This is the central question politicians and journalists are agonising over. It is a basic problem of intelligence: ‘capabilities’ versus ‘intentions’.
The invasion of Kuwait back in 1991 demonstrated perhaps the clearest example of an intelligence failure of this type: the clear distinction between capabilities and intentions in assessing intelligence. If ever a nation had an obvious, ready-to-use military capability in 1990, it was Iraq before the invasion. In 1991, Iraq possessed an army comprising 5000 tanks, 7000 armoured infantry vehicles and 3500 artillery pieces. There were up to 1,000,000 Iraqi men under arms; ten times the size of the British Army. Iraq had more battlefield helicopters than the RAF and the British Army Air Corps had aircraft combined. It was an awesome military capability.
The intelligence problem about Iraq in 1990 was therefore really quite straightforward. With his legions amassed on the Kuwaiti border, what would Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi dictator with the fourth biggest army in the world – do next?
The intelligence requirement was that most difficult, dangerous and ephemeral of all intelligence requirements: what were the dictator’s intentions?
The task for intelligence analysts and experts on Iraq was to put themselves into Saddam’s mind. The only ways in which this could be done were either by reading Saddam’s secret orders directly or by recruiting an unimpeachable source as close to the Iraqi President as they dare risk. It was a tall order, but it was essential. What would Saddam do? It was that trickiest of intelligence problems to answer: do capabilities reveal intentions? Only Saddam at the time, as with Putin today, knew the correct answer.
Since Vietnam, the US intelligence community has led the world in collecting intelligence. The ability of the US national agencies, and their allies, to collect information is literally awesome. From satellites overhead to the ‘Mark 1 Eyeball’ on the ground, the US intelligence community collects everything it can on potential enemies. Common sense tells us that today’s targets of attention are Russia, China and Iran.
During the Cold War, the most influential (and most eagerly awaited) publication for the Western intelligence community was a document called Soviet Military Power, a glossy red handbook published every year by the US Department of Defense’s DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). For the intelligence expert, this document – which fell in classification over the years until eventually it became an unclassified book given free to journalists as part of Washington’s public relations effort – was an absolute feast of good things: pictures from space of new surface-to-surface missiles being rolled out of a secret hangar deep in the Siberian taiga; close-up snapshots of the latest Soviet tank leaving the factory; grainy photographs of some unknown attack helicopter turning in mid-air over a distant airfield; even a pin-sharp long-lens shot of a sophisticated new, purpose-unknown radar antenna sticking out from the fin of a Red Banner Northern Fleet nuclear submarine that had never been seen before.
It was all there, comprising charts, comparative tables and estimated performance figures. Soviet Military Power was an Order of Battle and Equipment (OOB&E) intelligence analyst’s dream. There was genuine excitement at the arrival of the DIA travelling circus to brief the latest intelligence to NATO senior officers and their intelligence staffs.
Whatever the military value of Soviet Military Power, its publication was not always met with unalloyed joy. Cynics, frequently from the signals intelligence community, would sometimes ask the US briefer, ‘Do you have any new information on Soviet intentions?’ The DIA staffer would then look hurt and mumble something about ‘that not being his Agency’s responsibility, and anyway, who could tell?’ The excited audience would then stare, irritated, at the questioner, and the session would proceed albeit with damage done and bubble pricked. In truth ‘intentions’ was always the real intelligence challenge. The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the near invasion of Poland in 1981, the collapse of communism in 1989-92, the rape of Kuwait in 1990 and the collapse in 2020 of the Afghan regime all took the intelligence community completely by surprise, despite vast sums of taxpayers’ money being spent on expensive intelligence equipment and resources, plus the highly trained staff needed to operate them.
The problem of divining intentions is both a cultural and a practical one. The cultural problem is embedded deep in the modern psyche as a particular lens for looking at the world. In order to deal with a problem, it has to have three distinct phases. First, there needs to be identification that there is a problem; second, once the problem has been identified, just how big is the issue that has to be measured? Lastly, once the size of the problem is known, what solutions are needed to put an end to it?
The key to this materialist logic is the measurement of size of the problem: quantification. It pervades all our lives and has even extended into the humanities, where computers can now analyse the rhythms of Shakespeare. In Tom Wolfe’s despairing cry, ‘Goddammit! They’ve even started to put literature into a white coat!”
There is an important link here with the intelligence world. The modern world runs on scientific method: it can measure problems that can then be managed in order to solve them. The ‘tangible’ is given greater value than the ‘intangible’. A fact can be measured, proved, prodded or demonstrated. Intangibles are harder: they cannot be exhibited or put on PowerPoint slide at a management meeting. How can you sell an ‘unknown quantity’ to a sceptical Defence Minister?
