‘Something Was Badly Wrong’: When Washington Realized Russia Was Actually Invading Ukraine

A first-ever oral history of how top U.S. and Western officials saw the warning signs of a European land war, their frantic attempts to stop it — and the moment Putin actually crossed the border, — reports Politico.

This oral history was compiled and woven together by writer and historian GARRETT M. GRAFF, based on dozens of hours of interviews by POLITICO national security reporters ERIN BANCOLARA SELIGMANNAHAL TOOSI and ALEXANDER WARD with more than 30 key figures of the U.S. government and Western allied response. (Additional interviews were contributed by Jack Blanchard, Graff and Maggie Miller.)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine exactly a year ago was as shocking as it was clearly foreseen. The merciless bombardment of Ukrainian cities, the hundreds of thousands of troops and scores of tanks that rumbled across the border on Feb. 24, 2022, followed months of rising tension and concern, and provided perhaps the biggest foreign policy test yet for the Biden administration.

For nearly a year prior, U.S. and Western officials had signs of what was coming: a suspicious buildup of Russian troops, intelligence about the Kremlin’s plans, statements from President Vladimir Putin himself. Those officials raised increasingly specific public alarms, some of which were based on a novel new strategy of rapidly declassifying and publicizing intelligence in near real-time, and made desperate attempts to avert a war, even as it became more and more clear that Putin was determined to invade.

The events in eastern Europe in 2021 and 2022, coming just as the world emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, also unfolded against a fraught geopolitical backdrop: In 2014, Russia had already seized Crimea from Ukraine, and fighting by Russia’s irregular, unmarked troops, known as “little green men,” had destabilized eastern Ukraine and led to a long-running, low-level war that had continued ever since. Meanwhile, during the summer of 2021, the United States faced its own challenge: a chaotic and controversial end to its nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.

This is the story of the Biden administration’s strategy and reaction to that looming Russian invasion — the battle to persuade skeptics and rally foreign allies to confront an almost-unthinkable threat, one that continues to shake the world today. All titles and military ranks are presented based on roles the speakers held in February 2022, and interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.




LT. GEN. SCOTT BERRIER, director, Defense Intelligence Agency: DIA is supposed to be the master sense-makers of militaries around the world — how they’re organized, trained, equipped, where they are, why they fight, when they would fight, what their doctrine is and what their leaders are all about. I’ve been thinking about the Russians for a very long time. The national defense strategy said, “Hey, the pacing threat is China, but Russia is this acute threat out there.” I always had that in the back of my mind — Russia is potentially very, very dangerous.

BILL BURNS, director, Central Intelligence Agency: We had begun to see across the U.S. intelligence community, including CIA, what were unmistakable signs of a serious Russian buildup along Ukraine’s borders, and picking up intelligence that they’re planning for what seemed to be a major new invasion of Ukraine.

LT. GEN. SCOTT BERRIER: It looks very, very dark for the Ukrainians.

ERIC GREEN, senior director for Russia and Central Asia, National Security Council, White House: I was struck by the confidence and clarity that the IC [intelligence community] had in this assessment. The alarm bells definitely went off.

DALEEP SINGH, deputy national security adviser for international economics, National Security Council, White House: We thought we had quelled his appetite for territory by meeting him in Geneva and trying to address some of the strategic concerns he’d been raising, but then here we were again, with an even larger force.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: It took about a week or two to put together this picture of a really significant, sizable Russian force. Then I said, “OK, we need to brief SecDef.” We didn’t say it was an invasion yet. We just knew it was different.

ANTONY BLINKEN: We saw not only the massing of forces on the borders of Ukraine, we also — through the information that we got — had an understanding of what the Russian leadership was actually thinking and planning for those forces.

LAURA COOPER, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs, Pentagon: We were reading intelligence that convinced us of Russia’s motives — to significantly destabilize Ukraine, and then ultimately to invade Ukraine.

AVRIL HAINES: We were pulling together the strings and constantly in that mode: “OK, but could this be interpreted from a different perspective? Is there another way to think about this?”

GEN. MARK MILLEY: We set up to brief the president. We briefed in the Oval, and it’s a very serious, very somber brief. There’s this many Russian forces, this is the size, this is what the capability is, this is their composition, this is the disposition. This is the size of the Ukrainian forces. We went over what the Russians’ most likely and most dangerous courses of action are. It certainly grabs everyone’s attention.

AVRIL HAINES: It was hard to believe, at first, honestly. Most people said, “Really? A large-scale military option? That seems unlikely!”

GEN. MARK MILLEY: When someone like me is saying, “Hey, this is the most dangerous course of action — you’re probably going to see five field armies coming this way, two over here, and five over there. It’s going to be preceded by a significant amount of Russian bombings and missile attacks, and this is going to be the most horrific combat operations since the end of World War II.” People are sitting there going “What planet did this guy just walk in from?” I can understand that, actually.

GEN. PAUL NAKASONE: By the 11th of October, I’m convinced the Russians are going to invade Ukraine. The preponderance of intelligence was different than anything we’d ever seen before.

