WASHINGTON — After decades of getting schooled in information warfare by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the United States is trying to beat the master at his own game.
In recent weeks, the Biden administration has detailed the movement of Russian special operation forces to Ukraine’s borders, exposed a Russian plan to create a video of a faked atrocity as a pretext for an invasion, outlined Moscow’s war plans, warned that an invasion would result in possibly thousands of deaths and hinted that Russian officers had doubts about Mr. Putin.
Then, on Friday, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters at the White House that the United States was seeing signs of Russian escalation and that there was a “credible prospect” of immediate military action. Other officials said the announcement was prompted by new intelligence that signaled an invasion could begin as soon as Wednesday.
All told, the extraordinary series of disclosures — unfolding almost as quickly as information is collected and assessed — has amounted to one of the most aggressive releases of intelligence by the United States since the Cuban missile crisis, current and former officials say.
It is an unusual gambit, in part because Mr. Biden has repeatedly made clear he has no intention of sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine. In effect, the administration is warning the world of an urgent threat, not to make the case for a war but to try to prevent one.
The hope is that disclosing Mr. Putin’s plans will disrupt them, perhaps delaying an invasion and buying more time for diplomacy, or even giving Mr. Putin a chance to reconsider the political, economic and human costs of an invasion.
At the same time, Biden administration officials said they had a narrower and more realistic goal: They want to make it more difficult for Mr. Putin to justify an invasion with lies, undercutting his standing on the global stage and building support for a tougher response.
Intelligence agencies, prodded by the White House, have declassified information, which in turn has been briefed to Congress, shared with reporters and discussed by Pentagon and State Department spokesmen.
But the disclosures are complicated by history. Before the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration released intelligence that officials said justified pre-emptive action, including purported intercepts of Iraqi military conversations, photos of mobile biological weapons labs and statements accusing Baghdad of building a fleet of drones to launch a chemical attack on the United States. The material was all wrong, reliant on sources who lied, incorrect interpretations of Iraq’s actions and senior officials who looked at raw intelligence and saw what they wanted to see.
But this situation, American officials say, is very different. Washington’s claims about Russia’s troop buildup have been confirmed by commercial satellite imagery of a quality previously unavailable. The details of Moscow’s secret disinformation plots are in line with the Kremlin’s propaganda campaigns that play out on social media platforms and have been tracked by independent researchers.
Most important, the officials said, there is a fundamental distinction between Iraq in 2003 and Ukraine in 2022. “In Iraq, intelligence was used and deployed from this very podium to start a war,” Mr. Sullivan said on Friday. “We are trying to stop a war.”
The last time Russia moved against Ukraine, in 2014, intelligence officials blocked the Obama administration from sharing what they knew. But the Biden administration has studied those mistakes. The new disclosures reflect the influence of Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, and William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, who have shown a willingness to declassify information in an effort to disrupt Russian planning, administration officials said.
“We have learned a lot, especially since 2014, about how Russia uses the information space as part of its overall security and military apparatus,” said Emily J. Horne, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “And we have learned a lot about how to deny them some impact in that space.”
One U.S. intelligence official said that when the country’s spy agencies have information that could help the world make better judgments about Russian activity, it should be released, as long as the government can avoid exposing how the information was collected or who passed it along.
It is, according to some strategists, a full-fledged information battle.
“I think it is great,” said Beth Sanner, a former top intelligence official who regularly briefed President Donald J. Trump. “My guess is that these disclosures are freaking the Kremlin and the security services out. And, more important, it can narrow Putin’s options and make him think twice.”
The Ukrainian government has expressed unease with the American disclosures. President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that “too much information” about a possible Russian offensive was sowing unnecessary fear.
For all the disclosures, the Biden administration has provided no evidence of the disinformation plots they say they have uncovered. Intelligence officials have argued that sharing details would give Russia clues to how they work. That, in turn, would allow Moscow to “plug the leaks” and would amount to disarming in the middle of an information war, officials said.
Those concerns show how difficult it is for any democracy to go toe-to-toe with an autocratic state, like Russia. Unconstrained by truth, the Kremlin is simply better at such unconventional warfare.
“Remember, Vladimir Putin is a K.G.B. guy. He doesn’t think like Biden does,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former Moscow station chief for the C.I.A. “Putin comes from Mars and Biden’s from Venus. Vladimir Putin is playing his own game and his chess games may be a little different than ours.”
