Intel leaks show US success in Ukraine, but carry risks

The Biden administration’s decision to increase aid to Ukraine is paying real-world dividends, providing not only the weapons to fight Russian forces, but also the intelligence that helped Ukraine kill a staggering number of Russian generals and sink Moscow’s flagship in the Baltic Sea.

While US military and intelligence officials have denied direct involvement in those deadly attacks, the assistance has been crucial to Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes.

The developments highlight the delicate dance that the Biden administration and its NATO allies are attempting, as they step up the fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin, while being careful not to provoke an escalated response from a figure that controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. of the world.

“I think what it says is that the United States is involved in this war in pretty much every way except fighting the Russians directly,” Richard Fontaine, executive director of the Center for a New American Security, said of intelligence sharing. with the Ukrainians.

At the same time, Fontaine criticized US officials for speaking to the media about the contributions that intelligence sharing has made to Ukraine’s struggle, saying the revelations help fuel a false Russian narrative about the war over expansion. NATO and a provocative West.

“By trying to get public credit in the press for helping kill Russian generals and sink Russian ships, I’m afraid that helps that narrative in a way that is not productive,” Fontaine said.

Ukraine has been fighting back against the Russian assault for 70 days and counting, backed by billions of dollars in weaponry from the US and its allies including light missile launchers, assault drones and, more recently, heavy artillery like howitzers and tanks.

Officials in the Biden administration have been open that they are sharing battlefield intelligence with the Ukrainians, but have emphasized that kyiv is responsible for deciding what it targets and when.

“We have been constantly sharing intelligence that includes information that the Ukrainians can use to inform and develop their military response to the Russian invasion,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on March 3.

Ukraine defeated the Russian assault on kyiv and dealt Moscow some embarrassing defeats, including the attack that sank the Russian warship Moskva in April. Ukrainian officials have also said that their forces To have killed at least half a dozen Russian generals and even more high-ranking Russian commanders.

A series of reports this week provided a window into the extent to which US intelligence sharing has bolstered those efforts. The New York Times reported that US intelligence helped Ukraine target and kill Russian generals, but noted that officials said the US is prohibited from providing intelligence “on top Russian leaders.”

The Washington Post and other media a day later reported that US intelligence also helped Ukraine shoot down the Russian ship.

The headlines drew a quick rebuke from the administration, calling them misleading, and criticism from foreign affairs and national security professionals that the unnamed US officials cited in the reports undermine Ukraine’s battlefield successes and bolster the Kremlin propaganda that the West is targeting Russia.

Psaki called reports about the Russian warship, the Moskva, “inaccurate” during a meeting with reporters aboard Air Force One.

“The view is that, first of all, this is an inaccurate exaggeration of our role and an understatement of the role of the Ukrainians,” Psaki said, noting that he spoke with President Biden and his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, who had earlier issued a statement that the United States did not provide Ukraine with specific targeting information for Moskva, told reporters on Friday that kyiv does not notify Washington of its Russian targets.

“We provide them with useful and relevant intelligence so they can better defend themselves,” he said. “They are under no obligation to tell us how they are going to use that information.”

He added that the United States is not the “only source of intelligence and information for the Ukrainians,” citing other nations providing intelligence, without specifically naming them, and Ukraine’s own intelligence-gathering capabilities.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said the Biden administration is balancing the need to share the intelligence it needs with Ukraine without escalating the conflict between the US and Russia.

“We are providing real-time intelligence to Ukraine to help them defend themselves. I don’t think the administration wants to go into detail about what kind or what circumstances,” he told CNN on Thursday.

James Clapper, a former director of intelligence in the Obama administration, noted that, as is the case when the US shares weapons with Ukraine, it does not “impose conditions” on the use of that intelligence by the Ukrainians.

“We don’t share it with them with such caveats, like ‘there is good intelligence here that we trust, but let’s not use it to help kill generals or sink ships,'” he said.

Clapper also noted that the Ukrainians have their own intelligence apparatus and that information provided by the United States would be supplemented by intelligence from other allies, such as the United Kingdom and Poland.

John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center who served as ambassador to Ukraine, called the reports “strange given how concerned they are [administration officials] before they were provoking Putin, now they are doing this, which obviously can be considered a provocation.”

Herbst, who advocates sending Ukraine US-made multiple rocket launchers and Polish-owned MiG fighter jets that were rejected by the administration, said that from his perspective the US could be providing even more actionable intelligence. of what is observed.

“It is my understanding that we are not providing what I think we should be, which is continuous real-time intelligence on Russian military assets. We provide some, but it’s short of what I just said.”

Administration officials have emphasized that the big picture of US support for Ukraine, and that includes intelligence sharing, has been instrumental in helping kyiv push back on Russia’s aggression.

“The most visible line of effort is weapons,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on former President Obama’s National Security Council. “But there are other lines of effort that have been very important, including intelligence sharing and helping with cybersecurity.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the administration’s goal was not only to help kyiv defend itself against Russian forces, but also to harm Moscow in ways that would prevent similar acts of Russian aggression in the future, a message that the management had carefully avoided in earlier stages. of the conflict

“We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do the kinds of things it has done by invading Ukraine.” austin said while visiting Poland last month and following a high-risk visit to kyiv.

Congress is currently drafting legislation to meet Biden’s latest request for $33 billion in additional funding for the fight, mostly in the form of increasingly sophisticated weapons, ammunition and weapons systems.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), dismissing rising costs as a simple necessity, said votes on the legislation could happen as soon as next week.

“Can we afford it? We can’t afford not to,” she said Wednesday.

Jordan Williams contributed to this report.

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