As the Ukrainian military embraces for the imminent renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. is considering sharing increasingly more intelligence with Kyiv.
Thus far, the U.S. intelligence community has shared important intelligence with the Ukrainian military and security services, but the new Russian threat in the Donbas region is pushing the U.S. to reconsider and potentially expand its intelligence sharing.
Intelligence sharing is caring
The U.S., the U.K., and other Western countries have been sharing intelligence with the Ukrainian government and security services for months now. As the first indications that Russian President Vladimir Putin was preparing an attack on Ukraine became apparent last fall, the U.S. intelligence community stepped up intelligence sharing with its Ukrainian counterparts.
In addition, the U.S. and the U.K. assumed an aggressive intelligence declassifying campaign to shame Moscow and warn the world about Putin’s plans.
But now, as part of the latest package of security aid to Ukraine, the U.S. is moving toward providing the Ukrainians with more intelligence to combat the Russian attack.
A U.S. intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. intelligence community is looking to adjust its intelligence sharing with Ukraine as the conflict evolves, stressing that operators must have the flexibility to share “detailed, timely intelligence” with Kyiv.
The new intelligence sharing will focus specifically on the Donbas and will provide the Ukrainian military with real-time targeting data that it can use to strike Russian forces there. Thus far, the U.S. shunned away from providing the Ukrainians with such intelligence on the Russian forces in the Donbas because it didn’t want to risk escalating the tensions with Moscow.
“U.S. Cyber Command (with NSA) has been integral to the nation’s response to this crisis since Russian forces began deploying on Ukraine’s borders last fall,” General Paul Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the commander of the U.S. Cyber Command (CYBEROM), said recently in a testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We have provided intelligence on the building threat, helped to warn U.S. government and industry to tighten security within critical infrastructure sectors, enhanced resilience on the DODIN [Director of National Intelligence] (especially in Europe), accelerated efforts against criminal cyber enterprises and, together with interagency members, Allies, and partners, planned for a range of contingencies,” General Nakasone added.
There are, however, a few potential downsides to intelligence sharing; namely, risk of escalation and danger to sources and methods.
The Kremlin could perceive U.S. intelligence sharing, especially targeting intel that could allow the Ukrainian military to strike Russian troops in real time, as an escalation. However, at this point in the war, and after weapon shipments worth billions of dollars, the risk of escalation isn’t as high as it would be under normal circumstances.
Furthermore, when sharing intelligence, there is a risk to one’s sources and methods. Before the U.S. intelligence community can share any intelligence with Ukraine, or indeed anyone else, it has to ensure that the other side cannot trace back the intelligence to the source, thus jeopardizing it. Also, the U.S. intelligence community must safeguard the methods it used to gather that intelligence, regardless of whether that is through human sources, signals intercepts, electronic measures, or other methods.
The Ukrainians have been relying on open-source intelligence too, particularly commercial satellites, such as Maxar, that have been providing crucial information on Russian movements and troop dispositions.
Sharing intelligence but with some caveats
However, there are some caveats to intelligence sharing. The U.S. intelligence community will not provide Ukraine with intelligence that would enable the Ukrainian military to strike targets within Russia. U.S. intelligence officials state that such targeting data would risk broadening the conflict, and that is not something the U.S. or NATO want.
After almost two months of war, there have been at least a few instances in which the Ukrainian military has taken the fight to the Russians inside their own country. The most famous instance was when a pair of Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters slipped through Russian air defenses and attacked an oil depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, which is located close to the border. The Ukrainian pilots managed to destroy several fuel storage tanks, seriously affecting the warfighting capabilities of the Russian military in the region.
The cyber aspect and hunt forward teams
Before the war, CYBERCOM also deployed more hunt-forward cyber teams to Ukraine and eastern NATO allies to help them harden their networks against Russian cyberattacks.
“When Moscow ordered the invasion in late February, we stepped up an already high operational tempo. We have been conducting additional hunt forward operations to identify network vulnerabilities. These operations have bolstered the resilience of Ukraine and our NATO Allies and partners,” General Nakasone said in his testimony to Congress.
“We provided remote analytic support to Ukraine and conducted network defense activities aligned to critical networks from outside Ukraine – directly in support of mission partners. In conjunction with interagency, private sector and Allied partners, we are collaborating to mitigate threats to domestic and overseas systems,” Nakasone added.
Such hunt-forward operations benefit the U.S. military and intelligence community too because the American troops and intelligence officers gain valuable insight into Russian tactics, techniques, and procedures and can use that knowledge to bolster U.S. defenses.