Five takeaways from The Post’s examination of the road to war in Ukraine

A Russian military column heads towards the border with Ukraine on February 23.
A Russian military column heads towards the border with Ukraine on February 23. (Emily Sabens/The Washington Post; Photo for The Washington Post; iStock)
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A months-long Washington Post review of the path to war in Ukraine, including Western efforts to thwart Kremlin plans, is based on in-depth interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and of NATO. Here are some key findings:

1. The United States intelligence community penetrated several points of Russian political leadership, the spy apparatus, and the military, and found Vladimir Putin preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In the Oval Office in October 2021, President Biden’s top advisers presented him with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war plans for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. US intelligence agencies had used satellite imagery, intercepted communications and human sources to show Putin was massing troops along the Ukrainian border in a bid to seize the capital, Kyiv, and much of it. of the country, leaving only a rump Ukrainian state in the west.

The United States had discovered that Putin was sharply increasing funding for military operations while leaving his pandemic response underfunded. “We estimate that they plan to conduct a significant strategic attack on Ukraine from multiple directions simultaneously,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Biden. “Their version of ‘shock and awe.’ ”

2. Every decision to arm Ukraine was based on not giving Russia a reason to attack the United States and NATO.

Biden was determined to rally NATO allies in the face of the impending invasion without provoking a direct conflict between Russia and the United States. Milley carried note cards in his briefcase encapsulating US interests and strategic objectives, as well as important issues. “Problem: ‘How do you guarantee and enforce the rules-based international order’ against a country with extraordinary nuclear capability, ‘without going to world war II?’ ”

Every decision to arm Ukraine was based on not giving Russia a reason to escalate, often to the frustration of Ukrainian officials, who were pressing the United States to send increasing numbers of more weapons. powerful, even though they publicly doubted the invasion would occur. “I make no apologies that one of our goals here is to avoid direct conflict with Russia,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.

3. Biden dispatched his top intelligence official to confront Putin with evidence of Russia’s war planning.

Biden sent CIA Director William J. Burns to Moscow to deliver a message to Putin: We know what you are doing, and if you invade there will be dire consequences. Burns delivered a personal letter from Biden and he spoke to Putin by phone from a Kremlin office. The Russian leader had decamped to the resort town of Sochi during a coronavirus surge that put Moscow on lockdown.

Putin, in a now familiar diatribe, complained about NATO expansion and the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian government. “He was very dismissive of the president [Volodymyr] Zelensky as a political leader,” Burns, a former US ambassador to Russia, recalled. Burns concluded that Putin did not make the irreversible decision to invade. But, he reported to Biden after the phone call, “my level of concern has gone up, not down.”

4. Kyiv complained that American intelligence was not accurate enough to prepare for an invasion.

Ukrainian officials complained that whenever the Americans shared their gloomy outlook on an impending invasion, they never fully provided Kyiv with the details of their intelligence. In November, Ukraine’s foreign minister and Zelensky’s chief of staff visited the State Department in Washington, where a senior US official greeted them with a cup of coffee and a smile. “Guys, dig the trenches!” said the official.

“When we smiled back,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recalled, the US official said, “’I’m serious. Start digging trenches. … You will be attacked. A large-scale attack, and you must prepare for it. ”

“We asked for details; there were none,” Kuleba said.

5. Zelensky suspected that some Western officials wanted him to flee.

The Ukrainian leader feared that with his government out of the way and a Kremlin-backed regime installed, the NATO powers would seek a negotiated settlement with Moscow over Ukraine. “Western partners wanted – I’m sure someone was really worried about what was going to happen to me and my family,” Zelensky said. “But someone probably wanted to end things faster. I think the majority of people who called me – well, almost everyone – did not have the conviction that Ukraine could resist this and persevere.

Likewise, warning the Ukrainians to prepare for war as some partners wanted, he said, would have weakened the country economically and made it easier for the Russians to capture it. “Let people argue in the future whether it was good or bad,” Zelensky recalls, “but I certainly know and intuitively – we discussed it every day in the National Security and Defense Council, and etcetera – I had the feeling that [the Russians] wanted to prepare us for a gentle surrender of the country. And it’s scary.

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