Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

Can Intelligence Tell How Far Putin Will Go?

| Feb. 28, 2022

In a press conference at the end of last week, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was "convinced" that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine. Asked why, he said simply: "We have a significant intelligence capability."

Understanding the intentions of a foreign autocratic leader, particularly one shielded from the outside world and reliant on a small group of trusted advisors, is the Holy Grail for any intelligence service. America's spies, and their British colleagues, appear to have succeeded in that quest. We in the public are unlikely to know how until the relevant documents are declassified decades from now. But history can offer some hints about how Biden knows what he knows and why he has chosen to disclose some of this information publicly.

Cold War archives show that accurate warnings about an adversary's intentions and capabilities were seldom, if ever, the result of a single kind of intelligence. Rather, they were invariably achieved through combinations of intelligence from human and technical sources. Today, open-source intelligence is also playing an increasingly important role. The specific mix of intelligence sources can influence what information a government publicly shares. As demonstrated during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, presidents can best deploy intelligence in their diplomacy when the risk of burning sources is low....


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walton, Calder."Can Intelligence Tell How Far Putin Will Go?" War on the Rocks, February 28, 2022.