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Who’s to blame for France’s catastrophic intelligence failure in Ukraine?

From the outset of the war in Ukraine, the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence agencies have accurately predicted every twist and turn of Putin’s playbook. The United States, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been linked in the world’s most sophisticated and integrated all-source intelligence gathering and analysis organisation since the Second World War. In doing so, they have offered up spoilers for Russian strategy, disorientating and disorganising president Putin’s planning. 

The losers of the war so far then are clearly the Russians whose intelligence gathering and analysis of Ukraine’s and Nato’s reactions to invasion has been lamentable. But they are not alone in their intelligence blunders. The other losers are the EU nations, for all their talk of strategic autonomy. France’s intelligence agencies, in particular, have performed terribly in guessing which way the wind will blow in Ukraine. Now, France’s spy chief, the head of military intelligence, the DRM, General Eric Vidaud, has paid the price. 

Vidaud, who had only been in post for seven months, has been sacked. The reason? French intelligence’s inability to foresee Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The chief of the French defence staff, General Burkhard, starkly explained in a rare public interview to Le Monde just after the invasion: 

Already rumours abound that France’s military intelligence chief was a mere scapegoat for political errors higher up the food chain

‘The Americans said that the Russians were going to attack, they were right. Our (intelligence) services thought instead that the conquest of Ukraine would be too great and that the Russians had other options’.

If France’s intelligence agencies completely misread the picture, so did others, although to their credit they are the only ones to have taken quick remedial action. According to French sources, the Americans and the British brought the three major EU powers, France, German, Italy, into their intelligence sharing circle months before the invasion. But as early as October 2021 the high level group of national intelligence coordinators, including Sir Simon Gass, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and the American Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, broke into two camps: the ‘Anglo-saxons’ and the Europeans. The former were insistent that Putin was going to invade; the latter that negotiation was still possible. Each then acted accordingly, with the British and Americans endorsing the sending of military equipment and troops to train Ukrainian soldiers, the Europeans preferring to negotiate with Putin.

Already rumours abound that France’s spy chief was a mere scapegoat for political errors higher up the food chain. Military intelligence is largely about ‘capability’; the crucial issue of ‘intentionality’ lies more with France’s foreign intelligence agency, the DGSE and, even higher, its intelligence coordinator, Laurent Nuñez. Here France would seem to have a problem. 

Unlike most other liberal democracies whose intelligence coordinators are senior civil servants, Nuñez, has also served as a junior minister in Macron’s government. He is also a card carrying member of the En Marche party. Hardly someone able to speak truth to power. And in the end, even good intelligence is what politicians make of it. The European intelligence communities may have been guilty of the cardinal intelligence sin of serving up to their political masters what they want to hear, rather than the real picture, as did the UK and US intelligence communities for the 2003 Iraq invasion. That was when French intelligence called it right, refusing to accept the Anglo-American line that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and the French have been justifiably dining out on it ever since.

Of course the reasons why European political leaders were convinced early on that Putin would not invade is because of their 40 per cent dependence on Russian oil and gas, for Italy and Germany, and, in France’s case, because she is the largest foreign investor and employer in Russia through state-controlled companies like Renault. Le Figaro revealed that even after Putin’s invasion, president Macron signed off on a joint collaborative agreement between French firms and the major Russian nuclear power plant constructor, Rosatom, for the construction of nuclear plants, for as long as the EU sanctions specifically excluded the nuclear area.

Mixing politics and intelligence has always been a noxious cocktail. Has France learnt from this European intelligence failure? Let’s hope so, for another is looming in the EU’s sycophantic attitude to China. In a speech designed to underline the Five Eyes partnership, the head of GCHQ told Australian security officials this week that Russian success over her Ukrainian neighbour could foreshadow other powerful states acting similarly. It was an oblique reference to Taiwan, a parallel also made by Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy to the Australian parliament this week.

Some years ago I contributed to a pioneering volume in intelligence studies. It went beyond the obvious requirement of knowing one’s enemies, their strengths and weaknesses. Its title? ‘Knowing Your Friends: Intelligence Inside Alliances and Coalitions from 1914 to the Cold War’. Clearly the need for Western powers to learn the strengths and weaknesses of their allies has lost none of its poignancy.

John Keiger

John Keiger

John Keiger is a former Research Director in the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University and the biographer of Raymond Poincaré, France’s President before, during and after the First World War


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