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Ukraine war offers intel bonanza for Russia watchers

PARIS: Russia’s massive assault on Ukraine is providing Western intelligence agencies and analysts with a rare live opportunity to verify their assessments of the Russian army’s strengths and weaknesses in the field. The scale of the deployment means Moscow’s military equipment, methods, doctrine and especially its weak points are on full show-including via vast quantities of open-source data, images and video. “What people are realising is that what they imagined (about the threat from this country) does not correspond to the reality of this deployment,” said Alexandre Papaemmanuel, a professor at Paris’ Institute for Political Studies (IEP).

The Ukraine mission was exposing “logistics that aren’t up to date and ineffective coordination” on Russia’s part, he told AFP. Information publicly available to spies, analysts and experts on the war in Ukraine ranges from high-quality day and night satellite photos from private firms in almost real time to images of fighting, captured equipment and alleged Russian atrocities posted by the Ukrainian defenders and civilians.

Recent conflicts like the Syrian civil war have thrown out an increasing volume of online data to be pored over by a growing community of so-called “open-source intelligence” (OSINT) analysts, as well as government spies. But the flow of unclassified data from Ukraine is on a different scale. “Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies’ targets are much more visible and accessible,” said Damien van Puyvelde, a University of Glasgow intelligence researcher. They will be using “intelligence from images, electromagnetic, and doubtless partly also intelligence stemming from human sources”, he added.

Historic first

Ahead of the invasion, the Biden administration in the US took the rare step of publishing intelligence information they said justified their fears of a Russian attack. “These sorts of information operations run the risk of compromising sensitive intelligence sources and methods,” said Nathan Sales, a former American ambassador who now works for the Soufan Group think-tank.

“Policymakers evidently calculated that it was worth it to expose the Kremlin’s lies.” One European diplomat said the US move “would enter the history books”. “It’s the first time that anyone’s done this. The US machine took a political and strategic decision” to publish intelligence almost in real time, the diplomat added. Such unprecedented openness from Washington did not convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back from the brink. But while his plans were clear for all to see, Western officials believe he underestimated the willingness among spies in the opposing camp to cooperate across national boundaries.

‘Consolidation of efforts’

It remains the rule among intelligence agencies that information shared by an ally cannot be passed on without their consent. But political leaders’ closeness has stretched long-standing habits among spies. “We are surprised to see some kind of consolidation of efforts by the EU, by the US, by countries separately and jointly,” said Yoram Schweitzer, formerly a senior Israeli intelligence official. “There is a political decision that definitely influences intelligence services to try to be on top of the Russians’ intentions, to obstruct what they are trying to do in a much more common way.”

That does not mean that an atmosphere of total trust has broken out among Western agencies used to playing their cards close to their chest. Washington has been sharing information with former Soviet bloc allies in Central and Eastern Europe who themselves have longstanding links into Russia, said former ambassador Sales.

“But we can and should be doing more,” he added. “In particular, we need to share more information about Russian military activity-ideally in real time-to help Ukraine defend itself against Putin’s aggression.” In future, “even with a generational shift as the Cold Warriors retire, we should expect Western capabilities to gather and analyse intelligence to remain considerable”, said researcher Van Puyvelde. What’s more, “we can hope that the costs the war and the reaction by the international community have imposed on Russia will over time help with recruitment of human sources inside the Russian state”, he added. – AFP

 

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