Western Intel Is a Force Multiplier for Ukraine. Russia’s Weakness Is a Surprise

The Ukrainians have used U.S. and NATO intel quickly and efficiently, inflicting heavy losses with missiles supplied by the West. Russia, meanwhile, is having difficulty coordinating its forces, forcing it to hit static targets. The two sides will soon face three options

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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A Ukrainian service member holding a Javelin missile system at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region, earlier this month.
A Ukrainian service member holding a Javelin missile system at a position on the front line in the north Kyiv region, earlier this month.Credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Without in any way minimizing Ukraine’s heroic defense against the Russian invasion, there’s also a behind-the-scenes hero: the precise intelligence the United States, Britain and other NATO countries have given the Ukrainians. Without this vast trove of intel – and the ability to quickly put it to use in military operations – it’s doubtful whether the Ukrainians could have successfully stood up to the huge force that invaded its territory on February 24.

“This quality intelligence has been a major force multiplier,” says Prof. Dmitry “Dima” Adamsky, a lecturer at Reichman University’s Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy and author of the book “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy.”

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In contrast to the success of Western intelligence, Russian intelligence has been exposed for all its flaws.

Ukrainian soldiers attend a training exercise at an undisclosed location near Lviv, western Ukraine, this week.Credit: Nariman El-Mofty /AP

“The Russians weren’t prepared in terms of intelligence and doctrine,” says Zvi Magen, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Russia and Ukraine, as well as in the Israeli army’s 8200 intelligence unit and in Military Intelligence research. He once headed Nativ (which handles Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union bloc) and today is a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“They didn’t understand that after 2014, the Ukrainian army had prepared itself with the aid of the United States and NATO,” Magen says. “U.S. and British intelligence have demonstrated again and again that they almost always know what the Russians are doing and planning in Ukraine.”

He believes the West has been employing a range of intelligence tools: HUMINT, SIGINT and cyberwarfare. “The help they’re giving is very proactive. There are intelligence officers in the field – in secret, of course. That is in addition to the intelligence assistance being provided by [Ukraine’s] neighbors, mainly Poland and Romania.”

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows damaged apartment buildings and homes in Mariupol, Ukraine, yesterday.Credit: /AP

One of the most obvious products of this precise intelligence has been the killing, according to media reports, of no fewer than seven Russian generals on the battlefield. That, of course, deals a blow to morale and the Russian army’s self-image. But more important is the Ukrainian army’s ability to make effective use of the intelligence it receives to wage war – mainly by using Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. So far, Ukraine has been supplied with some 2,000 Javelin missiles and 1,000 Stingers, and another shipment is on the way.

The Ukrainians say they need about 500 Javelin missiles a day. These are man-portable missiles dubbed “fire and forget,” using an infrared guidance technology that allows the user to take cover while firing. The cost of a single missile is about $150,000.

In addition, the Ukrainians have been given about 3,000 NLAW (next generation light anti-tank weapon) missiles from Britain. Germany, Norway and even neutral Sweden have provided some 10,000 anti-tank missiles for shorter ranges.

On the battlefield, TB2 drones have also been seen. These are used to attack Russian army positions and tanks (based on a version that Israel was producing about 20 years ago) and have been supplied by Turkey since 2019. The United States has also sent Ukraine drones, albeit smaller models; these so-called suicide ("kamikaze") drones are no less deadly, though.

A member of security holding up a cellphone showing the picture of an icon showing a saint holding a javelin anti-tank missile, in Lviv, Ukraine, earlier this month.Credit: KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

The results have been impressive. It is believed that anti-tank and drone attacks have destroyed more than 1,000 Russian tanks and armored vehicles, and hundreds of trucks.

The Ukrainians have also excelled at shooting down Russian aircraft. Stinger missiles, which the United States provided to the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, made their name thanks to their ability to shoot down Soviet planes and helicopters. Since then, the Stingers have undergone improvements. They are fired from the user’s shoulder and are relatively easy to use.