Human nature being what it is, people in organisations and individuals in general tend to choose to do whatever is easiest to measure and can be most clearly demonstrated. For example, a sales director who tells a CEO he thinks ‘blue cars will sell better than red cars next year’ must prove this is the case if he wants to keep his job as Head of Sales. Hunches count for little, but if he can back up his prediction by saying, ‘I’ve guessed right 18 times in the last 20 years, boss; that’s a 90% track record,’ then the hunch has been validated with quantifiable evidence. If the statement is true, the ‘90%’ is a measurable fact and the CEO would say, ‘these are good numbers.’
This scenario also plays out in the world of intelligence. It is relatively easy to count tanks, ships and aircraft nowadays. The technical problems in gathering such information may be immense and the expense horrendous, but the task can be achieved successfully given enough time, resources and technology to do so. However, it is much harder to assess intentions because they cannot be measured. A politician or diplomat may share something indiscreet at a cocktail party but then change his mind next morning.
Intentions rest on the shifting sands of the human psyche, with all it inconsistencies and frailties. For example, the whole course of world history would have been altered had Adolf Hitler answered ‘Nein‘ in response to the question from his Chief of the General Staff, ‘Do we proceed, mein Fuhrer?’ on 31 August 1939. Intentions are to the intelligence world what ‘fuzzy logic’ is to mathematics.
Not only are intentions difficult to assess – requiring, as they do, access, risk and expense (and even then there is no guarantee that they will be ‘cost-effective’ as they are unquantifiable) – but intentions also defy measurement. In Berlin at the height of the Cold War, some agencies tried to measure their intelligence officers’ success by the number of low-level agents they had recruited. So, an agent-handler running twenty agents, each making five reports a month from the East, (whatever their quality) was valued more highly than an agent-handler with only one source, who never reported at all, but who had access to the East German Communist Party’s intentions should a war ever seem likely. It is difficult to put a high enough value on such a potentially crucial human intelligence source.
In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that hard-nosed intelligence agency managers and their budget holders find intelligence capabilities much easier to deal with than intentions. Human intelligence (HUMINT) is not only difficult to measure, there are no guarantees of success either.
The second problem about HUMINT is a practical one: it is very hard to do successfully. Consider one example, from the ‘James Bond’ end of the intelligence spectrum: the Gordievski case. Oleg Gordievski was a career KGB officer who was recruited by the British SIS (MI6) and run as an agent in place for six years. The risks both to Gordievski and to his handlers were considerable. At any time he could have been discovered and executed. The value of the information he shared was incalculable and may even have helped to end the Cold War more quickly than might otherwise have been the case.
However, at no time could the British be absolutely sure that Gordievski was a genuine source and not simply a ‘plant’. Only the passage of time has confirmed that he was 100% genuine and his intelligence equally good. As a HUMINT operation, the Gordievski case stands as a masterpiece of intelligence. But at what cost? How many similar operations were unsuccessful? Yet even if the Gordievski case represents 1 valuable source out of 100 duds, the 1% success rate is worth it in the end if the quality if the intelligence is sufficiently high. So, the takeaway lesson is that HUMINT and intentions both hard to measure and difficult to do. Confronted by a Minister demanding, ‘How accurate is your estimate?’, the Intelligence Officer can only shrug and reply truthfully, ‘It’s the best we can offer, given our sources, Minister.’
All intelligence bureaucracies – certainly the accountable ones – will therefore veer instinctively towards the quantifiable and the easy, certainly when results are hard to prove. People could lose their jobs and pensions for getting it wrong. Much easier just to point to the numbers of all those tanks, planes and ships.
All of which brings us back to the current tension surrounding Ukraine. Putin certainly has a military capability to threaten Eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea (see right, map), but what does he intend to do with his resources? His options are clear. First, Putin can bite off the Donbas region, whose population is heavily pro-Russian anyway. Second, he can move into the south and seize the bit of Ukraine that borders the Crimea to its north-west and north-east. Third, he can invade in force and attack all of Ukraine east of the River Dnieper with fierce fighting and serious bloodshed. Last, he can go all out and seize Kiev with an attack from the north. Such a move would be highly symbolic to all Russians: not for nothing was Ukraine (along with other Soviet satellite countries) referred to as the ‘near abroad’ by the USSR. Kiev is revered by the Russian Orthodox Church, but became the centre of a Ukrainian breakaway traction in 2018. Also, despite its Slavic roots and importance, Kiev is considered the most pro-Western and pro-democracy region of Ukraine. This final option would mean an all-out war.
Which option will Putin choose? Much depends on Western reaction, but it is worth bearing in mind that ‘heavy economic sanctions’ like removal of the SWIFT system of monetary transfers would hit German, French and Belgian banks hard but have little effect on Wall Street (a fact with which President Biden is well aware). Last, behind the scenes, Germany intends to keep buying Russian gas at any price and to hell with NATO. The big German industrialists and their political hirelings know which side their bread is buttered.
What are Putin’s intentions? You had better have a mole in the Kremlin to find out – or else just make a lucky guess.