Exclusive: Ukraine's President Feared Overthrow, but Russia Pushed for Crackdown, Intelligence Official Says

Yanukovich Ukraine
A man takes photos of a "Wanted" notice, of fugitive Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

The Kremlin made him do it.

As Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych stared into a dark void of oblivion last month, he told the Russians a crackdown on demonstrators could likely lead to his demise,  a senior U.S. intelligence official says. But the Russians insisted. Get cracking, they said.

At least 75 people were killed and hundreds more wounded during the first two days of fighting in Kiev’s Independence Square in mid-February. And a few days later, Yanukovych was no longer president, and running for his life.

Reacting to reports that the CIA, and especially the Pentagon’s spy agency, were caught flat-footed by Russia’s military move into the Crimea, a senior intelligence official told Newsweek Thursday that the White House had been fully briefed that “the street phenomenon” that chased Yanukovych from power was a likely “trip-wire” that would provoke Moscow’s armed intervention.

Yanukovych feared that, “the one thing that could galvanize the street and the opposition and cost him politically, up to and including his departure,” was a crackdown, the senior intelligence official told Newsweek, corroborating reports that the Kremlin forced the Yanukovych to mobilize his security forces against his own people, and against his own will.

"We certainly believed the Kremlin wanted him to contain this,” the intelligence official said on condition of anonymity in exchange for freely discussing how the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies viewed the crisis.

U.S. intelligence keeps an eye on nuclear-armed Russia as a matter of course. But they began taking a closer look in November, when, under strong pressure from Moscow, Yanukovych rejected a trade association agreement with the European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin was determined to bring the former Soviet state back under his yoke.

Nobody foresaw Yanukovych’s political demise, but the whirlwind protests that consumed Kiev in February changed the game. “The street phenomenon,” the intelligence official said, “was the real wild card.”

As the mob looked close to driving Yanukovych from power, the odds increased that Moscow would put boots on the ground in Crimea, if not all of Eastern Ukraine. Moscow feared “that an interim government might make a move to NATO or might make a move against the Black Sea fleet,” the CIA concluded.

Last weekend, the world woke up to find “Russia’s Blackwater,” as one report characterized the Russian troops who arrived in unmarked uniforms, in Crimea.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, expressed dismay that he didn't have a clearer warning of the Russian intervention. The Defense Intelligence Agency missed it, according to reports. The CIA was “more right than the DIA was,” a congressional source said. “They offered that as a possibility.”

The DIA begs to differ. On Friday, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told NPR that “when the — the evidence, if you will, is looked at, the results will show that there was good strategic warning provided to our decision makers in order to make the right kinds of decisions about what sort of policy actions may be taken.”  

CIA analysts were not surprised by the arrival of Russian troops, the senior intelligence official said. “Once the dynamic on the ground changed and the risks potentially for Moscow's strategic interests increased, we were beginning to ask that question of military (intervention)…. “ the official said. “The military actions could range from limited efforts to protect forces and ethnic Russians in Crimea to positioning itself for something broader in eastern Ukraine. So we were pretty well-positioned when some of these activities began, to look at them through the prism of, Could this mean actual military action?”

News accounts says Rogers has ordered “an investigation” of the alleged intelligence failure, but the Michigan Republican called that “too strong a word.”

“I’ve  ordered my staff to review all the collection points and determine why was there a difference between two agencies on their analytical conclusions,” Rogers told Newsweek.

“There's two parts to the equation – there's collection [of intelligence] and then there's the analytics of it. So I'm using it as a review opportunity to see what gaps did we miss in collection and why did we have this difference of opinion that led to the decisions that went into their analytical product.”

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