WASHINGTON — A year ago, the United States did something extraordinary — it released previously classified intelligence that exposed Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine.
Last week, Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, made a similar move when he warned China’s top foreign policy official, Wang Yi, against providing weapons to Russia.
In a previous era, the warning might have remained private, at least for some time. But a new intelligence playbook honed just before and during the war in Ukraine has redefined how the United States uses its classified knowledge to undercut Russia and its partners.
The playbook is not just about naming and shaming Russia and its allies; it has become a powerful tool in the United States’ arsenal to try to stymie the Kremlin’s offensive by exposing Russia’s military plans and in aligning support for Kyiv’s war effort in allied capitals.
Ahead of Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Mr. Wang, the United States disclosed to allies intelligence normally held in tight secrecy. It included details about the ammunition and other weaponry China was considering providing Russia. Then Mr. Blinken shared the broad conclusion that China was considering giving military support to Russia publicly.
“For the most part, China has been engaged in providing rhetorical, political, diplomatic support to Russia, but we have information that gives us concern that they are considering providing lethal support to Russia in the war against Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken told ABC News.
“And it was important for me to share very clearly with Wang Yi that this would be a serious problem.”
The disclosure by Mr. Blinken was driven at least in part by the U.S. belief that public warnings and the declassification of additional intelligence about internal Chinese deliberations could still deter Beijing from delivering to Russia weapon systems to aid Moscow’s military campaign.
Some American officials insist that unlike Iran or North Korea — countries whose military support for Russia has been disclosed by U.S. officials — China cares about its international reputation. Because of its trade ties with Europe and the United States, which North Korea and Iran do not have, Beijing may be less willing to risk sanctions over weapon sales.
The effort to declassify intelligence to expose Russia began just over a year ago when the Biden administration was trying to convince some skeptical allies in Europe that Russia was poised to invade Ukraine. The administration’s new intelligence sharing strategy did not stop the Russian invasion, but it succeeded in revealing Russian plans and aligning major Western powers behind measures to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically.
“It’s not a natural thing to share intelligence beyond a handful of our most trusted allies, but we knew that this effort was going to have to be broader and deeper than we had ever done before,” said Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser.
The shift toward disclosures is driven in part by lessons of the past, and startling technological changes that have made more information about wartime activities accessible than ever before, something intelligence officials say allows them to release more information without endangering secret sources.
The strategy is also, in part, a product of past intelligence failures. Some failures, most infamously over claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, still color how Europeans view American spy agencies two decades later. Those doubts forced the United States and Britain to share more about what they knew about Russian capabilities and intentions to try to stave off European skepticism.
Now, according to some diplomats, when those two allies declassify and release intelligence, it is more readily believed by allies in Europe who were previously uncertain of U.S. and British intelligence on Russia’s war plans.
“Even though Russia was not deterred by the release of the intelligence information, what was achieved was that everybody was on the same sheet of music when the war started,” said Kaupo Rosin, the director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, which has also released declassified information.
The U.S. release of intelligence has focused on various countries’ support for Russia’s war. In addition to the warning about China, the White House disclosed plans for Iranian trainers, missiles and drones to join the battlefield in Ukraine. And it shared information about North Korean artillery ammunition going to resupply Russia.
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The disclosures laid the groundwork for new sanctions by the U.S. and Europe on Iranian drone makers. More information releases are likely, officials said, whenever Russia is close to striking a deal for new weaponry. In addition to calling out countries who are considering supporting Russia, the United States plans to release information on Moscow’s battle plans and preparations, much as officials did in the months before the invasion.
The aim would be to call out Russia’s efforts to step up or expand its offensive in the east or south of Ukraine, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Such a disclosure, which would take away the element of surprise, could help Ukraine prepare and galvanize a European response — either through additional economic steps or increased military assistance to Ukraine.
Still, there are more limits now than a year ago. Ahead of the invasion, the United States was trying to prod Ukraine to take the threat of invasion more seriously. Now Ukraine is fighting with all its might, and U.S. officials say they want to make sure any disclosure of Russian movements or operational plans aids Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself, not complicate them.
Part of the reason the U.S. government can disclose Moscow’s war plans is because Washington-based think tanks, like the Institute for the Study of War or the Russia Studies program at CNA, are scrutinizing various threads of information to examine Russia’s movements.
The surge of such open-source information, which includes images from commercial satellites as well as reports from Russian bloggers, social media posts analyzing weapons found in Ukraine and other information, has enabled the intelligence community to make more disclosures, officials said.
Many declassifications have come when the intelligence community can find open-source information that allows analysts to draw similar conclusions. U.S. officials say they are not aware of any sensitive sources of information that have been lost as a result of the releases — at least so far.
In 2014, after Russia seized Crimea, the Obama administration took a more cautious approach when it came to sharing intelligence — then about Russian activities in the Donbas region of Ukraine — with skeptical European allies, a decision that some officials came to see as a mistake because it made it easier for Moscow to sow divisions in the West.
“Obviously, Biden administration officials have learned from that firsthand experience that most of them had as part of the Obama administration,” said Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Ukraine during the Obama years. “You can’t convince people to go along with your policies if they are suspicious about what those policies are based on.”
In the fall of 2021, many of the officials who were involved in Obama administration decisions on intelligence sharing were back in power, and they faced a similar dilemma.
At first, they were somewhat unconvinced of the dire predictions of U.S. intelligence agencies about a possible Russian invasion.
But as they were presented with more evidence, Jake Sullivan, who served as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president, and Mr. Finer, his deputy, came to the conclusion that the Biden administration should not allow a repeat of 2014, and needed to find a way to prevent Russia from dividing the West and catching the world by surprise.
Mr. Biden agreed and directed that U.S. intelligence about Russia’s war plans be declassified so it could be shared with a broad group of allies.
“He turned to us in the intelligence community and said, ‘You’ve got to share,’” Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, recalled in a speech last week. “‘You have to get out there and start sharing because we’ve got to help them see what you’re seeing.’”
In contrast to 2014, when U.S. officials were largely caught off guard by Russia’s lightning seizure of Crimea, intelligence agencies saw the 2022 invasion coming. As a result, Biden administration officials knew they had weeks, if not months, to lay the groundwork with reluctant allies and to pre-empt Moscow by exposing its plans.
“There were really strong arguments for going one step further and actually downgrading and declassifying some information so that we can also start to prepare the public landscape,” Mr. Finer said.
U.S. intelligence agencies are generally reluctant to share their secrets, but they agreed to do so after taking steps to ensure that the disclosures would not expose their most valuable sources.
The new playbook appears to be here to stay: Biden administration officials say they will continue to disclose sensitive information when it is in America’s strategic interest. But that does not mean the administration and intelligence officials will always agree on what to release.
In a talk at the Munich Security Conference, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, said the decisions to release intelligence had an important impact on the course of the war. But he said intelligence should be released only after an evaluation of the potential benefits and risks of each disclosure.
“As I’ve learned over many years, the surest way to lose sources of good intelligence is to be reckless in your handling of them,” Mr. Burns said. “There’s always a temptation to think that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So in this case, I think we have to be careful and case-by-case.”