‘Something was seriously wrong’: When Washington realized Russia was actually invading Ukraine
Tom Sullivandeputy chief of staff for policy, Department of State: We were at COP in Glasgow [on November 2] and met with President Zelenskyy — the secretary must have briefed him on our intelligence that we had strong indications that Russia was preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Antoine Blinken: The two of us, sitting almost knee to knee in a room on the sidelines of the summit meeting. It was very hard, very palpable. He took the information very stoically.
Tom Sullivan: They were clearly struck by the sincerity of our assessment. It was remarkable.
Antoine Blinken: [That was] one of the strongest moments for me.
Laura Cooper: By November, we were preparing in a significant way to ensure that we were monitoring the situation very closely, understanding the intelligence, preparing to support Ukraine and reinforce our allies. secretary [Lloyd] Austin got us on a vigorous battle rhythm – we were providing updates every morning, at first it was 7:30, then 6:30.
Amb. Michael Charpentier: I remember arriving in Vienna at the end of November 2021, and most of my colleagues were talking about the deliverables in quotes for the ministerial meeting [OSCE’s decision-making body]. I remember being in disbelief that this was what most people here at the organization were talking about, because all I wanted to talk about was the risk of all out war in Europe which could be weeks away. It all seemed surreal – not that climate change wasn’t of critical importance to all of us, but it seemed like we were on the brink of this huge geopolitical catastrophe. There were not enough people convinced of gravity.
Jack Sullivan: I was working in the White House when the Crimea happened and the “little green men», the first hours of confusion and fog of war. We had the benefit of being able to learn from that experience – learning from the experience of the initial invasion in Donbass in 2014, to really study the Russian playbook as as far as georgia. We have the intelligence early warning advantage, to make sure that we wouldn’t be caught on our back foot, but rather we would be on our front foot – and push Russia into the information space on its back foot.
Victoria NulandUnder Secretary for Political Affairs, Department of State: Because I had seen our best efforts to prevent a violent Putin pick fail in 2014, I was better prepared than many for the fact that he would do it again this time.
April Haines: We were accumulating more and more of an image that made it clear, “Yeah, that was a real option they were considering,” and as we helped the political community figure that out, the boss was saying, “OK, Tony, Jake, you guys need to go out there and start talking to our partners and allies, we need to see if there’s an opportunity for us to shape what might happen.
General Mark Milley: There is a series of briefings that we have with our NATO allies throughout the fall. DNI Haines, Director Burns and I are all talking with our counterparts to be able to set that context.
April Haines: What I remember before the NATO engagement [in November] would they come back and say to the Boss, ‘They’re really skeptical’, like, ‘We’re going there, and they don’t think Putin is going to invade’, and him turning around and saying, ‘OK, you We need to start sharing information and you need to help them see that it’s a plausible possibility, because that’s what’s going to help us engage them in a way that allows us to start planning.
Victoria Nuland: Everyone at first was relatively skeptical – with the exception of Canadians and Brits, who were seeing the same information we were seeing because they are Five Eyes – that he would take this step.
Lieutenant General Scott Berrier: The Five Eyes is the longest running intelligence collaboration network we have – we have very close partners with Canada, Australia, Britain and New Zealand. We also wanted to reach out to other traditional partners — France, Germany, other NATO members. Part of that was convincing them of how smart we were and what we thought. In other cases, it was more about collaborating on what information they had and what they were seeing.
Liz Trus: We were sitting on some very serious and good intelligence, but – for some reason – it wasn’t necessarily the shared vision of what was going to happen. Our allies had a different point of view.
Lady Karen Pierce: We knew that the French and the Germans had the same relationship as us. We were intrigued by their insistence that he would not invade. When I asked the Germans they said they wanted to keep an open mind. Scholz said so – they were just wrong. They hoped for the best.
John SullivanUS Ambassador to Russia, Moscow: People found it hard to believe that there was going to be a great ground war in Europe. “Yeah, maybe it will be like 2014-15 – there will be ‘little green men’ and there will be a minor incursion here etc.” I was like, “No. What they collect is not what happened in 2014-2015. This is a WWII-style military operation or Czechoslovakia-style 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. That’s what they had trouble understanding.
Liz Trus: I don’t think any of us research believe.
Jack Sullivan: I was very understanding, because an invasion of this magnitude was not in the character of Putin, who had specialized in more hybrid, more limited military operations. It was something with serious consequences for the security of Europe and so difficult to understand immediately.
Jon Finer: It was, in many ways, a highly illogical and irrational thing for [the Russians] to do for all the reasons that have since played out and in the enormous cost they paid for, frankly, very little military gain.
Amb. Michael Charpentier: Did he really think he could occupy all of Ukraine? It still seems unbelievable today that he could think he could manage to occupy a country of 44 million people, with which he had been at war for many, many years, which had no love lost for Russia. . We were warning Russia both publicly and privately that if it invaded Ukraine it would be a massive strategic miscalculation, using exactly those words.
Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth: Everywhere we went, I have a book that contains the “big green map”.
Amanda SloatSenior Director for Europe, National Security Council, White House: This card has taken on mythic status.
Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth: I’m not going anywhere without it; the president wouldn’t go anywhere without her. The map – even if it is two-dimensional – becomes an excellent source of intelligence fusion, the prop you analytically need to tell the story.
John Kirby: It was a classic military topographic map – it showed a general idea of the topography of Ukraine, especially the areas where we knew operations were going to be carried out, and it gave us a working knowledge of where were the positions, where what were the main units, what type of units it was, where and when they moved. It was updated regularly to reflect battlefield positions.
Amanda Slot: The card was usually presented at board of directors 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 a close look, because it was in and out, but it shows how much people wanted to understand the details of how it was going to play out.
Colin KahlUnder Secretary of Defense for Policy, Pentagon: There were debates in the fall about the level of support needed, as we didn’t want to inadvertently speed up the Russian clock, incentivize Putin or give him an excuse to make a decision he hadn’t made . Leaning too far forward could create momentum either within the alliance or as we try to build world opinion against the Russians, making us look like provocateurs.
Amanda Slot: We got to the point where we had to say to the Europeans, ‘Okay, we can agree to an analytical disagreement, but let’s start planning as if we were right. If we are right, then we are well placed because we have all our planning. If you’re right, that’s the best possible outcome because there won’t be an invasion – at best it will have been a waste of time.
Jon Finer: We ended up bringing people in and bombarding them with information you couldn’t ignore.