DAME KAREN PIERCE: A few people in our system — because of the [April] 2021 [buildup] not coming to anything — thought this was saber rattling, but not for very long. It didn’t take too long for the whole U.K. system to think this would be an invasion. We thought it would take the form either of an air assault on Kyiv or an assassination of the leadership — or possibly both.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: We end up briefing [President Biden] frequently throughout the fall because this thing keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger in size and scope.

LIZ TRUSS, foreign secretary, United Kingdom: The threats clearly became worse through the autumn.

ANTONY BLINKEN: That began an incredibly intense period of engaging the world, as well as engaging with the Russians, to try to prevent them from doing what we saw building, and with the rest of the world to warn them about what was coming.

EMILY HORNE: There were three priorities early on: Support Ukraine —nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, bolster NATO and avoid a war with Russia.

ANNE NEUBERGER, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, National Security Council, White House: This was really a coming-of-age for our cyber community — we never before mobilized like this for a geopolitical crisis. It reflects the extent to which cyber was now a mainstream national security issue. The White House had three major lines of effort [on the cyber side]: We mobilized to provide a range of assistance to the Ukrainians, we mobilized with the international community, and we really mobilized across the U.S. government and the private sector in a way we never did before.

JON FINER: It’s a very rare thing in international affairs that you get such a clear, unmistakable and advanced warning of a major geopolitical event. More often, they just happen and you’re forced to scramble and respond and react.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: It’s 30 days after the exit from Afghanistan. Some people said that the invasion of Ukraine was a result of the withdrawal. I don’t agree. It’s obvious the invasion was planned before the fall of Afghanistan.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Looking back over the course of 2021, it seems clear that [Putin] was toying with the idea all the way through, and he was getting more and more agitated about the future course of Ukraine. He didn’t wake up one day in September-October and decide to do this. The footsteps were there.




JAKE SULLIVAN: [The buildup] led us to do two things in October — one, to have the president send Bill Burns to Moscow to engage the Russians directly and to have the president make this a major topic of conversation with key allies at the G-20 in Rome.

DALEEP SINGH: It was tense because Russia was part of the G-20. Putin didn’t show up. [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov did. In the general session, I remember very clearly sitting behind President Biden, and he was reflecting on the historical moment. “We’re at this inflection point, history is going to judge whether democracies could come together and defend core principles that underpin peace and security.” He was looking right at Lavrov when he said that, and he said defending freedom is not costless.

ANTONY BLINKEN: There was a meeting on the margins of the G-20, in Italy, when President Biden convened the French, German and U.K. leaders. We shared with those leaders in some detail the information we had about what Russia was planning. That was maybe the most significant early wake-up call moment.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Coming back from Rome, I realized that we were looking at a matter of weeks, not months or years. We needed to get ourselves organized as a government. I instituted a daily meeting here at the NSC, with a significant number of senior people at the NSC who covered everything from the military to sanctions to diplomacy to intelligence, so that we could organize a whole-of-government response and whole-of-alliance response to what Russia was doing.

ERIC GREEN: [Jake Sullivan’s] office isn’t massive, but he has a table with eight or 10 chairs, then some easy chairs and a couch. The meetings would be from a half-dozen to 15 people depending on the issue set, all very informal.

JAKE SULLIVAN: I was determined not to have regrets if the worst came to pass — I was determined to ensure that we had done everything we possibly could think up to first try to head this off, and if we couldn’t put it off, put ourselves the Western world and Ukraine in the best possible position to deal with it, and to put Russia in the worst possible position to succeed. That was my motivation every single day through November, December, January, February. That was the North Star.

BILL BURNS: The trip the president asked me to take to Moscow at the beginning of November was to lay out in an unusual amount of detail exactly why we were concerned that Putin was preparing for a major new invasion, and then to be very clear about what the consequences would be should Putin choose to execute that plan. I had a bad feeling going out on that trip about what was coming. That was only reinforced by the conversations I had there.

MICHAEL CARPENTER, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna: When you’ve spent your entire adult career working on Russia, there is a distinction between the plausibility of something and the shocking nature of something that is so epic in its proportions that you know it’s going to shape your career and world politics for years to come.

When I saw this information about Russia’s imminent attack for the first time, it did seem plausible, but it was also deeply, deeply shocking — it would be history changing. That was the horror of it all. Any large-scale Russian war against Ukraine was going to be a human and humanitarian tragedy.

BILL BURNS: [While I was in Moscow,] I was talking to [Putin] on a secure phone. It was a strange conversation. He was in Sochi — this was the height of yet another wave of Covid, Moscow itself was under a curfew — so he was isolating himself. The conversation was pretty straightforward. I laid out what the president had asked me to lay out to him. His response was a lot of what I had heard before from him about his convictions about Ukraine, and in many ways, his cockiness about Russia’s ability to enforce its will on Ukraine. His senior advisers were pretty consistent as well. Not all of them were intimately familiar with his own decision-making, so at least one or two of them were a little bit surprised with what I laid out to them because the circle of advisers had gotten so small.

ERIC GREEN: The Russian interlocutors — they didn’t seem fully read into what was going to happen.

BILL BURNS: I came away with a very strong impression that Putin had just about made up his mind to go to war.

