.

This piece is republished from Drezner’s World.

Leave a Reply