I think it’s more likely that the U.S. has a spy close to someone who’s close to Putin. Or even a step further removed from that.
But whatever the case may be, it does seem as if we’ve been reading his battle plans for awhile now. The White House began warning back in November that Putin was planning something for Ukraine, then grew more confident as February approached that that something would be a major invasion. Putin allies and apologists the world over scoffed. Even the Chinese appear to have taken his assurances that there’d be no war at face value.
We knew better. How?
NBC reports today that western intelligence agencies have “good visibility” into Putin lately, to the point of knowing that he’s throwing tantrums privately about the fiasco unfolding in Ukraine. “Good visibility” isn’t what you’d expect from a former KGB analyst during a major international crisis who’s spent the past two years secluded even from many of his own advisors. That might be a lie, of course — that in truth we know little of what’s happening around Putin but are eager to goose his paranoia by suggesting otherwise. But that gets us back to the run-up to the war: How is it that we were able to anticipate the invasion and even identify some specific details of false-flag operations Putin was allegedly planning?
It’s also possible that there’s no spy and that we’re doing things the newfangled way, by intercepting Russian electronic communications. But even that would be an intelligence coup. If we know what Putin’s doing behind closed doors, that must be some pretty elite signals intelligence we’re harvesting.
Sleep tight, Vlad.
Western intelligence agencies have good visibility into Putin right now and are closely watching his moves for any significant behavioral changes, several current and former officials said. Four U.S. officials said there is no intelligence saying he is mentally unstable, but they said he has displayed a different pattern of behavior from in the past.
The U.S. has solid intelligence that Putin is frustrated and directing unusual bursts of anger at people in his inner circle over the state of the military campaign and the worldwide condemnation of his actions, one former and two current U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence said…
“The main concern is the information he’s getting and how isolated he is. The isolation is a really big concern,” [a western] diplomat said. “We don’t believe he has a realistic understanding of what’s going on.”
I’m an amateur’s amateur on this subject but here’s one logical possibility. Someone reasonably high up in the Russian defense or intelligence bureaus watched the battle plans against Ukraine taking shape for months with growing dread, whether because he sympathizes with Ukraine or recognized the potential that this conflict might spiral. And so he relayed the plans to western intelligence to prepare us for what was coming and to formulate a counterstrategy, and has been relaying other information ever since. This person or persons presumably isn’t so high up that they regularly have meetings with Putin themselves, becoming an eyewitness to him screaming at his inner circle, but maybe they’re high up enough to be in contact with members of the inner circle and to hear about it secondhand.
Make of this CNN report what you will:
The intelligence community has produced scores of raw intelligence reports from sources as information pours in about the war. One such report that has circulated to more than a dozen agencies cites a source who has relayed that Putin’s behavior has become “highly concerning and unpredictable” over just the last two days, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
But in an indication of how difficult this information is to obtain directly, the description came secondhand to the FBI from a source who had talked to another, unknown source “with excellent access.” The report notes that this person had in the past provided information that intelligence agencies were able to independently corroborate.
A friend of a friend of Putin’s, perhaps? Well, don’t forget that disinformation runs both ways. It may be that the U.S. is bluffing about having a good sense of Putin’s thinking — or it may be that Putin deliberately had false information leaked to the FBI about his alleged bouts of temper. The more he’s able to convince the U.S. that he’s unhinged, the more reluctant the U.S. will be to provoke him. He might be running a “madman” psy op on us, in other words.
In fact, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, reportedly told senators during a briefing last night that the U.S. doesn’t have much insight into Putin’s mental state. An intel source told CNN that it would be “difficult to achieve conclusion of any confidence regarding Putin’s state of mind. Would need SIGINT of phone call/video of leader losing it on his cabinet or something like that.” Another reason to doubt that U.S. intel is coming from a human source, notes Calder Walton, is that revealing any of the info provided by that source to the public would put him or her at dire risk of being sniffed out and murdered by the Kremlin. Yet revealing intelligence is exactly what Biden did during the first half of February, hoping to spook Putin into changing his plans once he realized that we knew them.
So if there’s any high-level espionage happening here, one would think it’s more likely to involve intercepts than human spies.
Which raises another tantalizing possibility. Could it be that Ukraine’s defense has been surprisingly effective because western intel is relaying Russian military communications to the Ukrainians in real time? If we really do have “good visibility” into Putin at the moment, it’s a cinch that we have better visibility into Russian troops. Their advance is a logistical debacle; it can’t be that they’re running a tight ship in keeping their communications a secret when they’re not running a tight ship in any other respect. Stay tuned.