JOHN KIRBY, assistant to the secretary of Defense for public affairs, Pentagon: That trip went a long way to convincing us that this was a no-kidding invasion.

EMILY HORNE: I am no Kremlinologist, but one thing that has struck me throughout this process — and certainly struck me throughout the fall of ’21 — is that a lot of the times Putin and Russia were saying very plainly what their intentions were and what they wanted to do. And the West often had a very difficult time understanding that and hearing that. He made the case for what ultimately transpired very clearly in that manifesto in the summer of ’21.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.): The big thing that was clear to me was that after we basically gave him Crimea after the 2014 invasion — Putin was allowed to stay in occupation of these territories — his goal was always the same. The rhetoric coming from Putin was very escalatory, setting the conditions for toppling the government in Kyiv because there were Nazis, making the argument they’re defending Mother Russia against the NATO puppet aggressor, all the rhetoric to the domestic audience to justify the invasion. The invasion of Crimea made him believe that we would do nothing.

DAME KAREN PIERCE: He had said so much that it did not seem possible he would or could back down, which was unusual because normally Putin leaves himself wiggle room.

AVRIL HAINES: There were things that really made this a much more compelling case — budget decisions that were taken, other forms of intelligence surrounding it, the information campaign that they were playing. It wasn’t until you brought it all together, you start to see how the picture pulls together. Then the second piece was, “OK, I still don’t understand why would he make this decision?” It seems self-defeating. The analysts really put together that picture that helped us to see [his reasoning] more effectively.

BILL BURNS: My own impression, based on interactions with him over the years, was a lot of this had to do with his own fixation on controlling Ukraine. He was convincing himself that strategically the window was closing on his opportunity to control Ukraine.

AVRIL HAINES: He saw Ukraine inexorably moving towards the West and towards NATO and away from Russia.

BILL BURNS: His conviction was that without controlling Ukraine and its choices, it’s not possible for Russia to be a great power and have this sphere of influence that he believes is essential. And it’s not possible for him to be a great Russian leader without accomplishing that.

AVRIL HAINES: He saw the Ukrainian military becoming significantly stronger.

BILL BURNS: Tactically Putin saw the winter of ’21 and ’22 as a favorable landscape — he said as much when I talked to him.

AVRIL HAINES: He saw Angela Merkel leaving the picture; Emmanuel Macron distracted by an election.

BILL BURNS: He thought that the Europeans were distracted.

AVRIL HAINES: He recognized that in this cold winter, energy prices would be high, making it harder for Europe to pull together. Will the coalition be capable of enacting the kinds of sanctions that would create concern?

BILL BURNS: He was also quite skeptical of what our reaction would be as well.

AVRIL HAINES: He saw all of these things.

BILL BURNS: He was wrong on all of those assumptions — profoundly wrong.

AVRIL HAINES: And if you were looking at it through the lens of somebody who perceived Ukraine moving away from Russia as being something that you had to stop at all costs, you could begin to see how it wasn’t going to get any easier over time.

BILL BURNS: On the plane ride back, I called President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy at the president’s request just to describe the conversation. He listened very carefully. I think he was quite sobered.

TOM SULLIVAN, deputy chief of staff for policy, Department of State: We were at theCOP in Glasgow[on November 2] and met with President Zelenskyy — the secretary had to brief him on our intelligence that we had strong indications that Russia was preparing for a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

ANTONY BLINKEN: The two of us, sitting almost knee-to-knee in a room on the margins of the summit meeting. It was very stark, very palpable. He took the information very stoically.

TOM SULLIVAN: They were clearly struck by how candid our assessment was. That was notable.

ANTONY BLINKEN: [That was] one of the most powerful moments for me.

LAURA COOPER: As far back as November, we were gearing up in a significant way to make sure we were monitoring the situation incredibly closely, understanding the intelligence, gearing up to support Ukraine and reinforce our allies. Secretary [Lloyd] Austin put us on a vigorous battle rhythm — we were providing updates every single morning, at first it was by 7:30 a.m., and then it was by 6:30.

AMB. MICHAEL CARPENTER: I remember arriving in Vienna in late November of 2021, and most of my colleagues were talking about the quote unquote deliverables for the ministerial [OSCE’s decision-making body]. I remember being incredulous that this was what most people here at the organization were talking about, because all I wanted to talk about was the risk of a full-blown war in Europe that could be weeks away. It all seemed surreal — not that climate change isn’t crucially important for all of us, but it seemed we were on the precipice of this massive geopolitical catastrophe. There weren’t enough people convinced of the gravity.

JAKE SULLIVAN: I was working in the White House when Crimea unfolded and the little green men,” the early hours of confusion and fog of war. We had the benefit of being able to learn from that experience — to learn from the experience of the initial invasion into the Donbas in 2014, to really study the Russian playbook going as far back as Georgia. We have the benefit of the early warning of the intelligence, to make sure that we would not be caught on our back foot, but rather we’d be on our front foot — and pushing Russia in the information space onto their back foot.

VICTORIA NULAND, under secretary for political affairs, Department of State: Because I had seen our best efforts to forestall a violent choice by Putin fail in ’14, I was more prepared than many for the fact that he would do it again this time.

