Bragging about blowing up Russian generals could get us all killed

President Biden and Vladimir Putin. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

When Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, I expected the country to be defeated quickly and easily. That Ukraine was able to defend itself and fight back so impressively is a tribute to the fighting spirit of its people, the courageous leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the support of NATO and the United States. United, which sent large amounts of aid and arms.

As several recent press reports have made clear, the United States also shared intelligence with kyiv that enabled the Ukrainian military to sink at least one Russian warship and assassinate several Russian generals.

I fully support the policy of providing Ukraine with intelligence to help in its fight, including intelligence that leads to painful defeats on Russian forces. It is also a good thing for Russia to know that we have played an important role in allowing Ukraine to defend itself.

But it’s a very bad thing that this information is public knowledge. I don’t blame the reporters who reported it. If high-ranking, reputable government officials reveal newsworthy information to a reporter, it is generally considered acceptable to publish it. I blame those responsible — especially since the Biden administration has made it clear that it did not authorize the disclosures. It is about a person or a group of people showing journalists their part in the harm they have done to Russia. This is extremely reckless and could well lead to an exceptionally dangerous escalation of the conflict that will result in the United States and NATO being drawn into a direct military confrontation with Russia.

The problem with these stories is, again, not what they reveal. Russia’s invasion of its neighbor is the most aggressive military action taken in Europe since 1945, potentially setting NATO on a collision course with a powerful threat to the east. This requires a forceful response. If Ukraine were a member of NATO, we would now be at war with Russia. But because Ukraine is not in NATO, something less than direct military confrontation is needed.

What the Biden administration has opted for is a form of proxy warfare in which Ukraine fights, picks the targets, and fires the weapons, but we often supply the weapons and provide intelligence that allows the Ukraine to choose targets wisely and accurately. This demonstrates US and NATO resolve while keeping us at least one step away from the direct engagement of Russian forces. It’s good for Russia to know that our intelligence is strong enough to put their warships and senior officers at risk — and that we’re willing to share that intelligence with Ukraine. Both could well provoke a de-escalation, as the Russian military command and President Vladimir Putin face the reality that it may be impossible for them to achieve anything beyond relatively small wartime goals.

But such a de-escalation becomes much less likely if the American role in the pain inflicted on the Russian military is public knowledge. That’s because a big part of politics, even in authoritarian regimes, is about managing appearances. In order to sell a policy of de-escalation to the Russian people, Putin must be able to present it as at least a partial victory. Otherwise, he would risk appearing weak and open to a collapse in support and/or a coup attempt that could leave him stripped of power and even dead. Humiliating Putin could also inflame the patriotic rage of ordinary Russians, who could end up demanding retaliation in the form of face-saving action against NATO.

This is how bragging to journalists of the US role in helping Ukraine inflict maximum damage on Russian forces could well set off an escalating spiral that would culminate in a direct military confrontation between the US and Russia. .

This is something the Biden administration, at least at the highest level, seems to be realizing. But then why do some officials always talk to journalists? Author Yuval Levin has written about the tendency in recent years of people who work in large institutions to treat them as platforms for personal attention and applause rather than structures that constrain and channel individual behavior. towards the purposes served by the institution. I suspect that’s what’s happening here: insiders who know about our covert efforts on behalf of Ukraine have decided to brag about it to journalists, thinking it will improve their image in the ruthless hierarchy of official status in Washington.

It’s not new. It had been happening on a small scale inside the Ring Road for a long time before Levin noticed its diffusion into the capital and American culture more broadly. But the Ukrainian leaks are far worse than the norm – due to their potential to upend the already very fragile relationship between Washington and Moscow. It’s one thing for a congressional intern to talk to a reporter about the state of budget negotiations on Capitol Hill. It’s quite another for a Pentagon or NSA official to try to impress a reporter by talking about US assistance in blowing up the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in times of war.

The Biden administration has all kinds of communication channels to communicate our role to Russia in a way that will not destabilize the situation by announcing it publicly, thus putting Putin in a position where he feels the need to avenge the wounded honor of Russia. Whether and how to do it is the call of the president. It’s definitely not something anyone should decide on their own without permission.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up stumbling into World War III – and all because a self-glorifying public servant thought it would be fun to show off to someone at The New York Times.

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