“A straight-line prediction is usually a confession of ignorance.”
This line from a dear friend and co-designer of ERI’s foundational Corporate Intelligence Analysis, Tradecraft and Writing course, Ben Brandt, has been ringing in my head in the weeks since Yevgheny Prigozhin’s failed march on Moscow.
Observing a mass of media and pundit groupthink – especially on Twitter and LinkedIn – Ben’s warning is particularly relevant. News stories, Twitter threads and risk assessments from other intelligence providers all begin and end on a similar line, namely that Prigozhin has weakened Putin, while spinning too-similar tales of descent into disaster for Russia.
Is this true? It certainly could be. Prigozhin’s bizarre actions revealed something about the state of Russia’s national security and that of its president. But when it comes to providing true intelligence analysis, using the mass of pre-cooked narratives as the foundation for your assessment is the wrong approach.
First, we need to step back and consider the global context in which this happened. Since 2015 very few events have followed a predictable trajectory, with pundits and experts misinterpreting signs and miscalling major events like Brexit, the 2016 US elections and the Cubs winning the World Series that year (a little sarcasm there – and a little true). A year of global pro-democracy and inequality protests happened in 2019, then the end of Hong Kong’s political autonomy, suddenly quelled by a global pandemic. And in the middle of that was the largest movement against inequality in US history. All of which was largely overlooked because we were too reliant on the past as a prologue and dismissed signs of change that could signify a substantially different outcome.
Another esteemed intelligence peer, Kathy Pherson, once identified in a presentation I attended “the failure to look for disconfirming information” as one of the most common analytic pitfalls. This too is a relevant concern about many current interpretations of what is going on in Russia. True intelligence analysis is not about making ourselves sound smart – it is about using validated, credible information to generate valuable insights to help our particular set of customers make better-informed decisions. Thus, building our analysis around buzzwords and popular phrases borrowed from the groupthink-like perspective of media pundits is a useless exercise that gets our decision-makers no closer to decisions that actually matter. And one of the reasons this happens is that failure to look for:
1) information relevant to our decision-makers; and
2) disconfirming information about our hypotheses.
Have you considered information that might point to a different outcome?
As a starting point of consideration in an argument against the idea that these events weakened Putin remember: Prigozhin is a uniquely powerful actor in Russian politics, but he has long been enabled by Putin. His power does not really exist without the president’s resources and nod of approval. So, perhaps he is still of use to Putin and continues to serve in that capacity, perhaps as a vehicle to enable Putin to further consolidate his power. Considering all the questions around Prigozhin’s location, status, assets and activities of not only his infamous Wagner Group forces globally but also of the disinformation empire he helped build through the Internet Research Agency, there is substantial room for interpretation and questions about what really happened that day. With Russia, where accurate information is deliberately obscured from public view, disinformation is state policy, and politics are quite literally a matter of life and death. Failure to turn over every stone to look at issues from every possible angle will frequently lead analysts down the wrong path.
So what am I really saying here? As always, I am encouraging intelligence analysts to take a very deep look at events in their area of responsibility and to avoid getting caught up in groupthink when a fast-moving situation like this one arises. Avoid sourcing all of your information from pro-Western media and from all pro-liberal or pro-conservative media. Look for deeper, more thoughtful sources. Rely on experts in your network to provide you with their viewpoints, and then interrogate those viewpoints as you would anyone else’s on the topic.
Where Russia is concerned, watch the information space IN and around Russia, and watch the narratives that unfold and consider the motives for these narratives. Watch what happens on social media, especially on Telegram channels known to be associated with state and nonstate actors. Keep an eye on what is happening in African countries where Wagner has a foothold. But most of all, be careful about jumping to conclusions. That is what separates you, the analyst, from the media, the guy with the noisy Twitter account and an incurable case of Dunning-Krugerism.