AVRIL HAINES: We were increasingly accumulating a picture that made clear: “Yes, this was a real option that they were considering,” and as we were helping the policy community understand that, the Boss was saying, “OK, Tony, Jake, you guys, you need to go out there, and start talking to our partners and allies. We need to see if there’s any opportunity for us to shape what might happen.”

GEN. MARK MILLEY: There’s a series of briefings that we have with our NATO allies all through the fall. DNI Haines, Director Burns and myself all talking with our counterparts to be able to set that context.

AVRIL HAINES: What I remember before the NATO engagement [in November] was them coming back and saying to the Boss: “They’re really skeptical,” like, “We’re going out there, and they don’t think that Putin is going to invade,” and him turning around and saying, “OK, you need to get out there. We need to start sharing intelligence and you have got to help them see that this is a plausible possibility, because that’s what’s going to help us to engage them in a way that allows us to start planning.”

VICTORIA NULAND: Everybody at the beginning was relatively skeptical — with the exception of the Canadians and the U.K., who were seeing the same intelligence that we were seeing because they’re Five Eyes — that he would actually take this step.

LT. GEN. SCOTT BERRIER: The Five Eyes is the oldest intelligence collaboration network that we have — we have very close partners with Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand. We also wanted to reach out to other traditional partners — France, Germany, other members of NATO. A portion of that was about convincing them of the intelligence we had and what we thought. In other cases, it was more collaboration on the intelligence they had and what they saw.

LIZ TRUSS: We were sitting on very serious, good intelligence, but — for whatever reason — that wasn’t necessarily the shared view of what was going to happen. Our allies had a different view.

DAME KAREN PIERCE: We knew that the French and Germans had the same reports that we had. We were puzzled by their insistence that he would not invade. When I asked the Germans, they said they wanted to keep an open mind. Scholz has said it — they just were wrong. They hoped for the best.

JOHN SULLIVAN, U.S. ambassador to Russia, Moscow: People had a hard time believing that there was going to be a major land war in Europe. “Yeah, maybe it’ll be like 2014-15 — there’ll be some ‘little green men,’ and there’ll be a minor incursion here, etc.” I was saying: “No. What they’re massing is not what happened in 2014-15. This is a World War II-style, or 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia-style military operation.” That’s what they had trouble wrapping their minds around.

LIZ TRUSS: I don’t think any of us wanted to believe.

JAKE SULLIVAN: I was very understanding, because an invasion of this magnitude was out of character for Putin, who had specialized in more hybrid, more limited military operations. It was something with grave consequences for the security of Europe and so hard to immediately wrap one’s mind around.

JON FINER: It was, in many ways, a highly illogical and irrational thing for [the Russians] to do for all the reasons that have played out ever since and in the enormous cost that they have paid for, frankly, very little military gain.

AMB. MICHAEL CARPENTER: Did he really think he could occupy all of Ukraine? It still seems incredible today he could think he could achieve an occupation of a country of 44 million people, with whom he was at war for many, many years, who had no love lost for Russia. We were warning Russia both publicly and privately that if it invaded Ukraine that it would be a massive strategic miscalculation, using exactly those words.

VICE ADM. FRANK WHITWORTH: Wherever we went, I’ve got a book that has the “Big Green Map” in it.

AMANDA SLOAT, senior director for Europe, National Security Council, White House: That map has taken on mythical status.

VICE ADM. FRANK WHITWORTH: I don’t go anywhere without it; the chairman wouldn’t go anywhere without it. The map — even though it’s two-dimensional — becomes a great source of intelligence fusion, the prop you need analytically to tell the tale.

JOHN KIRBY: It was a classic military topographical map — it showed a general sense of the topography of Ukraine, particularly those areas where we knew operations were going to be conducted, and it gave us a working-level knowledge every day of where the positions were, where the major units were, what kind of units they were, where and when they were moving. It was updated routinely to reflect the battlefield positions.

AMANDA SLOAT: The map was generally brought out in Principals Committee meetings, spread out on the table, and then taken away. It was used in the Oval Office for briefings with the president. I never got an up-and-close look, because it was whisked in and out, but it speaks to the degree to which people wanted to understand the details of how this was going to play out.

COLIN KAHL, under secretary of Defense for policy, Pentagon: There were debates in the fall about how much support was required, because we didn’t want to inadvertently speed up the Russian clock, incentivize Putin, or give him a pretext to make a decision he had not made. Us leaning too far forward could create dynamics either within the alliance or as we were trying to build world opinion against the Russians that made us look like we were the provocateurs.

AMANDA SLOAT: It got to the point where we had to say to the Europeans, “Fine, we can agree to disagree analytically, but let’s start planning as if we are right. If we are right, then we’re in a good place because we’ve got all our planning. If you’re right, that’s the best possible outcome because then there’s not going to be an invasion — at best, this will have just been a waste of time.”

JON FINER: We eventually brought people around by bombarding them with information that you could not ignore.




