President Joe Biden criticized Russian leader Vladimir Putin as “not much of a student of history” for underestimating the Ukrainian military’s will to fight, but a top U.S. intelligence official admitted he botched that assessment too.
Biden made the comment during a speech in Warsaw on Saturday, where he appeared to support regime change in Russia before the White House walked it back. The invasion of Ukraine came after weeks of warnings by the Biden administration that Putin was likely to invade. Biden had said in January he believed a Russian victory in Ukraine would essentially be certain. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency admitted this month he underestimated Ukraine.
“Notwithstanding the brutality of Vladimir Putin, let there be no doubt: This war has already been a strategic failure for Russia. Having lost children myself, I know that’s no solace to the people who lost family — but he, Putin, thought Ukrainians would roll over and not fight. Not much of a student of history,” Biden said Saturday. “Instead, Russian forces have met their match in the brave and stiff Ukrainian resistance. Rather than breaking Ukrainian resolve, Russia’s brutal tactics have strengthened the resolve.”
Biden added: “We’re seeing … the brave Ukrainian people showing that the power of many is greater than the will of any one dictator … Brutality will never grind down their will to be free.”
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month: “So, we assessed prior to the invasion that he [Putin] was overestimating, or underestimating, rather, the Ukrainians’ ... likely resistance. So, I think we did well there. We did not do as well in terms of predicting the military challenges that he has encountered with his own military.”
But DIA Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier admitted he had botched this assessment.
“My view was that, based on a variety of factors, that the Ukrainians were not as ready as I thought they should be. Therefore, I questioned their will to fight,” Berrier said. “That was a bad assessment on my part because they have fought bravely and honorably and are doing the right thing.”
The DIA director also said, “I think assessing will, morale, and the will to fight is a very difficult analytical task, and we had different inputs from different organizations, and we, at least from my perspective as director, I did not do as well as I could have.”
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who had elicited these responses, said the U.S. intelligence screw-ups may have had consequences.
“These mistakes potentially had real-world policy implications about the willingness of the president or other NATO leaders to provide weapons that they thought might’ve fallen into the hands of Russians in a matter of hours or to impose sanctions for something that might have been a fait accompli,” Cotton said. “And we need to ask ourselves, if we made mistakes about the first two weeks of the war, are we making mistakes about the next two weeks or the next two months, and the policy implications those might have.”
U.S. intelligence officials believed the Russian military would be able to take over Kyiv in two days, according to the New York Times.
“If we had known in advance how strong the Ukrainians would be and how weak the Russians would be, we might have been able to preposition more equipment and had aid to the Ukrainians flow in faster, based on the assumption they had a real chance,” independent Sen. Angus King, another Senate Intelligence Committee member, told the outlet.
Biden said in a mid-January press conference prior to Putin’s invasion, “It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then, we end up having a fight about what to do and not do.”
During that same press conference, Biden said Russia would “be able to prevail over time,” though he said the cost would be high.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told Congress behind closed doors in early February that Kyiv could be conquered by Russia within 72 hours of a full-scale invasion, according to Fox News.
In comparison, both Biden and Milley, as well as the rest of the administration, vastly overestimated the strength and willpower of the Afghan army ahead of the Taliban's rapid takeover last August. An anonymous "senior defense official" at the Pentagon told the Washington Post that the failures of Afghan troops "might" have caused the U.S. to underestimate the Ukrainian military. The outlet reported that "the Ukrainian military’s will to fight and ability to inflict heavy losses on larger and more technologically advanced Russian force has taken many at the Pentagon by surprise."
Also during the Saturday speech, Biden declared of Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” A White House official quickly claimed that the president "was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
During a Friday talk with members of America’s 82nd Airborne Division, Biden seemed to suggest that the United States would be sending troops to Ukraine, saying, “Look at how they [Ukrainians] are stepping up. And you’re going to see when you’re there.” A White House spokesperson said, "The president has been clear we are not sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, and there is no change in that position."
On Thursday, when asked in Brussels how the U.S. would respond to a potential Russian chemical weapons attack in Ukraine, Biden replied that “it would trigger a response in kind.” Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan soon said, "We will collect the form and nature of our response based on the nature of the action Russia takes. And we'll do so in coordination with our allies … I won't go beyond that other than to say the United States has no intention of using chemical weapons, period, under any circumstances.”
Biden also argued that day that U.S. sanctions against Russia were not meant to deter Putin from invading Ukraine and that sanctions never deter, despite numerous high-ranking Biden administration officials arguing the sanctions were meant to do so.