Less than two weeks after the Glasgow meeting, when Kuleba and Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, visited the State Department in Washington, a senior U.S. official greeted them with a cup of coffee and a smile. “Guys, dig the trenches!” the official began.
“When we smiled back,” Kuleba recalled, the official said, “ ‘I’m serious. Start digging trenches. … You will be attacked. A large-scale attack, and you have to prepare for it.’ We asked for details; there were none.
If the Americans became frustrated at Ukraine’s skepticism about Russia’s plans, the Ukrainians were no less disconcerted at the increasingly public U.S. warnings that an invasion was coming.”
But Paris and Berlin remembered emphatic U.S. claims about intelligence on Iraq. The shadow of that deeply flawed analysis hung over all the discussions before the invasion. Some also felt that Washington, just months earlier, had vastly overestimated the resilience of Afghanistan’s government as the U.S. military was withdrawing. The government had collapsed as soon as the Taliban entered Kabul.
“American intelligence is not considered to be a naturally reliable source,” said François Heisbourg, a security expert and longtime adviser to French officials. “It was considered to be prone to political manipulation.”
The Europeans began to settle into camps that would change little for several months.
“I think there were basically three flavors,” a senior administration official said. To many in Western Europe, what the Russians were doing was “all coercive diplomacy, [Putin] was just building up to see what he could get. He’s not going to invade … it’s crazy.”
Many of NATO’s newer members in eastern and southeastern Europe thought Putin “may do something, but it would be limited in scope,” the official said, “ … another bite at the [Ukrainian] apple,” similar to what happened in 2014.
But Britain and the Baltic states, which were always nervous about Russian intentions, believed a full-scale invasion was coming.
When skeptical member states asked for more intelligence, the Americans provided some, but held back from sharing it all.
Historically, the United States rarely revealed its most sensitive intelligence to an organization as diverse as NATO, primarily for fear that secrets could leak. While the Americans and their British partners did share a significant amount of information, they withheld the raw intercepts or nature of the human sources that were essential to determining Putin’s plans. That especially frustrated French and German officials, who had long suspected that Washington and London sometimes hid the basis of their intelligence to make it seem more definitive than it really was.