During many of his recent military forays, Mr. Putin has used disinformation to create doubt about what he is doing. Such tactics have slowed international responses and allowed Mr. Putin to more easily achieve his aims. When masked men began taking over government buildings in Crimea in February 2014, Moscow said they were part of a locally led pro-Russian uprising. Only after Crimea was taken over was it clear the “little green men” were Russian military forces.
Showing its ease with information warfare, Moscow responded quickly after Biden administration officials warned lawmakers this month about the enormous possible human costs if Mr. Putin launched a full invasion. “Madness and scaremongering continues,” Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyanskiy, wrote last Saturday on Twitter. “What if we would say that US could seize London in a week and cause 300K civilian deaths? All this based on our intelligence sources that we won’t disclose.”
After Mr. Sullivan’s remarks on Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the United States of conducting a “coordinated information attack” that it said was “aimed at undermining and discrediting Russia’s fair demands for security guarantees, as well as at justifying Western geopolitical aspirations and military absorption of Ukraine’s territory.”
The Kremlin has been on a full propaganda push since last year, not just in Russia but also in the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, and even in Kyiv, the capital. Moscow has accused Ukraine of plotting a genocide against ethnic Russians and denounced Ukrainians as Nazi sympathizers. Russian officials have also accused Ukraine and the United States of hatching secret plots to justify an intervention or invasion of separatist-controlled territory.
The United States began disclosing Russian maneuvering in early December when it declassified intelligence assessments that predicted Russia could eventually mass 175,000 troops for an invasion of Ukraine.
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Russia struck back that month with its own allegations. In a claim repeated on social media and Moscow-aligned conspiracy sites, the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said on Dec. 21 that some 120 military contractors from the United States had moved “an unidentified chemical component” into Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine “to carry out provocations.”
While the U.S. allegations of the Russian troop buildup have been verified by commercial satellite imagery, there is no evidence for the Russian claims, which American officials have called completely false.
Even before the United States began disclosing Russian military plans and plots, Ms. Haines decided to share more intelligence with allies, leading to her visit to Brussels on Nov. 17. The Biden administration was determined not to see a repeat of 2014, when NATO was confused and caught by surprise when Russian forces took over Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula largely unopposed.
Senior Obama administration officials recalled their frustration when the intelligence agencies would not allow the White House to tell NATO, let alone the public, what Washington knew about Russia’s moves.
“I can remember a dozen times when I thought our interests would be advanced if we just told the world what we knew,” said Michael A. McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia when it annexed Crimea.
Philip M. Breedlove, a retired four-star Air Force general who was NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe when Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, took matters into his own hands. “In the first two invasions of Ukraine — Crimea and Donbas — I used commercial available imagery to make the facts on the ground clear,” he said in an interview this week.
An even more important lesson, according to former officials, was Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Critics, including officials from the Obama administration, have said the United States was too passive in drawing attention to Russian influence operations.
The recent disclosures, said Jeh C. Johnson, a former homeland security secretary, are a way for the Biden administration to avoid old errors and make clear to Mr. Putin that America knows “what you are doing and we are putting your business out in the street and compromising your operations.”
“This is payback for 2016,” Mr. Johnson said.
The current information battle is playing out in a new era, where technology has allowed conspiracy theories to spread faster and wider than anytime before. At the same time, trust in government has further eroded. And that has meant many efforts to get ahead of Russian information operations are met with deep skepticism.
“If the U.S. government just comes out and says no, that’s wrong, some people will say, ‘Prove it, show me the videotape, show me the audio recording,’” said Glenn S. Gerstell, a former general counsel for the National Security Agency. “It’s an irreversible path once you start down that. And of course, the whole danger is that it risks disclosing sources and methods.”
The danger of exposing those intelligence collection techniques is real. The Kremlin could lock down its communications right before a potential invasion.
“This strategy is not risk free,” Ms. Sanner said. “If Russians are able to figure out the sources or they change how they communicate or just start locking down, it has the potential to partially blind us right at the very moment when we may need it.”
Other strategists believe that the United States could be more aggressive. The United States or its allies could release information about Mr. Putin’s top lieutenants, for example, or the oligarchs who support him. That could sow doubt about people’s loyalty, or expose their wealth.
“The new rules of war favor autocracies because they can do all these things well: They can fight sneaky and dirty,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has written about the changing nature of war. “The question is what do we risk as a democracy by fighting this way? How does a democracy fight a secret war, if you will, without losing its democratic soul?”
Eric Schmitt and Robin Stein contributed reporting.