Can Intelligence Tell How Far Putin Will Go?


Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine

In a press conference at the end of last week, U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine. Asked why, he said simply: “We have a significant intelligence capability.”

Understanding the intentions of a foreign autocratic leader, particularly one shielded from the outside world and reliant on a small group of trusted advisors, is the Holy Grail for any intelligence service. America’s spies, and their British colleagues, appear to have succeeded in that quest. We in the public are unlikely to know how until the relevant documents are declassified decades from now. But history can offer some hints about how Biden knows what he knows and why he has chosen to disclose some of this information publicly.



Cold War archives show that accurate warnings about an adversary’s intentions and capabilities were seldom, if ever, the result of a single kind of intelligence. Rather, they were invariably achieved through combinations of intelligence from human and technical sources. Today, open-source intelligence is also playing an increasingly important role. The specific mix of intelligence sources can influence what information a government publicly shares. As demonstrated during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, presidents can best deploy intelligence in their diplomacy when the risk of burning sources is low.

The Human Factor

Human intelligence provides unique insights into what a foreign leader is thinking. This is especially the case with Putin, who, given his KGB background, is acutely aware of foreign intelligence capabilities and would resist risking interception by putting his intentions into writing before the last possible moment. Thus, even in an era of pervasive data, a human agent (or, more colloquially, a spy) with access to a foreign leader’s whispered secrets can still give unique insights into their mindset and motivations.

During the Cold War, it does not appear that any Western intelligence agency managed to recruit a spy with access to the innermost decision-making inside the Kremlin. The Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellite states were, at key points during the conflict, graveyards for Western spy services. Ubiquitous surveillance in countries behind the Iron Curtain, severe restrictions on movements of Western intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover there (“your papers, please”), frequent intimidation (pictures rearranged in apartments, letting you know you’ve had a visitor), and physical harassment hamstrung their abilities to recruit and meet agents. Under relentless pressure in Moscow, Western intelligence officers burned out even after relatively short periods of service. In the later Cold War, the CIA would invent ingenious and elaborate disguises for its officers just to get out of U.S. embassies behind the Iron Curtain to meet sources.

By contrast, the Soviet Union’s intelligence services were able to exploit the relative freedoms in Western countries with devastating effect, recruiting agents at the heart of their decision-making at key stages of the Cold War. Thanks to Joseph Stalin’s agents, the British and U.S. governments were effectively practicing open diplomacy towards the Soviet Union as the Cold War set in. Stalin knew more secrets about the Western powers than they ever knew about his intentions or capabilities. This is dramatically revealed in recently opened British intelligence dossiers on members of the Cambridge Five network and their Soviet handlers.

Given the colossal difficulties of human intelligence within the Soviet bloc, it is incredible that Western agencies achieved what they did. They were never able to enter the Kremlin’s inner sanctum, but they did get windows into it. Before the Cuban Missile Crisis, MI6 and the CIA ran a significant agent inside the Soviets’ Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Oleg Penkovsky. His story has recently been portrayed in the brilliantly acted but not entirely accurate film The Courier. Penkovsky provided his British and American handlers, in safe houses in Britain and Paris and hair-raising meetings in Moscow itself, with intelligence from deep inside the Main Intelligence Directorate. Penkovsky’s espionage revealed that Soviet claims about having a vast nuclear arsenal were a bluff. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev knew that he was outgunned by the United States and, thanks to Penkovsky, President John F. Kennedy knew this too.

Penkovsky’s intelligence (codenamed IRONBARK) contributed to Kennedy’s brinksmanship during his 13-day nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union during the crisis. The intelligence that Kennedy and his advisers received was a combination of human intelligence and technical intelligence collection from CIA U-2 spy planes, as well as signals intelligence collected by the National Security Agency about Soviet vessels en route to Cuba and its missiles on the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a case study for how different sources of intelligence can be combined to provide decision-makers in the Oval Office with timely, relevant, and accurate insights into the intentions and capabilities of an adversary pushing to the brink of war.

Twelve years later, MI6 recruited a significant agent inside the KGB, Oleg Gordievsky. Again, his window into the Kremlin had profound consequences for the West. To MI6’s delight, Gordievsky managed to become a senior officer in the KGB’s station (“residency”) in London itself, providing his British handlers there with the motherload of real-time stolen Soviet secrets. From his position in London until his hair-raising exfiltration by MI6 from Moscow in 1985, Gordievsky revealed secrets about the Kremlin and KGB’s mindset regarding the West. According to the U.S. director of central intelligence and later secretary of defense, Robert Gates, Gordievsky’s intelligence was as “scarce as hen’s teeth.” It showed that, contrary to the Kremlin’s public bravado, Moscow was deeply afraid about the U.S. government’s overwhelming military superiority. Gordievsky warned that what Washington considered defense and security seemed to Moscow like offense and aggression. His intelligence contributed to a sea-change in President Ronald Reagan’s strategic thinking about the Soviet Union. He pulled back from his previous bellicose public comments about the Soviet Union being an “Evil Empire,” which, Gordievsky revealed, had only made the Politburo more alarmed. When Gordievsky revealed that Moscow’s intentions were driven by fear, Reagan realized he could find accommodation with the Soviet Union.