JAKE SULLIVAN: In November, Jon Finer and I were having a conversation abouta scene in the movie Austin Powers. There’s a steamroller on the far side of the room, and a guy standing there, holding up his hand, and shouting, “No!” Then they zoom out, and the steamroller is moving incredibly slowly and is really far away. The guy’s just standing there, frozen, shouting as it inches across the room. I said I was determined that we were not going to be that guy — just waiting for the steamroller to roll over Ukraine. We were going to act. In Crimea, they created a fait accompli before the world had really fully woken up to what they had done. We wanted to make sure the world was wide awake.

EMILY HORNE: Taking a step back, the information environment had changed dramatically since 2014. One, there’s a ton of commercially available satellite imagery, open source, and anyone with access to those images could see for themselves what Russia was doing on Ukraine’s borders. Second, there had been just an explosion in citizen journalism in the use of social media to show in real time what people were actually seeing, and this is coming from both Russian and Ukrainian sources. It was out there on Twitter, it was out there on TikTok. People could see for themselves, what these troops were doing — in some cases where they were. Then third, you have a general public that has a fundamentally different understanding of disinformation and misinformation — those terms are in people’s vocabularies in a way that they weren’t in 2014.

JON FINER: There was a very high likelihood that Russia would use disinformation — which is a fancy word for lies — to create some pretext for invading. By putting out information well in advance of their inevitable attempts to create this justification, we thought that we would be able to discredit any attempt by Russia to portray this as a just war.

VICE ADM. FRANK WHITWORTH: There have been times that false pretexts are uttered by irresponsible actors, and if you’ve got the goods in terms of being able to expose that, we’ve all learned that you have to expose that stuff.

GEN. PAUL NAKASONE: I’ve been involved since 2018 in being able to battle Russian disinformation, whether or not it’s been in elections or other scenarios. This truly is one where President Putin had no answers.

EMILY HORNE: Many of the senior policymakers who were in and still are in the administration remember vividly seeing these intel streams in 2014 and then seeing what had been predicted come to life. There was this feeling of: “We knew this was coming, but we couldn’t say so because it was classified.” People remember that frustration and felt that we couldn’t let that happen a second time. All the conditions were there for us to try something new and bold, but risky. It was a gamble that this would work.

JAKE SULLIVAN: We convened a meeting of our team to talk through a strategy of downgrade [declassification], and then I engaged directly with the senior most people in the intelligence community about how we could do this.

BILL BURNS: The president made the decision to declassify some of our intelligence relatively early on, which is always a complicated choice to make. Along with my colleagues in the intelligence community, the DNI and others, I believe strongly that it was the right choice. I had seen too many instances where Putin had created false narratives that we never caught up to.

AVRIL HAINES: I remember quite clearly when [the president] directed me to do this. I have this sense of “OK, we’ve got to figure out how to do this in a way that protects sources and methods and understand what it is that we’re trying to achieve here.” It became a real team sport. How do we do this in a way that allows us to protect what we hold dearest?

JAKE SULLIVAN: What we would do is send to [the intelligence community] in classified form the things that we wanted to be able to say, they would tell us what could be declassified, and what couldn’t. We would take what they declassified and put it out. That began in early December and became a central feature of our approach through the beginning of the invasion — and since.

BILL BURNS: We shared intelligence quite systematically with the Ukrainians to help them get ready to defend themselves.

AVRIL HAINES: In the discussions with the heads of intelligence organizations for NATO, there was a fair amount of skepticism. People asking: “Really? Are you in a way hyping up the threat as a consequence of what you’re suggesting? Is this going to lead us into the situation as opposed to actually helping us to prepare for it?”

EMILY HORNE: It was an extraordinarily unusual move to have the DNI go out and brief the NAC [NATO’s North Atlantic Council] in person. She needed to downgrade a fair amount of intelligence that, even though it was still in a classified setting, could be shared with 30 NAC partners. We were able to share a lot. It was a very persuasive presentation for a lot of them. Seeing that impact, I think got us thinking about, “Well, what if this can be further declassified so that it could be publicly shared? And how can we use our knowledge of how the information environment has changed and apply lessons from 2014 and from this spring into trying to deny Russia the ability to seize this narrative and use it to their benefit?”

AVRIL HAINES: You can’t share everything — you’re in a situation where part of what you’re saying is “Trust me,” and so we had to be as careful and accurate as possible. When there were things that didn’t make sense to us — of which there were some — we started making sure we were presenting those, too. Here’s the counterfactual. Here’s how we’re thinking about that. Here’s why we still think this is adding up to something that’s of concern.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: We did several different members’ briefings up on the Hill and then [DNI Haines] and some others also did the backgrounders with the media, with appropriate authorization, to release the information of Russian buildup and the potential for Russian invasion into the media space.

EMILY HORNE: The first time we put this into practice [with the press] was therelease of the map to the Washington Postand the article bundle that we published on December 3.

AMB. JOHN SULLIVAN: It’s [usually] like pulling teeth to get information declassified by the intelligence community. They curate their sources and methods very carefully, and they are quite right to be concerned about impairing their ability to collect information in the future by exposing intelligence.

GEN. PAUL NAKASONE: People are always asking, “Hey, did you ever think you’d be releasing your most sensitive intelligence to the American public?” I thought to myself, “Little bit of change.” But what I really think: “This is the nation’s intelligence. This isn’t an agency or the intelligence community’s or anyone else’s intelligence. When it benefits our national security, why do we not do that?”

