How Ukrainian intel has grown in a year of war

Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tells Scripps News Ukrainians have sources within the Russian army and across Ukraine.
Posted at 8:50 PM, Feb 23, 2023

The war started on bad intelligence, with Russia assessing Kyiv would fall in a few days. And in a year of fighting as the underdog, Ukrainians have seen how intelligence is a priceless weapon. 

Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta tells Scripps News Ukrainians have sources within the Russian army and across Ukraine helping them outpace Russian intelligence. 

"What they found is what we all have learned. You cannot win a battle without good intelligence. We are, in fact empowered by Putin's mistakes," Panetta said. "I don’t think there is any question that Putin and for that matter, Russian commanders, are not getting very good intelligence about what exactly is happening to Russian forces. I think they're operating on the hope that somehow things can turn around on the battlefield. And that is a premise that frankly, nobody should rely on."

Ukraine has held Kyiv, hit Russian sites, and killed generals using their own intelligence, American intelligence and commercial technology, like Elon Musk’s Starlink terminals and Palantir’s artificial intelligence.  

"Whether it's A.I., whether it's open source intelligence, whether it's intelligence from spies on the ground, or whether it's intelligence from technology, either satellites or communication technology, all of that is what gives you the intelligence that you need in order to win a war," Panetta said. 

But Ukrainians have also innovated. Last year, they tricked Russians with wood decoys of rocket systems. 

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And as Russian morale plummeted, Ukraine set up a hotline for Russian soldiers to surrender and a website for Russian families to search for relatives at war. They used chatbots to turn Ukrainian civilians into informants, and they’re crowdfunding fleets of naval drones and other weapons with the help of a Star Wars actor Mark Hamill.

They’re turning open source intelligence into a lethal art — striking locations where Russian service members casually post geo-tagged photos on social media — and they are still intercepting conversations by cell phone and radio. The Russian defense ministry blamed a deadly New Year’s attack in Makiivka on troops’ unpermitted cell phone usage.  

But while Vladimir Putin’s military might be depleted, with daily casualty rates estimated above 800, he still has a manpower advantage. And Russian military analyst Kostas Tigkos says some evidence points to fighters adapting. 

"They're increasing their intelligence collection and exploitation activities. And they're also introducing new equipment," Tigkos said. 

British intelligence assesses that Russia is likely now using balloons with radar reflectors to surveil Ukrainian air defense systems. A Chinese satellite company that the U.S. recently sanctioned has allegedly provided Russian paramilitary group Wagner with synthetic aperture radar imagery, allowing them to see through vegetation and clouds to plan for future operations. Tigkos says Russia is methodically using electronic warfare systems behind the frontlines and trying to evade detection.

"From our research on captured equipment operated by the Wagner force, we can see that they are introducing countermeasures that prevent the Ukrainian forces from identifying them and targeting them. One such example is the Spider laser warning receiver kit, which effectively alerts its operator when they're being targeted by the Ukrainian forces," Tigkos said.