Delicate Disclosure Decisions

During the Ukraine crisis today, the U.S. government has been rolling out declassified intelligence, almost in real time, to deter Putin by preempting his plans, tactics, and strategy. This, again, is not unprecedented. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy disclosed U.S. imagery intelligence from U-2 spy planes showing Soviet missiles in Cuba. In one highly charged occasion during an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Soviet ambassador Valerian Zorin poured scorn on “the falsified evidence of the US Intelligence Agency.” Kennedy, who was watching the debate on television, authorized the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, to “stick it to him”: he produced U.S. photographs of the Soviet missiles on large easels. Stevenson humiliated Zorin before the world’s press, and Zorin was left to respond lamely, “Mr. Stevenson, we shall not look at your photographs.”

The reason why Kennedy was willing to disclose the intelligence he had on Soviet missiles in Cuba was because it did not risk blowing sources or methods not already known in the Kremlin. The hitherto top-secret U-2 spy plane program had already been exposed to the Soviet government when, two years earlier in May 1960, one of its pilots, Gary Powers, had been shot down over the Soviet Union and survived.

We do not know whether the Kremlin today knows, or can guess, the nature of the “significant intelligence capability” that the U.S. government has. Before Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the CIA reportedly had a human source close to Putin, who gave it the confidence to conclude that Putin had personally ordered the intelligence operation against the United States. Following in Gordievsky’s footsteps, the CIA apparently exfiltrated that source from Russia. The CIA may have done it again now: who knows. If the U.S. intelligence capability is unknown in Moscow, Biden may be going further than Kennedy by risking a still-secret source or method to similarly “stick it” to Putin and reveal details about his ambitions.

There is some evidence to suggest that U.S. intelligence came from signals intelligence (SIGINT): intercepted communications of Russian-allied forces chatting about Ukraine invasion plans. If the capability is indeed derived from signals intelligence or technical cyber collection, it may have a shorter lifespan, which could lessen the cost of revealing it. If it is derived from a human source, however, it would raise the threshold for releasing its details, because a life would literally be at stake. Russia’s intelligence services have a long tradition of executing spies in their ranks. The KGB identified Penkovsky as a Western spy, arrested him, and executed him: most likely with a ritual bullet to the back of his neck in the basement of KGB headquarters, though rumors swirled that he was tied up with chicken wire and cremated alive in a furnace as a warning to other officers. MI6 decided to exfiltrate Gordievsky when it became clear that his life was at risk in Moscow.

New and Open Sources

Although there is much discussion about a new Cold War, the world has changed in the 30 years since the last one. Replaying the first Cold War’s best intelligence hits would be a broken record. The most important difference between now and then is the significant role of open-source intelligence in our new interconnected digital world. Ukraine is already the first TikTok war, a conflict for us all to see online. We scarcely needed secret intelligence to identify Russia’s massive military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

During the Cold War, 80 percent of intelligence on the Soviet Union came from secret sources, with 20 percent from open sources. In today’s age of ubiquitous data, those proportions are thought to be exactly reversed. Consider satellite imagery. Until relatively recently, it used to be the sole preserve of governments, using highly classified and expensive satellite collection platforms. Now it is freely and commercially available. This is not the only arena. Outfits like Bellingcat are showing how open-source intelligence can be used to reveal Russia’s malign actives in ways that, in the past, would have been laborious operations for a foreign intelligence service.

Open-source intelligence is not, however, foolproof. Its strengths can also be its weaknesses. With the proliferation of people reporting from their phones, it is arguably easier than ever to disseminate disinformation. It is not difficult to imagine that, knowing how many eyeballs are on him, Putin would order Russian troops to do things like move in the wrong direction. TikTok videos of those troops, picked up by Western media, would then spread the deception. They would be the modern equivalent of the inflatable tanks and balsawood guns that British and U.S. intelligence used to deceive the Luftwaffe before D-Day. Another potential ploy: Knowing that Russian downstream military orders are being intercepted by every intelligence service worth the name, Russian commanders could deliberately disseminate illogical instructions. Doing something illogical is the surest way to confuse foreign spy chiefs.

At times, of course, the most useful intelligence can be the most obvious. It is rare for dictators to telegraph their intentions to the world, though in some cases they do so. If Western intelligence services had spent more time reading Adolf Hitler’s Main Kampf, they would have been better positioned to understand his intentions and capabilities before 1939. It turns out that when Putin publicly stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe in the 20th century, he meant it. He really wants to correct what he sees as the “injustices” arising from it. Putin’s long history essay published in July 2021, and then his angry speech on Monday this week after a choreographed Russian national security council meeting, are the ramblings of a fanatic. The problem for the world is that, like Hitler, this fanatic runs a country. This is why foreign intelligence services also employ psychologists to understand Putin’s mindset and how far he will likely go with a war.

How Far? 

Now that Russia’s military onslaught against Ukraine is underway, and Putin has ordered his nuclear forces on special alert, how far will he go? That is the intelligence foreign decision-makers a desperately searching for.

In April 1946, as the Iron Curtain went up in Europe, the new U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, later U.S. director of central intelligence, met with Stalin in the Kremlin. The West was spying blind about his intentions for post-war Europe. The Soviet dictator doodled while the general spoke. “What does the Soviet Union want and how far is Russia going to go?” he asked. “We’re not going to go much further,” Stalin eventually replied. How far that was, though, nobody in the West knew.

The same applies to Putin’s intentions for Ukraine today. Hopefully the intelligence available to Washington today continues to be far better than it was at the onset of the first Cold War.



Calder Walton is the assistant director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project, and director of research of its Intelligence Project. His new book, Spies: Russia’s Hundred Year Intelligence War with the West, will be published by Simon & Schuster (U.S.) and Little Brown (U.K.).

Image: State Department (Photo by Ron Przysucha)