JOHN KIRBY: I think this is one of the most valuable lessons that we have learned from a communications perspective — the real benefit to downgrading intelligence and making it public. You can really affect the decision-making process of a potential adversary. We were beating Putin’s lie to the punch, and we know that by doing so we got inside his decision-making loop.

EMILY HORNE: I remember [the Washington Post article] came out at 7 p.m. on a Friday, Washington time, which would have been 3 a.m. on a Saturday, Moscow time, and I’ll confess I took a moment of pleasure in the fact that no one in Moscow was going to be getting a good night’s sleep that night. I’m only human. But I remember refreshing my browser over and over at my desk and thinking to myself, “Either this is going to work as we intended, or we may have just started a war.” It was one of the most intense moments of my career to date.

JAKE SULLIVAN: It was a significant move we were making. It was putting the credibility of the United States behind a claim that had substantial geopolitical consequences.

BILL BURNS: I do think it made a difference, not only in putting Putin on his back foot, but also in shoring up the solidarity and sense of purpose of NATO allies as well.




VICTORIA NULAND: The fact that we found the [Russian war] plans when we did — and they were as robust as they were — and then they began to get played out on the ground as Putin moved more and more of his arsenal to Ukraine’s borders, gave us the time that we needed to prepare.

WALLY ADEYEMO, deputy secretary, Department of the Treasury: There was a meeting in which it was made very clear by the president that we’re going to think through how to use sanctions to both hold Russia accountable for the action they’re taking, but also as something that we make clear to the Russians we would do if they invaded, so they recognize we are ready to impose costs.

DALEEP SINGH: The best sanctions are the ones that never have to get used, so by signaling as clearly as we could that these were going to be the most severe sanctions ever on a large economy, perhaps we can deter Putin.

WALLY ADEYEMO: The president asked the Secretary of Treasury [Janet Yellen] to start thinking about how to do that in a way that would accomplish two goals — one was maximizing the impact on Russia and their ability to continue to fight the war, but two, trying to limit the impact as much as possible on our allies and partners.

DALEEP SINGH: I began to sketch out a package — start high, stay high. We start at the very top of the escalation ladder and continue to mount escalating pressure with the broadest coalition that we could mount.

WALLY ADEYEMO: We decided almost immediately to bring our allies and partners in as quickly as possible, so fairly soon after we started to share intel with the UK and Europe, we tried to have conversations about sanctions we were considering.

EMILY HORNE: This effort certainly had Europeans at its center, but it really was a global effort. Treasury officials were flying to the Gulf, flying to Asia, to have these very intense conversations about the need to be prepared, making it clear that an off-the-shelf [sanctions] package was not going to be sufficient, as Russia thought we were going to do.

WALLY ADEYEMO: Throughout the process, there were concerns raised of “How you do this could have this impact on my economy — is there a way for you to design this slightly differently?”

DALEEP SINGH: I knew that we had to deliver an economic shock and awe. That meant sanctioning the very largest Russian banks and the central bank. We absolutely knew that another vulnerability of Russia was its lack of access to cutting-edge technology — leading-edge semiconductors, quantum, biotech and those technologies necessary for Putin to modernize his military and sustain the invasion, but also to diversify the sources of economic growth. We and the partners in the West control the commanding heights of cutting-edge technology, so that was the second prong. The third prong was we’ve got to downgrade his status as a leading energy supplier over time — this was a tricky one because we wanted to minimize his energy export revenues while keeping steady global supplies of oil.

The fourth was — look in 2014, we didn’t win the narrative within Russia — so this time, let’s seize the physical assets of the kleptocracy, the yachts, the fancy cars and luxury apartments — not so much because we thought the owners of those assets would influence Putin, but it was intended to be a demonstration to the Russian people that they’d been getting ripped off for a very long time.

The last prong was: Let’s methodically eject Russia from the international economic order. Russia had been enjoying the benefits and privileges of being a full member of the World Bank and the IMF. Let’s remove those borrowing privileges; let’s remove its status as an investment-grade borrower; let’s reduce it to a small, isolated pariah economy.

The idea was that each of these five prongs would be mutually reinforcing, and they would generate intensifying impact over time, in conjunction with everything else that we were doing.

WALLY ADEYEMO: We realized the tool that we could use now in a different way than we’d used in 2014 was export controls. The secretary made the point in a Principals meeting that we need to bring in [the] Commerce [Department] as soon as we could to make sure that we went after Russia’s supply chain.

VICTORIA NULAND: We decided back in December, that the G-7 would be the core of the democratic response, and then we would build out from there.

LIZ TRUSS: The key area we thought we could make a difference was putting a very serious package of sanctions together. That was the main topic of conversation at the G-7 foreign ministers meeting we had in Liverpool [on Dec. 10-12].

TOM SULLIVAN: The G-7 meeting in Liverpool with the foreign ministers was the first time the G-7 had come together as the main coordinating mechanism for sanctions.

