How the US military is helping Ukraine with information, not just weapons

From sinking a Russian navy ship to killing generals on the front lines, a number of Ukrainian military successes have been accompanied by reports that US military intelligence played a role.

While clearly taking sides in the conflict, US officials are also toeing a delicate line: providing valuable aid without revealing sensitive US sources or influencing Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand the conflict to include NATO.

Why we wrote this

What is the responsible way to use military intelligence for the benefit of an ally? Sharing secrets collected by the United States has already helped Ukraine in important ways, but officials also have reason to be cautious.

“We constantly signal to Russia that we support the Ukrainians,” says Emily Harding, deputy director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former CIA analyst. This is intended as a deterrent, she adds. “He says to Putin: ‘We’re not going to make this easy, … and it’s going to be disastrous for you and your army. “”

As the war becomes an increasingly entrenched brawl, a top priority is to understand Mr. Putin’s strategic thinking.

“What will be his next moves? How will all of this lead to a satisfactory end state for both parties? asks Javed Ali, a former Pentagon intelligence officer now at the University of Michigan. “It’s also the kind of information that’s the hardest to get.”

When a report leaked last month that Washington was helping Ukraine kill Russian generals with US intelligence tips, Pentagon officials quickly took to the podium to clear things up.

“We do not provide information on the location of elderly people [Russian] military leaders on the battlefield, or participate in Ukrainian military targeting decisions,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters during a May 5 press briefing.

The United States does indeed share secrets with Kyiv that are “timely” and “useful” to help the country defend itself, he said.

Why we wrote this

What is the responsible way to use military intelligence for the benefit of an ally? Sharing secrets collected by the United States has already helped Ukraine in important ways, but officials also have reason to be cautious.

“There is certainly an element of curation” also involved before this classified information is passed on, to protect American spies and their methods.

Beyond that, U.S. officials declined to give further details — including declining to answer a question about whether the intelligence involved Russian logistics or even weather forecasts — other than to say the Ukraine is “not obligated to tell us how it will use” this US information.

The episode is an illustration of the delicate line the US must toe in its intelligence sharing with Ukraine: provide enough to bolster Kyiv’s military defenses – and to satisfy US lawmakers who complain that the administration Biden should do more – but not enough to reveal sensitive US sources or pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the dispute to NATO.

“It’s the administration’s policy: we tell the Ukrainians ‘This is where the Russian units are’ so they can defend themselves, not to kill Russian generals,” said Daniel Hoffman, who was chief of post in Moscow for the CIA.

For Mr Putin, this can be “a difference without distinction”, he adds. “His generals are dead – but that’s not enough to start a nuclear war.”

A woman walks past a grave of Major General Vladimir Frolov at the Serafimovskoye cemetery in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Monday, May 23, 2022. He was killed in April in Ukraine as the Russian military lost several of his senior officers during the invasion of Ukraine.

“Pre-bunking” against Russia

Although the United States is unwilling to give Moscow an escalation clearance, “we constantly signal to Russia that we support the Ukrainians,” says Emily Harding, deputy director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and international. and a former CIA analyst.

Although it is not without risks, it is intended as a deterrent, she adds. “It’s telling Putin, ‘We’re not going to make this easy, we’re going to keep fighting, and it’s going to be disastrous for you and your army.'”

In the run-up to the Russian invasion, this included efforts to “pre-bury” rather than scramble to debunk Moscow’s more outrageous claims. In the process, the US turned on the intelligence taps, sharing it with Kyiv and also with the press.

It marked a shift in mentality from the earlier, more low-key policy of previous administrations and “seems to have been very helpful”, says Kristian Gustafson, deputy director of Brunel University’s Center for Intelligence and Security Studies. in London.

Prior to the Russian invasion, US officials warned of troop formations, for example, which might normally be classified secrets, and also that Russia was producing a “very graphic” video intended to drum up support for the Mr. Putin’s invasion.

US officials released the intelligence in the hope of convincing their allies that Mr Putin was indeed planning to go to war in Ukraine – an event that British and US intelligence agencies foresaw, but French officials did not.

At the same time, the United States has taken great care not to divulge its own secret collection methods to Ukrainian agencies which, though tenaciously fighting Moscow, are also riddled with Russian spies.

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/File

The Russian Navy’s missile cruiser Moskva, shown on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, was the flagship of the Russian fleet. It was destroyed in April by Ukrainian missiles, after the United States allegedly helped identify but not target it.

“It is a serious concern with Ukraine, because it has been a [espionage] targeted Russians for decades,” said CSIS’s Ms. Harding. “And the Russians are very good.”

“The question,” she adds, “is always how much can you share — in as much detail as possible — without sharing exactly how you know it.”

Intelligence officials faced such a conundrum with the April sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian fleet, says Dr Gustafson.

Russia claimed it was destroyed in a shipboard fire caused by exploding munitions before it became clear it had been hit by Ukrainian missiles – a major blow to pride Russian.

Reports later emerged that US intelligence helped identify, but not target, the Moskva. “How did we or did they know the ship was there? How did we or did they know that the ship’s targeting radars were down? says Dr. Gustafson.

A lesson from World War II

After breaking the German Enigma ciphers, the Allies in World War II faced a similar challenge: how to act on intelligence while ensuring that Berlin remained unaware of this new ability to intercept their coded communiques.

This meant, for example, not attacking Axis convoys before flying a highly visible Allied aircraft overhead, Dr. Gustafson notes.

This way, the Axis powers could conclude that it was aerial reconnaissance, not deciphered Enigma code, that revealed their movements.

In the case of the Moskva, a US human intelligence source could have spoken to a talkative Russian shipyard worker who mentioned that the Moskva’s tracking radars were malfunctioning or not working at all, he adds. “It’s a beautiful intelligence, but you have to find several ways to know things.”

This could mean, among other things, making it known that the Americans had spotted the ship through satellite imagery or sentry planes to conceal another targeting system they don’t want the Russians to know they have.

In the larger war, although US intelligence officials do not, as they have pointed out, give information about the targeting of Ukraine, “They could say, ‘We happen to have seen an awful lot of radio traffic emanating from this location just west of City X,” says Dr. Gustafson.

Ukraine could then decide to send an electronic warfare unit for a quick eavesdropping. They could then determine that the building is a headquarters with generals.

“Is this targeting information? No, you didn’t tell them anything other than that.

At the same time, not all Ukrainian intelligence coups are due to sophisticated business skills.

Much of it is the result of Russian forces making rookie mistakes that allies use to their advantage, notes Javed Ali, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and a former intelligence officer. of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.

“Intelligence doesn’t always have to be on the clandestine side – especially when Russian military commanders use unsecured phone lines and social media platforms to communicate on the battlefield or back in Moscow,” he says.

Such intercepted communications, especially when it comes to lower-ranking Russian soldiers, paints a picture of “young children who are scared and unequipped and hate fighting,” Ali adds.

Given this, when Russian soldiers are captured by Ukrainian forces on the battlefield, US officials could help provide questions “that really smart analysts flush out” to find intelligence derived from empathetic interrogations, or less thoughtful.

“If you hear the same story from soldiers from 20 different units, you start to see patterns and trends emerge,” he says.

And as the war moves from shifting battle lines to increasingly entrenched brawling, tactical intelligence becomes less important than understanding Mr. Putin’s strategic thinking, Mr. Ali says.

“What is Putin thinking? What will be his next moves? How will all of this lead to a satisfactory end state for both parties? This is where I think the role of intelligence is going to be very important,” he adds.

“And that’s also the kind of information that’s the hardest to get.”

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