American intelligence agencies have told Obama administration officials and key congressional staffers that there is mounting evidence that Russia is putting the pieces in place for an invasion of eastern Ukraine, and that the possibility of an imminent assault cannot be ruled out, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The numbers of troops near Russia's border with Ukraine have been steadily increasing since Russian forces conquered Crimea in February. And near Ukraine's eastern border, troops are reportedly being supplied with food and medical supplies, which they would need in the event of further operations -- a development that U.S. intelligence agencies have noted with alarm. On Capitol Hill, U.S. spy agencies have given Congress increasingly dire assessments of the Russian activity and indicated that the likelihood of an invasion is rapidly growing, according to a participant in the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information.
Still, the intelligence officials have been careful not to offer a definitive conclusion that Moscow will invade or to predict the precise timing of a Russian military operation in Ukraine. Assessing the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hampered by the fact that the U.S. has alarmingly little in the way of signals intelligence, or intercepted communications, that would indicate that he had decided to invade or when a strike was scheduled to start, one official said. Despite the tens of billions of dollars given to the intelligence community each year, the United States also has no real-time video footage coming from drones in the region and is relying largely on still photos from satellites, another official said.
Further Russian aggression against Ukraine has seemed a distinct possibility since forces stormed into Crimea and took control of the peninsula and then moved to seize Ukrainian military bases in the region, facing practically no resistance. U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned about a potential domino effect in the region should Russian actions against NATO member countries force the alliance to enter the conflict.
"Our concern is that Russia won't stop [in Crimea]," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Foreign Policy in an interview last week. "There is a clear risk that Russia will go beyond Crimea and the next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine." President Barack Obama has used a trip to Europe this week to warn Putin in increasingly strong language not to invade eastern Ukraine.
Independent reporting from the region bolsters the intelligence community's assessment that Russia was assembling the necessary troops and military resources to invade if Putin gives the order.
On Thursday, Voice of America reported that the Russian military had established a field hospital in the Bryansk region, about 20 kilometers from the Russia-Ukraine border, and that train cars have been arriving near the border with troop supplies. That could mean that Russian forces are just settling in for a long stay -- troops in the field need to be fed, clothed, and tended to when they get sick -- without preparing a strike.
However, two officials said that the intelligence warnings have taken on a more alarming tone in part because the CIA failed to predict Putin's Crimea invasion. At the time, some in the intelligence agencies had determined that Russian forces had no intention of invading Ukraine, despite a massive buildup of troops along the border. That missed call has chastened U.S. intelligence analysts and forced them to reassess their judgments about Putin, one official said.
How the spy agencies failed to predict the Crimean invasion has been a subject of considerable debate in recent weeks. Some officials have claimed that leaks about classified intelligence-gathering methods had given the Russians a roadmap for evading America's surveillance nets. A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said this week that U.S. adversaries "have 'gone to school' on the leaks of how the United States collects foreign intelligence," referring to disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
But other current and former officials dismissed the suggestion that Snowden's leaks had helped Russian military forces. One U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified when discussing ongoing operations, said that the Russians practiced superb operational security in the runup to the Crimea invasion, and suggested that the reason so little traffic had been intercepted was because Russian forces were smart enough not to discuss their plans over radios and cell phones, channels that could be spied on by the Americans.
"It looks like the Russians learned from Osama bin Laden and used couriers," said Joel Harding, a former military intelligence officer who worked for the Army's intelligence command and has experience in surveillance operations. "They held access to those with a need to know and exercised strict discipline in communications security. That is the best professionalism I've seen from them ever."
If U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the skill of their Russian adversaries, they seem determined not to repeat that mistake.
At the Pentagon, there remains confidence in the assurances provided to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel from Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu that the Russian troops amassing on the border with Ukraine were there only for exercises.
"[Shoygu] told me that they had no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine," Hagel said at the Pentagon this week. But standing beside Hagel in the Pentagon briefing room was U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Philip Hammond, who noted that he thinks Putin alone seems to be driving all the decision-making, and wondered aloud if Shoygu was as trusted a Putin aide and called into question the assurances he is providing the international community.
"Other Russian players, including Minister Shoygu, may express views, but it's a moot point, and we cannot know, we do not know to what extent all of those people are really inside the inner circle in which President Putin is planning this exercise," Hammond said.
On Thursday Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said "there's no light" between Hagel and Hammond on the issue of trusting Shoygu, saying only that the Pentagon is watching it all very closely -- and hoping Shoygu keeps his word. "I'd say we don't have a full knowledge of their intent," he said. "But regardless of the intent, it does nothing to de-escalate the tension in Ukraine, it does nothing to improve the stability in that part of the world."
Gordon Lubold contributed reporting.