Today's WorldView • Analysis
History haunts the global elites at Davos
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Intelligence-sharing with Ukraine designed to prevent wider war

A Ukrainian service member walks next to a destroyed Russian main battle tank in the Kharkiv region on May 9. (Stringer/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The United States is sending billions of dollars in military equipment to Ukraine, including heavy artillery, drones and antitank missiles. Administration officials have publicly enumerated those contributions, practically down to the number of bullets. But they are far more cautious when describing another decisive contribution to Ukraine’s battlefield success: intelligence about the Russian military.

Information about the location and movements of Russian forces is flowing to Ukraine in real-time, and it includes satellite imagery and reporting gleaned from sensitive U.S. sources, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the cooperation.

“The intelligence is very good. It tells us where the Russians are so that we can hit them,” one Ukrainian official said, using his finger to pantomime a bomb falling on its target.

The United States is not at war with Russia, and the assistance it provides is intended for Ukraine’s defense against an illegal invasion, Biden officials have stressed. But practically speaking, U.S. officials have limited control on how their Ukrainian beneficiaries use the military equipment and intelligence.

That risks provoking the Kremlin to retaliate against the United States and its allies, and heightens the threat of a direct conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The administration has drawn up guidance around intelligence-sharing that is calibrated to avoid heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow. Given to intelligence personnel at the working level, the guidance has placed two broad prohibitions on the kinds of information that the United States can share with Ukraine, officials said.

In battered Kharkiv, the last safe refuge is in cold, dark basements

First, the United States cannot provide detailed information that would help Ukraine kill Russian leadership figures, such as the most senior military officers or ministers, officials said. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, and Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, for example, would fall into that category.

This prohibition does not extend to Russian military officers, including generals, several of whom have died on the battlefield. But a senior defense official said that while the U.S. government is “self-limiting to strategic leadership on paper,” it also has chosen not to provide Ukraine location information for generals.

The United States is not “actively helping them kill generals of any kind,” the defense official said.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said May 5 that the U.S. does not participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military. (Video: The Washington Post)

The second category of prohibited intelligence-sharing is any information that would help Ukraine attack Russian targets outside Ukraine’s borders, officials said. That rule is meant in part to keep the United States from becoming a party to attacks that Ukraine might launch inside Russia. Those concerns led the administration to halt earlier plans to provide fighter jets, supplied by Poland, which Ukraine could have used to launch attacks on Russian soil.

U.S. provided intelligence that helped Ukraine sink Russian warship

U.S. officials have not discouraged Ukraine from undertaking those operations on its own.

Ukraine should “do whatever is necessary to defend against Russian aggression,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional panel last month. He added that “the tactics of this are their decisions.”

Blinken made his remarks after Ukrainian officials said unexplained fires and explosions against sensitive targets in Russia were justified, without claiming responsibility for them.

In addition to the restricted categories of intelligence-sharing, the United States has a rule against providing what officials call “targeting information” to Ukraine. The United States will not, officials said, tell Ukrainian forces that a particular Russian general has been spotted at a specific location, and then tell or help Ukraine to strike him.

But the United States would share information about the location of, say, command and control facilities — places where Russian senior officers often tend to be found — since it could aid Ukraine in its own defense, officials said. If Ukrainian commanders decided to strike the facility, that would be their call, and if a Russian general were killed in the attack, the United States wouldn’t have targeted him, officials said.

Not targeting Russian troops and locations but providing intelligence that Ukraine uses to help kill Russians may seem like a distinction without a difference. But legal experts said the definition of targeting provides meaningful legal and policy guidance that can help the United States demonstrate it is not a party to the conflict, even as it pours military equipment into Ukraine and turns on a fire hose of intelligence.

“If the U.S. were providing targeting information to a foreign party, and we’re closely involved in targeting decisions, we’re directing those forces and they’re acting as a proxy for us,” said Scott R. Anderson, a former State Department official who was the legal adviser for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “That might be seen as getting close to the line of actually attacking Russia, at which point Russia could arguably respond reciprocally.”

“Targeting intelligence is different from other kinds of intelligence-sharing for this reason,” added Anderson, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ukraine’s sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, illustrates how the United States can provide helpful intelligence that, however indirect, risks pulling the country deeper into the war.

In April, Ukraine spotted the vessel off its shores. Information provided by the United States helped to confirm its identity, according to officials familiar with the matter.

The United States routinely shares intelligence with Ukraine about Russian ships in the Black Sea, which have fired missiles at Ukraine and could be used to support an assault on cities such as Odessa, a senior defense official explained. But, the official stressed, that intelligence is not “specific targeting information on ships.” The information is intended to help Ukraine mount a defense. Ukrainian officials could have decided that, rather than strike the Moskva, they should make steps to fortify protections around Odessa or evacuate civilians.

“We did not provide Ukraine with specific targeting information for the Moskva,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a written statement. “We were not involved in the Ukrainians’ decision to strike the ship or in the operation they carried out. We had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intent to target the ship. The Ukrainians have their own intelligence capabilities to track and target Russian naval vessels, as they did in this case.”

But absent the intelligence from the United States, Ukraine would have struggled to target the warship with the confidence necessary to expend two valuable Neptune missiles, which were in short supply, according to people familiar with the strike.

Western artillery surging into Ukraine will reshape war with Russia

The sinking of such an important vessel, and one that had the capability to defend itself against anti-ship missiles, was a humiliation for Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of Ukraine’s most dramatic successes in the war so far, analysts said. In keeping with the intelligence-sharing rules, which are designed to avoid escalating the conflict in Putin’s eyes, Biden administration officials repeatedly stressed they had not directly aided Ukraine in the attack.

On Friday, the day after The Washington Post and other news organizations revealed the U.S. role in the Moskva strike, Biden made separate calls to CIA Director William J. Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a senior administration official said. The president made clear he was upset about the leaks and warned that they undermined the U.S. goal of helping Ukraine, the administration official said.

Paul Sonne, Ashley Parker and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

Loading...