WALLY ADEYEMO: In our conversations with the U.K., they made clear that they theoretically wanted to come alongside us, doing a bunch of these things, but because they had just left the EU, they didn’t have any of the requisite authorities to take these actions. A big piece of what we started to do was work with the U.K. in designing what the authorities would look like for them to be able to take sanctions actions against Russia. They worked quickly and were able to get these in place relatively quickly.

VICTORIA NULAND: I spent a lot of time in December and January working on sanctions coordination with the EU in particular, but also with the U.K., Canada and Japan. We were having G-7 political directors’ meetings by video, it felt like every three days. The conversations about sanctions became more detailed and more intense in December.

WALLY ADEYEMO: The diplomacy between the president and the secretary getting people aligned on sanctions before Russia invaded was probably the biggest difference between this time and Crimea in terms of our ability to act quickly and effectively — things that we were unable to do back then.

VICTORIA NULAND: A lot of us were veterans of 2014, ’15 and ’16, and felt that if we had done more faster then to help Ukraine, we might have had a better result. Everything — from being able to release intelligence to having the sharpest, strongest first move on sanctions, to getting security support into Ukraine — we wanted to use those months, November, December, January, to be as well prepared as possible.

LIZ TRUSS: We were thinking, “What is the maximum we can do in the time available? How can we send a very clear signal and warning that this would not be some kind of walkover, and that the West would not just accept it?”

ANNE NEUBERGER: We were absolutely concerned because Russia has a history with Ukraine — as well as with Georgia and Estonia — in terms of using cyber in a destructive way as part of a geopolitical situation. We’re very concerned, based on the history, that they would disrupt Ukrainian power, but also really use cyber to destabilize and demoralize, to convey to the Ukrainian population, “Your government is not functional.”

GEN. PAUL NAKASONE: We sent a [U.S. Cyber Command] team forward, and they land in Kyiv on the fourth of December. Within a day or two, the leader calls back, and she tells my Cyber National Mission Force commander, her boss, “We’re not coming home for a while. In fact, send more people.” We sent our largest “hunt forward” package into Kyiv. That stays there for a little over 70 days. What is a “hunt forward” operation? A hunt forward operation is focused at the partner’s request to look at a series of networks — we identify malware, tradecraft and anomalous behavior in those networks that point us to adversaries and allow the partner — in this case, Ukraine — to strengthen those networks.

The interesting thing that she — the team leader — said: “They’re really serious about this.” This is the third time that we had been back in Ukraine, and there was just a different feeling in terms of how Ukraine was approaching it. When we provided information, they were moving on it, correcting the vulnerability, and looking for more.

ANNE NEUBERGER: We brought the Ukrainian energy team here to work with our national labs. We shared a whole list of targets that the Russians had compromised to enable the Ukrainians to rapidly address them; we put a real focus on their energy systems, and the Cyber Command team focused on military and transportation networks.

COLIN KAHL: Secretary Austin was very deliberate about setting all the conditions to enable a rapid deployment, but not actually to recommend moving a bunch of troops forward until we had unambiguous warning that this was going to happen, so that we didn’t get into this trap where we actually set in motion a chain of events we were trying to prevent.

JAMES HOPE, mission director for Ukraine and Belarus, USAID, U.S. Embassy, Kyiv: As it became clear there was a lead-up to something, our job — what we focused on — was really working with our interagency partners here in the Embassy Kyiv to begin contingency planning.

Our focus, very much from the beginning, was how to prepare for a humanitarian crisis. How do you line up the right humanitarian and other folks who can be part of that response? How do you line up differing supplies, commodities, things like that to get ready for a potential need? Just as a good example: Since it was almost wintertime, we figured a primary need will be winter-related items, so we focused on pre-positioning as much as possible — a lot of folks displaced, moved out of their homes, they may require basic things like blankets.

USAID has what we call a Disaster Assistance Response Team — DART. You see them around the world when there’s an earthquake, a natural disaster, a conflict or crisis. Planning to line up those experts, specialists, humanitarian response began early on in December. We had people come out to Kyiv to do some planning. The same with commodities — Dubai is a big commodity hub for USAID, for a variety of responses in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, and at the time, that was a good source for us to get things into Ukraine.

GEN. MARK MILLEY: There are indicators that you can tell as a professional soldier that separate the real thing from exercises, certain things you’re doing in exercises that you don’t do for invasions, and certain things you do in an invasion that you don’t do for exercises — a lot of it’s logistics, hospitals, tents, evacuation, blood, mobilization of doctors and nurses and medical people. The significant amounts of ammunition and getting them stored. Then the scale, the size. If you do an exercise and you have 200,000 troops, that’s very expensive. That’s a lot of money. They put it together in September, October, and then all sudden, you’ve still got those guys in the field in November? In December, it’s like, What are you doing? No one exercises that long. What kind of exercise is that?

VICTORIA NULAND: Once I saw 100 BTGs [Battalion Tactical Groups] worth of tanks and equipment and people surrounding two sides of Ukraine, which we saw by the new year, I broadly expected that Putin would move. That is a massive expense, a massive commitment, a massive investment — and an arrogant investment, as it turns out, in his own military’s ability to make a quick, sharp strike.

