The invasion began with confusion within the Russian forces and a surprise for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. More than 200 days of dreaded uncertainty clouded Ukraine as Russia continued to press forward in critical regions like Donbas, Kherson, and Kharkiv. The other thing that pushed Ukrainians near the bring was how fast Russians were able to install quasi-regional leaders as Moscow tried to get way ahead of the situation in the war.
But, Kherson Oblast was a turning point. There had been classes within the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant that got the UN involved, but it was when Ukrainians reclaimed the Dnipro river that showed there’s a tiny bit of silver lining to look forward to.
Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Russia started pulling out electrical lines, oil supply, and gas in Ukraine, but Kyiv was steadfast in its slow-paced approach. It was months and months of analysts trying to predict how Russia would push forward. Do they have a secret in their arsenal? Will they be able to withstand the economic losses of the war? How long will this last?
So, with the massive defeat the Russian experienced in Kharkiv, what did the Russian intelligence and spy network get wrong in their analysis?
#1: FSB Expanded Their Branch Just to Research Ukraine
Before the invasion, Moscow backed the growth of its Federal Security Service (FSB). The department was just made up of 30 people in 2019, but it grew to 160 just before February this year. The goal of the new hires: to find proof that they can successfully invade Ukraine. The audaciousness of their goal also limited FSB’s analyses to find actual warnings should they move forward with the invasion.
Meanwhile, the recruitment efforts also signaled Ukraine for a potential escalation of Russian efforts.
#2: Overconfidence from FSB Senior Officers
It could be the staleness of “war” or simply ego that brought Russians to where we are today, but during the time when they were expanding their FSB team, also known as the Department of Operational Information, they were given the assignment to device plans on Ukraine’s decapitation and installation of their Russian loyalist leaders within the region.
In communication materials extracted by Ukrainians, it revealed that the FSB “bears enormous responsibility for the failed Russian war plan and the hubris that propelled it,” as Washington Post noted. The Russian spies and FBS reportedly worked on Ukraine for over a decade, trying to pull people to their side. They were paying off local officials and trying to implant propaganda within the region.
“The Russians were wrong by a mile,” said a senior U.S. official with regular access to classified intelligence on Russia and its security services. “They set up an entire war effort to seize strategic objectives that were beyond their means,” the official said. “Russia’s mistake was really fundamental and strategic.”
Still, overconfidence drips from the top (Putin).
#3: FSB Dismissed Their Own Survey
With the decade that Russian spies and FSB were mingling with the locals, they started a survey to conduct a pulse on the region to see if they could convert Ukrainians into Russian loyalists. The records showed their extensive polls showed a large portion of the Ukrainian population is willing to counter Russian claims in the country. The poll also noted that Russian forces who “will try to liberate” Ukraine would be welcomed warmly was *never* in the data.
It could be fear of Russian President Vladimir Putin that pushed the FSB to create falsified survey results or their own hubris unchecked, but they moved forward, dismissing what the actual numbers were showing them.
“There was plenty of wishful thinking in the GRU and the military, but it started with the FSB,” said a senior Western security official, using the GRU abbreviation for Russia’s main military intelligence agency. “The sense that there would be flowers strewn in their path — that was an FSB exercise.”
#4: FSB Dismissed Failures in Cooperating with Pro-Russian Government Officials
In 2013 and 2013, Ukrainians have constantly been protesting in Independence Square, Kyiv, after former President Viktor Yanukovych signed a new law limiting their freedoms. Yanukovych is a known Pro-Russian leader, so it’s no wonder many assembled to vent out their dismay.
Yanukovych’s policies were also Pro-Russian. He had reportedly bartered a deal with Putin, achieving a stimulus worth $15 billion, giving Ukraine a 33% discount on Russian gas. When Yanukovych pushed for Russian cooperation, more protesters took the street, and he eventually vacated his seat to escape with a group of senior advisers. Yanukovych was believed to be working with the FSB.
And even in his fall, the FBS still saw this as a clear sign that they would succeed if an invasion happened.
#5: FSB Underestimated Ukraine’s SBU With KGB Background
It is undeniable that the histories of Ukraine and Russia are intertwined. As much as Russia wants to occupy Ukraine, and Ukraine wants to separate completely from Russia, there are parts of their culture and government, and military that stayed very similar to each other over the years. This includes the Ukrainian SBU, the Russian counterpart of the FSB.
The Ukrainian SBU reportedly had roots in the KGB. This means, that even though we can arguably say that they could be applying outdated KGB practices, the foundational critical thinking skills would still be the same. So, when Ukraine saw all of these red flags from the Russian military operatives, they did what KGBs would do: prepare for war.
At the time, Ukraine had pre-planned President Volodomyr Zelensky‘s safety and escape in case they were attacked. The FSB, on the other hand, was still on this high thinking, since they’ve bribed local officials for a decade, the Ukrainians would have a fallen hierarchy in the government, and senior leadership would start jumping ship as soon as they attacked.
They thought wrong. Ukrainian SBU started with intelligence countermeasures.
“It’s a paradox of the Ukrainian state,” a Ukrainian official said. “It was believed, including by Ukrainians themselves, that there was a high level of corruption, inefficiency and infiltration of Russian agents in the Ukrainian government structures.”
However, Zelensky was always aware of the rat. He even enlisted CIA officers to help them root out FSB penetration, but with the SBU being 5 times larger than the MI5, it *is* taking time to completely overhaul the unit. Still, FSB’s belief that Ukrainian structures would break as easily as a child-built Lego structure led them to weak operational and structural planning for the invasion.
“Is there treachery? What can I say?” Zelensky said. “With all my love for Ukraine, we are not without sin.” The number of those who are not loyal to their country “has fallen over the years,” he said. Still, when the war started, “there were people who were working for Russians for money, and some who from the inside always hated Ukraine and were waiting for the Soviet Union to return.”
We are not announcing Russia’s defeat just yet, but the current events show us it is possible that we are almost there.