In addition to these missiles, Pentagon sources say the Ukrainians have at their disposal Russian S-300 air defense systems – some of which they acquired in secret, deceiving operations in recent years.

Russia hasn’t been especially successful at deploying its surface-to-surface missiles. The Pentagon estimates that almost 60 percent of those fired failed to hit their target, and some even exploded mid-air. This has especially been the case with the Kinzhal hypersonic missile. The pride of Russian high-tech has not performed impressively, to say the least, and hasn’t been used extensively. At the moment, it is being employed mainly for psychological warfare, to “shock and awe” the enemy, rather than to inflict unprecedented, huge damage.

Without a doubt, the numbers both two sides are releasing to the media should be viewed cautiously. Nevertheless, the most conservative estimates of Western intelligence sources are that about 120 Russian attack helicopters (almost a quarter of its total) and 80 fighter jets (10 percent) have been brought down by the Ukrainians.

Those same estimates say that at least 10,000 Russian troops have been killed so far, in addition to thousands wounded. Ukrainian losses are considerably less, running at about 3,000 dead and thousands wounded.

Lithuanian servicemen loading Stinger anti-aircraft systems and body armor vests into a military cargo plane bound for Ukraine last month.Credit: /AP

Who’s the commander in the field?

Magen says he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin when he speaks of a “special military operation” rather than a war. “He and his generals believed they would succeed in gaining control of Kyiv in short order by using 10,000 airborne troops, including military intelligence [GRU] commandos. They tried to seize control of Hostomel Airport [northwest Kyiv], but the Ukrainians – who were equipped with good intelligence – were waiting for them and expelled them.”

The result, according to Magen, was that the Russian army was forced to enter into land combat prematurely, without adequate intelligence, planning or logistics, and with less well-trained troops. These troops found it difficult to function and maneuver, and found themselves fighting in urban areas – which even the Israel Defense Forces, as we’ve seen in operations in Gaza, has found difficult to manage.

“So far, we’ve seen three phases of the war,” Adamsky says. “In the first phase, the Russians tried to stage a blitzkrieg that was planned on baseless assumptions about the abilities of the Ukrainian army and the weakness of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. After about a week, when they realized how big their mistake was, they moved to the second phase, which aimed to adjust to the new situation and fight a war they hadn’t prepared for. That showed up many surprising weaknesses and failures in command and control, logistics and the way the various branches of the military were managed. In the third phase, the Russians undertook land incursions while attempting, with no great success, to conduct combined arms warfare. That effort led to destruction in the major cities. It focuses on static targets, like infrastructure and military production plants, and causes huge damage. But the problems remain.”

The other big question concerning this war is: Who is actually commanding the Russian army? Who is the overall commander-in-chief in the field? “I don’t have an answer,” Adamsky says.

Magen says he has seen signs of problems at the top in Russia: between the army and the intelligence services, and between Putin and the oligarchs. “Russia is a classic case of the nexus between political power and capital. It’s a corrupt country, a kleptocracy, and, of course, that reaches down into the army. The sanctions that the West has imposed are strategic and personal. Everyone is being harmed and the oligarchs are angry at Putin.”

Adamsky believes that within a few weeks, Russia and Ukraine will face three options:

A Russian MiG-31 fighter jet carrying a Kinzhal missile taking off in Syria last year. Its performance hasn't lived up to its billing.Credit: /AP

1. A war of attrition;

2. A cease-fire that will eventually become a peace agreement;

3. A continuation of conventional war (without using nonconventional weapons) by Putin to achieve his aims.

One way or another, it is pretty clear right now that the Ukrainians will not join NATO’s military alliance. Even Zelenskyy has made that clear. Instead, Ukraine will try to join the European Union, will be deemed neutral in some fashion or another – in the style of Finland, Switzerland, Austria and Sweden – but under no circumstances will it agree to disarm and be demilitarized.

If the war continues, it is reasonable to assume that more territory will be torn from Ukraine, perhaps even to the point that the country is divided into two halves. But, as Magen sees it, “whatever the consequences of this tragic war, Russia will emerge defeated.”

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