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On November 29, 2022, the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government welcomed members of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) to discuss their current assessment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ISW’s utilization of open source information to produce daily updates. The panel featured Frederick Kagan, an ISW contributor and director of AEI’s Critical Threats Project, and Karolina Hird, a Russia Analyst on the Russia/Ukraine portfolio at ISW. Moderating the event was former Deputy Director – and twice Acting Director – of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Michael Morell. The evening began with opening remarks from Schar School Dean Mark Rozell.

Michael Morell opened the discussion by inviting Frederick Kagan and Karolina Hird to speak on how ISW works and how the team has been able to produce an update every day since the Russian invasion. Kagan and Hird discussed how ISW is structured to support two main products, the daily update and the map. Kagan supervises the Russian team at ISW, consisting of four analysts whom researchers and interns further support. Hird noted that daily updates are possible through the early implementation of a rotational schedule which allows 24/7 coverage. Morell asked, “How does the analytic and writing process work?” Hird broke down the highly collaborative process where the team works through a shared document, in which the writing goes through multiple rounds of editing. Morell himself is an avid reader of ISW’s daily updates and noted, “everyone who I know following this war reads this thing religiously,” applauding Kagan, Hird, and the ISW team. The conversation then led to how ISW only utilizes open-source information; Hird noted for ISW, this includes unclassified Russian and Ukrainian government sources, social media sources, and statements made by western government officials. Kagan added, “ISW does not collect on blue to prevent harming Ukrainian efforts.” Kagan believes ISW stands out due to their conscious effort to find the missing context and include it to allow readers a better understanding. This is possible due to ISW’s growing context base and the institution’s immersion, made possible by following the war early on. On the topic of ISWs research, an audience member asked, “Is ISW at all worried about Russian active measures against what they’re doing?” Kagan responded, “Yes, we are; we’re very sensitive to the fact that we work in a highly contested, very hostile information environment.”

Morell then led the conversation into Kagan and Hird’s current assessment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Morell asked, “How would you describe each side’s strategic and tactical goals at the moment?” Kagan shared that ISW doesn’t believe the Russian strategic goals have changed. He noted, “Putin launched this war with the intent to change the regime in Kyiv, to gain de-facto control over all of Ukraine permanently, and to eliminate Ukraine as an ethnicity.” Kagan assessed that Putin’s basic theory of the case is that the center of gravity is Western support for Ukraine, and if he can find a way to break this support, then he can ultimately defeat Ukraine. On the topic of Ukrainian strategic goals–to regain its territory–this will remain possible as long as there continues to be support for Ukraine. Kagan concluded that this war has always been about more than Ukraine.

The conversation then shifted to discussing a more recent Russian campaign development, the forced deportations and adoptions of Ukrainian children to Russia. Hird has personally been tracking this development; she noted, “it seems there’s a systematic process in place to take Ukrainian children from their home and put them in a type of rehabilitation camp in which they are bought to Russia and adopted; elements of these egregious actions seem to be a part of a deliberate ethnic cleansing/depopulation campaign.” The conversation concluded with questions from the audience.

Interested readers can find the full recording of the event online at The Hayden Center’s YouTube channel.

Adeline Siebenthal is a student in the Masters in International Security program at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. While at George Mason, she works as the graduate assistant for The Michael V. Hayden Center.