Intelligence the key to understanding Russia’s intentions.

By Philip Ingram MBE

Last week U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan said that the U.S. is not certain that Putin has made a final decision to invade Ukraine. But “it may well happen soon.” Ben Wallace the UK Secretary of State for Defence told The Sunday Times that “Russia invading Ukraine is “highly likely” and warned that the military presence on the border has now reached such a size that they could “launch an offensive at any time”.”  Wallace has cancelled a planned long weekend holiday!

The question on everyone’s lips is how, how could we know what Russia is going to do? The only way to answer that question is through intelligence and the overriding caveat is that intelligence is not an exact science.  However, there are certain indicators that would point more to an invasion than a bluff and it is these I will explore in more detail.

So how do we know what is going on at the moment?  I examine the intelligence gathering effort in more detail in my blog here: https://greyharemedia.com/russia-and-ukraine-an-intelligence-goldmine/  However, there are a few things I want to pull out to set that background to this analysis.  The first is how do we know there are over 100,000 troops with the right equipment to invade Ukraine?

The first thing is Open-Source Intelligence or OSINT. Russia has declared it is carrying out manoeuvres in Belarus, in training areas around the Ukrainian border, in the Black Sea so we have definitively from the Russian Government that they are doing something. Next, we have what is being posted on special media; videos of convoys, trains full of equipment, soldiers leaving their home bases and more.

What must be considered with anything from open source is it could be being posted deliberately to mislead. Sun Tzu the infamous Chinese 6th century general and philosopher said in his book the Art of War, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”  The Russians have a doctrine called маскировка (maskirovka) which is all about ‘masking’ or deception and is central to all they do; they follow the philosophy laid down by Sun Tzu.

Analysis of the vehicle and aircraft types, badges on soldiers’ uniforms, vehicle registrations and symbols can identify units and therefore where they are coming form, geo-referencing the imagery and from that, by comparing with historical data, if this is usual activity.  Alongside that, private social media posts by Russian military personnel will be looked at for indicators.  Again, маскировка (maskirovka) must be considered.

This OSINT will be fused with imagery intelligence from satellites and Measurement and Signature Intelligence (MASINT) gathered from Satellites, Drones and Fixed Wing Aircraft flying along the borders, staring into Russia and Belarus with specialist radars.  These radars can see anything in the open including equipment hidden in forests and or under camouflage nets and their numbers can be counted regularly to see and changes. It can also be used to identify what types of equipment there are and that in turn will indicate the unit or formation.  The same radars can track convoys and trains moving in real time, distinguishing military equipment from civilian traffic.  Other sensors can see if equipment has moved recently and how long ago often being able to identify where it has moved to.

What is key here is identifying what formations are where and what they are doing? So, if the deployment is being billed as just training on home territory, are all the formations and units participating in that training, what are the ones with the best levels of training and the best equipment’s doing as not every unit or formation is equal? What is happening to the unit and formations logistic tails as they move and train and do those logistic tails match what is a norm for practice manoeuvres or are they larger? (You would not use as much ammunition on manoeuvres as you would need for operations, or as many medical facilities, or as many spare parts for armoured vehicles, so are these natures pre dumped and if so, where?).

Next will be looking at supporting units and formations, communications networks, air defence, air support and artillery as well as Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. The questions are what has been deployed to where and with what? For purely manoeuvres you do not need large numbers of live anti-aircraft missiles, or the artillery ammunition stocks you would need for offensive operations, or the same balance of ISR assets or the communications networks needed to control multi levels of ground offensive capabilities, and integrate it with air support, ISR feeds and logistic networks over the same geographical footprints.

Satellites, RC135, JSTARS and Global Hawk and other surveillance platforms will be hoovering up all of the information needed to work all of this out. Networks need to be tested, comms checked, radars positioned and tested, aircraft systems checked. No matter how good your comms plans are at suppressing emissions, you can never supress them all. Each emission is an indicator!

Air capability will play an important role, for manoeuvres you need a lot less than you would need for offensive operations and different types and certainly different weapons. Numbers and types will be critical. The first thing any Russian offensive operation would want to do is SEAD, suppression of enemy air defence (AD), i.e. destroy Ukraine’s ability to track and shoot down Russia’s aircraft so Ukrainian air assets could be targeted and then ground offensives begin.

SEAD would be carried out through a combination of Special Forces, Attack Helicopter, indirect fire usually from long range missiles and specialist SEAD aircraft as well as ground based and air based Electronic Warfare (jamming) capabilities. Where are the assets needed to do this and how ready are they and what are they equipped with?

These capabilities would need to ensure safe corridors to all Ukrainian air assets and ground formations were safely opened, so even if there were a geographically limited invasion of Ukraine, AD and air assets across the whole country would have to be targeted.  It would be highly unusual for these assets to be grouped and deployed in sufficient numbers just for manoeuvres.

Alongside all of these physical indicators, communications will be being listened to, whether that is over military communications means or civilian means, the technology to intercept and often decode exists. This will give a clear understanding of the quality of military communications, readiness of units and formations and some will give indications of intent. However, communications can also be used for маскировка (maskirovka).

Adding another layer on top of this are the Human intelligence (HUMINT) assets, at the strategic level running agents into the decision-making organisations in Moscow, military command headquarters and elsewhere and at the more tactical level, people reporting what is going on on the ground. Good HUMINT assets can get a real understanding of thinking and intent but getting good HUMINT agents with the right access is a massive challenge.

What must be considered at all times is that lovely word маскировка (maskirovka) – it could all be a huge expensive bluff, we have to remember that during the Second World War in preparation for D Day the allies had Operation Fortitude where amongst other things they created a fake army with a real commander, fake tanks, fake aircraft, fake radio transmissions, and fake spies with fake plans delivered to the Germans in a novel way through Operation Mincemeat. We knew what the Germans were looking for and provided it to them. The Russians know what we are looking for. That is partially why the intelligence game is very complex.

However, the subtle military indicators, with the sophisticated collection capabilities we have today compared to what existed during WW2 will give a much clearer picture of readiness and intent. This is what our politicians are being briefed and for them to order citizen’s out of the country and for the Defence Secretary to cancel his personal holiday, the indications supplest an invasion is more likely than not.

I have examined the why and what the possible objectives could be in another blog here: https://greyharemedia.com/what-is-driving-putins-thinking-on-ukraine/. My conclusions today remain as they were when I wrote that. There are so many other possible indicators such as status and loading of Russian Naval vessels, the defensive posture of the Kaliningrad Oblast and around Russian Naval bases in Syria, the Northern, Baltic, and Pacific fleet bases, but to examine them all would be a book.   We are seeing one of the most dangerous, complex political and military events in Europe since the Cold War or even before that.

Philip INGRAM MBE is a former Colonel in British Military Intelligence and was a senior military planner, he is available for comment.