LAURA COOPER: It was the buildup of the intelligence and the picture of forces that gradually became more and more and more convincing that this really was what Russia would do. In the December time frame, all of the pieces were being put in place.

VICE ADM. FRANK WHITWORTH: There were very trained eyes who had seen exercises, and they had not seen this.

VICTORIA NULAND: Suffice to say that in December I brought all of my shower stuff, a couple of changes of clothes, things to sleep in, a blanket and a much more nutritious array of snacks into the office, because I knew it was unpredictable what our hours would look like.

REP. ADAM SCHIFFchair, House Intelligence Committee: This was the run-up to war.




AMB. MICHAEL CARPENTER: We thought, “OK, if there’s a crisis of European security, then let’s talk about it. Let’s identify the Russian concerns and see if there’s a way that we can address them through diplomacy.” Poland assumed the chairperson-ship of the OSCE on January 1, 2022, and so I immediately went to go visit with the Polish Foreign Minister to talk about the diplomatic angle. He was very receptive, and subsequently launched a process called the renewed European Security Dialogue. Russia basically refused to engage, and that’s when it became increasingly clear the Kremlin really had no interest in diplomacy all along. It was bent on war.

All of its alleged concerns — everything that it was putting out there in the public domain — was really a smokescreen. They turned their backs completely on the diplomacy that we were proposing at the OSCE, the diplomacy that was being proposed on behalf of NATO and then also bilaterally what we were discussing with the Russians. There was nothing to offer them, because they didn’t even want to talk.

VICTORIA NULAND: There was a lot of coordination to explain to first our G-7 colleagues, then globally to countries, that we were trying to address the stated worries and requirements of the Russian Federation to preempt a military move.

DAME KAREN PIERCE: That may in a funny way be a good side effect of the pandemic — officials had got so used to working with people abroad by Zoom, it was much more natural to do that sort of coordination than it would have been if we’d not all had two years of it during the pandemic. Normally these things aren’t smooth at all. People just got into good habits of cooperation-by-Zoom.

ANTONY BLINKEN: It was important that we do everything we could to test this question, because maybe there was a way of averting a war.

LAURA COOPER: From January onward, it was incredibly intense.

GEN. PAUL NAKASONE: In January, the National Security Agency is releasing cybersecurity advisories at an unclassified level to alert what we are seeing from our partners in Ukraine, and also provide further information to what we might anticipate in the United States. This is one of the things that I’m thinking about all the time is, you know, “What are our vulnerabilities?” Working across the FBI, CISA and the Department of Homeland Security — what are we seeing that might inform us of what an adversary, in this case the Russians, might do to us? This was really active. These were conversations going on every day.

ANNE NEUBERGER: Key agencies — the Department of Energy, Treasury, EPA — all brought in their key [private sector] executives, and we provided classified briefings to them on the threats that we saw and continuously kept them updated and pressed for them to do things in an unusual way. For example, NERC, which is a regulatory arm of the Department of Energy, issued a notice for specific practices and required companies to respond on what they had done.

BILL BURNS: I saw Zelenskyy in the middle of January to lay out the most recent intelligence we had about Russian planning for the invasion, which by that point had sharpened its focus to come straight across the Belarus frontier — just a relatively short drive from Kyiv — to take Kyiv, decapitate the regime and establish a pro-Russian government there. With some fair amount of detail, including, for example, the Russian intent to seize an airport northwest of Kyiv called Hostomel, and use that as a platform to bring in airborne forces as well to accelerate the seizure of Kyiv.

JOHN KIRBY: There was a mutual understanding that things were not looking good.

BILL BURNS: President Zelenskyy in that January conversation was very focused. He was in a bind. I was very impressed with him then, but I could understand the predicament he was in, too. He did not want to spark an economic or political panic in Ukraine. He was cautious about taking steps like a full mobilization of the Ukrainian military that Putin could then seize upon as evidence of provocation. But he was clearly sobered. They have really good intelligence services. His own services were picking this up by then. He took it quite seriously.

ANTONY BLINKEN: I saw Foreign Minister Lavrov in Geneva in late January, the 21st, because we were determined to exhaust every diplomatic avenue. It was incredibly blustery in Geneva — I’ve never seen Lake Geneva more agitated in my life, like an ocean with a major storm setting in. I alluded to that and said, “You know, we have a responsibility to see if we can calm the seas — calm the lake.” Lavrov was uncharacteristically focused on his talking points, and there wasn’t much extemporaneous give and take, which is not usually the case with him.

I wanted to see if there was some final way of breaking through and suggested we spend some time alone after the meeting with our teams. We sat in chairs about a foot from each other. I asked him, “Tell me, what are you trying to do? What is actually going on here? Is this really about your purported security concerns? Or is this about something theological, which is Putin’s conviction that Ukraine is not an independent state and has to be subsumed into Russia? If it’s the former, if this is genuinely from your perspective about security concerns that Russia has, well we owe it to try to talk about those and our own profound security concerns about what Russia is doing, because we need to avert a war. But if it’s about the latter, if this is about this profoundly misplaced view that Ukraine is not its own country, and you’re determined to subsume it into Russia, well, there’s nothing to talk about.” He couldn’t or wouldn’t give me a straight answer.