How US Intel officials lost that the Russian military was “hollow force”

  • Many US officials assumed that Russia’s attack on Ukraine would be a quick victory for Moscow.
  • With the conflict nearing its fourth month, those US officials are rethinking their assumptions.
  • Incorrect assessments reflect the inherited difficulty of analyzing the capabilities of another army.

More than 100 days after Russia renewed its attack on Ukraine, the world has seen that the Russian military is not what it was believed to be.

The Russian force that the US military and intelligence agencies regarded as a close equal opponent did not show up. The force that appeared had its main thrust blunted by smaller Ukrainian units. After suffering heavy losses and achieving few goals, Moscow withdrew its troops and lowered its ambitions.

Something was wrong with US assessments of the Russian military, and the Pentagon and the intelligence community admitted they had lost any indication that Moscow was indeed deploying an “empty force”.

A success and a lack

A member of the pro-Russian forces leaps from a tank in the separatist-controlled city of Volnovakha in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on March 11, 2022.

Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters


The US intelligence community is conducting an internal review of its trials after underestimating Ukrainian resolve and overestimating Russian military capabilities.

The misjudgment in Ukraine comes after the Pentagon’s extremely poor evaluation of the Afghan military, which US leaders thought would be able to keep the Taliban at bay for months after the US withdrawal.

During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in May, lawmakers questioned Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, and Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, about their agencies’ assumptions in Ukraine. focusing on the assessments that Kiev would fall in three or four days and that the war would only last two weeks.

“We assessed that their ability to cope with the size of the Russian forces massed at the border would be very difficult for them,” Berrier said of the Ukrainians.

Soldiers of the Ukrainian troops Irpin RPG sniper rifles

Ukrainian troops walk towards the town of Irpin, northwest of Kiev on March 13, 2022.

DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP via Getty Images


“What we didn’t see from the inside was some kind of this hollow force” that lacked an effective corps of non-commissioned officers, leadership training and effective doctrines, Berrier said of the Russians. “These are the intangibles that we need to be able to put our arms around as an intelligence community to really understand.”

Pressed by lawmakers, Berrier said the DIA would scrutinize what he had lost, pointing out that “in the entirety of the whole operation there were far more successes than failures.”

Although US intelligence agencies misinterpreted the effectiveness of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, they provided accurate information on Russia’s intentions in the months leading up to Russia’s attack, which began on February 24.

Those careful assessments – many of which the White House has released to allies and the public – have helped garner international support for Ukraine and bolster US credibility.

How the United States Evaluates Foreign Armed Forces

Victory Day Parade of Russia

Russian troops during the Victory Day parade for the 71st anniversary of the victory in World War II, in Moscow’s Red Square, on May 9, 2016.

REUTERS / Grigory Dukor


Intelligence analysts face several obstacles when evaluating an opponent’s abilities.

“When dealing with a foreign actor, analysts can fall prey to a number of mental traps, from confirmation bias, availability bias or even favoring existing analytic lines over new information,” Michael E. van Landingham , a former Russian analyst at the CIA, told Insider.

“Analysts must constantly try to control themselves and each other through a variety of formal and informal analytical methods to make sure they are not making a mistake in judgment,” added van Landingham.

US intelligence agencies rely on various intelligence-gathering methods to fuel the analytical process.

Human intelligence, the more traditional method, may be the most valuable, depending on the source, as it can provide a direct insight into an opponent’s plans and intentions. Signal intelligence is gathered from the eavesdropping of electronic communications.

View of Russian battle groups in the Pogonovo training area on January 26, 2022.

Russian Battle Groups in the Pogonovo Training Area on January 26, 2022.

Satellite image © 2022 Maxar Technologies


Open source intelligence, the newcomer to the intelligence block, brings together publicly available information from sources such as press reports or social media. Image intelligence relies on images taken by satellites or planes to document an opponent’s movements.

Analysts rely on all of the above methods to inform policy makers, but analysts – and policy makers – must accept that they will rarely know the full picture.

Gaps in the collection are often larger and more obscure when dealing with adversaries experienced in deception and counterintelligence, particularly the Russian security services, known for their aggressive and complex methods.

“Gaps in the collection stem from a lack of comprehensive information. Perhaps you have lost access to a technical source or never had one. Perhaps you lack a human perspective on high-level deliberation,” said van Landingham, founder of risk analysis and research firm active measures.

“In any case, many politicians will demand more information than you could hope to get, or there is a critical ‘known stranger’ preventing an analyst from having high confidence in a judgment,” added van Landingham.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.