WASHINGTON — At the peak of the Russian effort in 2016 to govern the U.S. presidential election, the C.I.A. had a secret weapon: a mole with some entry to the interior circle of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, who was in a position to inform Washington about how the grasp tactician was eager about his subsequent transfer.
That agent was extracted from Russia in 2017, leaving the United States largely blind, for a whereas, to Mr. Putin’s pondering. Now, after 5 years of slowly rebuilding entry to the best ranks of the Kremlin, America’s intelligence companies face a essential take a look at: deciphering whether or not Mr. Putin will use the greater than 150,000 troops he has amassed close to the Ukrainian border to invade, or merely to provide him leverage as he dangles the prospect of a diplomatic settlement.
In interviews with officers from the United States and its closest allies, it’s clear the United States and Britain as soon as once more have home windows into Mr. Putin’s pondering. Some intelligence conclusions are reached by way of digital intercepts, others bolstered by his periodic conversations with President Biden, which officers say have confirmed useful in understanding Mr. Putin’s worldview — and his transactional nature.
Mr. Putin’s calculus, in response to a U.S. official, is probably going shifting as he weighs the altering prices of an invasion and he assesses what he might get from negotiations. Several officers word that Mr. Putin has a historical past of ready till the final potential second to make a choice, continually re-evaluating his choices.
Not surprisingly, American officers is not going to say how they know what Mr. Putin is pondering, anxious to protect their present sources.
Knowing the intention of any autocratic chief is tough, however Mr. Putin, who started his profession as a Ok.G.B. officer, is a specific problem. Because he avoids digital gadgets, oftentimes bans note-takers, and tells his aides little, there’s a restrict to how a lot an intelligence company can study his intentions and pondering.
“We do not understand fundamentally, none of us do, what is inside President Putin’s head, and so we cannot make any guess about where all of this is headed,” Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, advised reporters on Tuesday.
One senior official who has met with Russian counterparts in an effort to defuse the present disaster stated lately that the U.S. delegation got here away with the sense that Mr. Putin’s representatives have been taking a arduous line as a result of they didn’t know what their boss wished to do.
American officers are poring over intelligence — each analytic reviews and uncooked materials — making an attempt to reply a important query: how Mr. Putin assesses his probability of success.
Both American and British officers say that a key factor of their analyses is a shared conclusion that one thing has modified in Mr. Putin’s evaluation of Russia’s relative standing on the planet. After spending closely on his army, he now believes Russia is within the strongest place to coerce Ukraine — and the remainder of Europe — for the reason that fall of the Soviet Union. His monetary reserves have enormously improved Moscow’s potential to resist sanctions.
More lately, he has benefited from excessive fuel and oil costs — and found that the extra he threatens warfare, the upper these costs go.
And as Germany and different nations have appeared on the wildly excessive value of changing Russian power sources ought to they be minimize off, it has made some European leaders extra keen to barter a answer that may keep away from needing to impose sanctions. It is extortion, one European negotiator stated, whereas noting that Mr. Putin thinks like an extortionist.
Mr. Putin additionally has the advantage of time. He doesn’t face voters for one other two and a half years, probably permitting him to recuperate from any home criticism that would come up from a punishing battle — or the sanctions which may observe.
While there’s broad settlement of that evaluation in intelligence circles, former intelligence officers warn that these making an attempt to foretell the strikes of a chief like Mr. Putin must proceed with humility about how a lot they have no idea.
“Analysts understand how Putin thinks, his grievances and his anger at the West and the United States,” stated John Sipher, a former Moscow station chief for the C.I.A. “Now, does that mean we know what he’s going to do and when he’s going to do it? No, because to do that you have to get in his head.”
The United States has clearly developed intelligence on the Russian army’s warfare planning, predicting the buildup of troops weeks earlier than it occurred, exposing what officers stated have been Russian sabotage plots and operations meant to create a pretext for invasion.
But the United States has lengthy discovered itself caught abruptly by Mr. Putin, from his choice to annex Crimea to his deployment of forces to Syria.
Interestingly, one supply of perception to Mr. Putin has been conversations with the Russian president himself.
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
So, like a hostage negotiator, they’re decided to maintain him speaking. Not lengthy after William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, visited Moscow in November to warn towards an invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden’s aides got here up with a plan of fixed engagement, establishing a sequence of negotiations — in Brussels and Geneva, at many various ranges — on the speculation that whereas Russia was speaking with the West, airing its grievances and making its calls for, it was unlikely to invade.
Paul Kolbe, who oversaw assortment of Russian intelligence for the C.I.A. for a few years, famous lately that “you keep them talking to try to figure out what they really want, to find another way out.” But Mr. Kolbe, now the director of Harvard’s intelligence mission, added, “it made sense — unless what the gunman really wants is to shoot the hostages.”
Mr. Putin wields data as a weapon, retaining his personal counsel and withholding particulars of his planning from shut aides.
When Mr. Burns visited Moscow to warn towards an invasion of Ukraine, he provided particulars of what the United States had discovered concerning the army planning. The disclosures appeared to catch some Russian officers off guard, as in the event that they have been much less aware about Mr. Putin’s planning, in response to an American official briefed on the assembly.
“I like to say, Putin’s not a good sharer, he didn’t pass that kindergarten class” stated Beth Sanner, a former high intelligence official who usually briefed President Donald J. Trump. “He was a spy. So he’s trained not to be a sharer, he’s trained to elicit and manipulate.”
But former intelligence officers stated that the Russia bench inside the C.I.A. remained sturdy, with quite a few analysts and case officers who’ve devoted their careers to learning Mr. Putin. The lengthy reign of an autocrat, stated former officers, has sure benefits.
There are limits to what a authorities ought to ask its intelligence to do, stated Marc E. Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia. Intelligence companies can present warning, which is what they’ve executed in current months. Anything extra might be fraught.
“Intelligence is not necessarily predictive of time and date. The intelligence community has done a pretty damn good job of providing policymakers with excellent situational awareness for them to develop policies if Russia goes one way or the other way,” he stated. “That’s what intelligence does. Asking more of that is going to be very difficult.”
Even situational consciousness could also be tougher to return by at a second when the Russians declare to be de-escalating whereas army workout routines are nonetheless underway. The primary jobs of monitoring Russian strikes in Ukraine have been disrupted. On Tuesday, the C.I.A. closed, no less than briefly, its station in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a day after U.S. diplomatic personnel relocated to the western Ukrainian metropolis of Lviv.
Adam Goldman contributed reporting.