How the FSB got it wrong by getting it right
Data Driven Intelligence
hen planning regime change it is useful to know a bit about the target country’s population. How will they feel about the invasion force? What do they think about their leaders? Are they highly motivated extremists? To uncover the answers to these questions requires intelligence collection and analysis.
There is an approach which is entirely analytic, objective, and data driven. It doesnt rely on untrustworthy fickle humans that you’ve paid to tell you what you want to hear. It doesn’t assume truthfulness. It is purely data driven. Entirely scientific and quantifiable. And wrong.
What’s the mood of the “Ukrainian Street”?
There are a number of routes to pursue to collect data on, and assess the sentiment of, the Ukrainian population. An overt method would be to conduct polls and surveys. Clearly this can’t include questions like “on a scale from 1-5, how welcoming would you be to Russian invasion?” To get this more private information requires recruiting agents, talking to people, and gathering “atmospherics” (aka what the taxi driver says). And in the modern age of internet surveillance, there is a wealth of data online to interrogate for insights.
The FSB must have done all of these. They were talking to people, although apparently not as many as they claimed on their expense reports. Sadly for the FSB analysts, the intelligence reports from the field seem to be no more accurate than the expense claims. The FSB’s HUMINT sources weren’t particularly reliable. But while humans are untruthful, data never lies!
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The Oracle for Ground Truth
The good news is that data, unlike people, doesn’t lie, dissemble or tell you what you want to hear. A data analytics team can get to the ground truth using quantifiable reproducible science.
Language and Identity
The data analytics team needs to learn the salient identity of the average Ukrainian. That is, what is the most important identity for someone in Kyiv? Do they see themselves as Ukrainian, or Russian? A simply proxy might be the language that they speak. After all, according to “official sources” Ukrainians are trying to kill the Russian language, so obviously language is identity.
What language do they use in private?
The FSB collects statistics on the languages people use on the internet. What language do Ukrainians use when speaking only for themselves? That is, what do they type into Google or Yandex? Something like over 95% of the population use Russian to search the Internet. This is a good indicator.
Finding: The average Ukrainian uses Russian when searching the internet.
What do they speak to each other?
But what about when they talk to each other? Fortunately, this is easy to answer. Just look at what language people use when posting on social media, or writing blogs, and so on. The most common language is Russian. Again, something in the high 90s %.
A pattern is starting to emerge. The FSB data analytics team can start to put together some findings and start reaching some early conclusions.
Finding: overwhelming majority of Ukrainians use Russian on the Internet.
Preliminary Conclusion: therefore, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians see themselves as Russian first.
The next issue to address is the mood of “the Ukrainian street.” Lets look at what people are writing about in their social media accounts. What do they think about the current situation? Are they happy? Do they like the country, like the government? What do they think about the politicians?
Well, turns out they complain constantly about the government, the politicians, and so on. They’re always griping about their problems with the current regime.
Finding: Data indicates that Ukrainians don’t like their current government.
Solving for x
As an FSB officer with all this data, what are you going to report? Well, you know that there is political pressure to report that Russia is desirable, and given the quantifiable data collected, there is a very easy assessment to make.
Based on all the evidence, all indication is that the people of Ukraine are:
- Russian speakers
- Not happy with their government
- Not united behind Zelensky
- Not hardcore ultra nationalists
All the indicators from all the available data suggests that the people will accept a regime change and just carry on with their comfortable lives. Indeed, there is reason to believe they will actually welcome regime change, after all, look how much they complain!
Again we see cultural mirror imaging cause problems with the analysis. Russia does not have freedom of speech. Ukraine does. Russian analysts know how strong feelings have to be in Russia for someone to publicly speak against the police or the government. Therefore, logically, public complaints are a strong signal of dissatisfaction. Except, of course, that only holds true when complaints are costly. When it costs nothing, the value of a signal can be reduced to nothing. It is not at all clear the analysts understand that freedom of speech means public statements are essentially cost free.
The Sentiment Analysis is not the Sentiment
With enough data an assessment can be made to match any desired result. Intelligence analysis requires more than data. It requires interpretation, and that requires experience. Deep knowledge on a subject.
All this data was worse than useless. It painted a false picture. Sure the Ukrainians are not hardcore ultra nationalists, but they are patriots with a strong desire for a free Ukraine. Yes they were unhappy with their government, but they are more unhappy with invaders and collaboration governments. Maybe they weren’t united behind a peacetime Zelensky, but they are united behind an eloquent and charismatic wartime leader.
Originally published in my newsletter. Subscribe at grugq.substack.com