Return to

Feb. 24, 2022
Notes from the Pentagon

Intel praised, Biden faulted in Ukraine crisis

By Bill Gertz
Security analysts familiar with internal U.S. government thinking say most of the blame for the Ukraine crisis and Russian invasion this week in seizing two eastern regions rests with President Biden and grew out of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the U.S. military cut and run from Afghanistan after 20 years of unsuccessful nation-building and calculated that the American leader was incapable of a tough response to a Ukraine incursion. Mr. Putin believed he could conduct the aggression without significant consequence and further carve up a state that the Russian leader regards as the most important of the “near-abroad” states of the former Soviet Union he wants to control.

Mr. Biden’s most serious error, in the view of some analysts, was declaring openly that the United States would not send troops to Ukraine. Not sending troops may have been an important policy decision by the president for domestic and overseas political reasons. But it proved a strategic mistake to announce publicly that the option of sending military forces was off the table, analysts said.

Statecraft requires never telegraphing intentions that would provide fuel for an adversary like Mr. Putin in calculating the response to military action. Mr. Biden’s disclosure meant the Russian leader could count on no American forces being sent in response to an incursion. By saying publicly that no U.S. troops would be sent, Mr. Biden appears to have increased Mr. Putin’s resolve to take over Ukraine.

White House officials appeared to recognize the error. On Feb. 16, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters “all options are on the table” in response to a Russian invasion. But by then the statement had less impact than the president’s earlier comment.

One positive response to the crisis has been a reversal of the U.S. intelligence community’s failed response to disinformation during the Russian takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea eight years ago. The spy services used declassified intelligence to expose and effectively neutralize Russian disinformation narratives in the lead-up to Tuesday’s invasion.

The release and exposure of fake Russian ploys marked a dramatic shift from the response by intelligence agencies during the Obama administration.

Back then, spy agencies were caught off guard by the first seizure of Ukrainian territory with the dispatch of Russian troops without uniform patches in an attempt to disguise them in what has come to be called the invasion of the “Little Green Men” to the Crimean peninsula.

Mr. Putin used false narratives and disinformation prior to that action in a bid to trigger a crisis in the region prior to the dispatch of troops. Kremlin disinformation operatives spread false news reports of Russians being attacked in Crimea, including a false claim that a three-year-old Russian child had been crucified. U.S. intelligence agencies did not go public with what they knew of the false Russian narratives on Crimea as part of Mr. Obama’s leading-from-behind foreign policy.

Not this time. The intelligence community stepped up, rapidly and fairly effectively shooting down several of Mr. Putin’s attempts to use false narratives in what the military calls preparing the battle space for the invasion. Intelligence revealed that Moscow planned to conduct fabricated attacks by Ukrainian military or intelligence forces and use these “false flag” operations as a pretext for invasion.

CIA Director Bill Burns, a former diplomat and Russia expert who has been nearly invisible publicly during the crisis, is being credited with the successful U.S. intelligence blitz.

The most recent case took place last week. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that some of its troops were being pulled back from the Ukraine border. Within hours, U.S. intelligence officials let it be known the pullback was false, a deliberate feint designed to mislead the United States and the West.

The false troop pullback included Russia’s release of videos claiming tanks and other equipment was leaving by rail. The disinformation was seen by intelligence analysts as an effort to mask the coming invasion.

Amy Zegart, a Hoover Institution security expert, wrote in a tweet: “Using disclosures of intelligence to quickly debunk false Kremlin narratives before they take root. And shifting the narrative to ‘assume the Kremlin is trying to deceive you.’ Smart.”

Analysts say the intelligence disclosures were unable to deter the Russian aggression. But unlike the 2014 takeover of Crimea, this week’s eastern Ukraine action was much more widely viewed globally as clear-cut aggression from Moscow. The intelligence operation thus assisted in gaining international support for sanctions and a more unified response.

Ex-general hits Pentagon ‘wokeness’
Biden administration efforts to promote social engineering and “woke” diversity and inclusivity policies pose a danger to U.S. military warfighting capabilities, according to a retired three-star general.

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, a former Joint Staff director of operations, harshly criticized the Pentagon’s “woke” policies in a recent op-ed. Gen. Newbold said many leaders, both military and political, suffer from a kind of dementia when it comes to warfare.

“This ‘warfare dementia’ is a dangerous and potentially catastrophic malady because the price for it could alter the success of the American experiment and most assuredly will be paid in blood,” he wrote in the online publication Task & Purpose.

The fundamental role of the military is to deter enemies or decisively win wars, thus preserving the American way of life.

In response to what he said were Biden administration efforts to promote climate change, gender identity politics and critical race theory in the ranks of the armed forces, Gen. Newbold outlined what he calls the tenets of “Critical Military Theory” that are in reality military facts.

“There is only one overriding standard for military capability: lethality,” he writes. “Those officeholders who dilute this core truth with civil society’s often appropriate priorities (diversity, gender focus, etc.) undermine the military’s chances of success in combat. Reduced chances for success mean more casualties, which makes defeat more likely.”

The retired general is one of the few former military leaders who has spoken out publicly about what critics say is the Biden administration’s radical agenda for the Pentagon and the military. The U.S. military, he argued, cannot be true to its purpose of fighting and winning wars and at the same time mirror image the society it is defending.

“Values that are admirable in civilian society — sensitivity, individuality, compassion and tolerance for the less capable — are often antithetical to the traits that deter a potential enemy and win the wars that must be fought: conformity, discipline, unity,” he said.

The problem is made worse when some of the most senior military leaders who should know better cave in to judgments of people “whose credentials are either nonexistent or formed entirely by ideology,” he said.

Imposing diversity on the military undermines a military’s greatest strength: cohesion and discipline.

“Individuality or group identity is corrosive and a centrifugal force,” Gen. Newbold said. “Indeed, the military wears uniforms because uniformity is essential. The tenets of Critical Race Theory — a cross-disciplinary intellectual and social movement that seeks to examine the intersection of race and law in the United States, but which has the unfortunate effect of dividing people along racial lines — undermine our military’s unity and diminish our warfighting capabilities.”

Ground combat in warfare can be waged competently only with military action is instinctive, almost irrationally disciplined and sometimes wholly sacrificial.

“Consensus-building, deference and (frankly) softness have their place in polite society, but nothing about intense ground combat is polite — it is often sub-humanly coarse,” Gen. Newbold said.

In a criticism of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Newbold said wars must only be fought “with stone-cold pragmatism, not idealism, and fought only when critical national interests are at stake.”

“Hopes for changing cultures to fit our model are both elitist and naive,” he said. “The failures of our campaigns in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan confirm this.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to