US rules for sharing intelligence with Ukraine

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The United States sends billions of dollars of military equipment to Ukraine, including heavy artillery, drones and anti-tank missiles. Administration officials have publicly listed those contributions, down to the bullet count. But they are much more cautious when describing another decisive contribution to Ukraine’s success on the battlefield: intelligence on the Russian military.

Information about the location and movements of Russian forces is flowing into Ukraine in real time, and it includes satellite imagery and reports gleaned from sensitive US sources, according to US and Ukrainian officials who spoke under cover of anonymity to describe the cooperation.

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

The United States is not at war with Russia and the aid it provides is for the defense of Ukraine against unlawful invasion, Biden officials stressed. But in practice, US officials have limited control over how their Ukrainian recipients use military equipment and intelligence.

This risks pushing the Kremlin to retaliate against the United States and its allies, and increases the threat of a direct conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The administration has developed intelligence-sharing guidelines that are calibrated to avoid escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. Given to operational-level intelligence personnel, the guidelines imposed two broad prohibitions on the types of information the United States can share with Ukraine, officials said.

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First, the United States cannot provide detailed information that would help Ukraine kill Russian leaders, such as the highest-ranking 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 this category.

This prohibition does not extend to Russian military officers, including generals, several of whom died on the battlefield. But a senior defense official said that while the US government “limits itself to strategic leadership on paper,” it has also chosen not to provide information about Ukraine’s location to generals.

The United States does not “actively assist them in killing generals of any kind,” the defense official said.

The second category of prohibited intelligence sharing is any information that would help Ukraine attack Russian targets outside Ukraine’s borders, officials said. This rule is partly intended to prevent the United States from becoming a party to attacks that Ukraine may launch inside Russia. These concerns led the administration to suspend previous plans to supply fighter jets, supplied by Poland, that Ukraine could have used to launch attacks on Russian soil.

The United States provided intelligence that helped Ukraine sink a Russian warship

US officials have not discouraged Ukraine from undertaking these operations alone.

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

Blinken made the remarks after Ukrainian officials said unexplained fires and explosions at sensitive targets in Russia were justified, without claiming responsibility.

In addition to restricted categories of intelligence sharing, the United States has a rule prohibiting providing what officials call “targeted information” to Ukraine. Officials say the United States will not tell Ukrainian forces that a particular Russian general has been spotted in a specific location and then tell or help Ukraine strike him.

But the United States would share information on the location of, for example, command and control facilities – places where senior Russian officers often tend to be – as this could help 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 was killed in the attack, the United States would not have targeted him, officials said.

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

“If the United States were providing targeting information to a foreign party and we are closely involved in targeting decisions, we are directing those forces and they are acting as a proxy for us,” said Scott R. Anderson, a former state agent. Department official who was the legal counsel for the United States Embassy in Baghdad. “That could be seen as coming close to Russia’s actual line of attack, in which case Russia could arguably respond reciprocally.”

“Intelligence targeting is different from other types 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 useful intelligence that, although indirect, risks dragging the country deeper into war .

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

The United States regularly 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 like Odessa, a senior US official said. defense. But, the official stressed, this intelligence is not “specific targeting information about vessels”. The information is intended to help Ukraine mount a defense. Ukrainian officials could have decided that, rather than strike at the Moskva, they should take action to fortify defenses around Odessa or evacuate civilians.

“We have not provided Ukraine with specific information about the Moskva targeting,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a written statement. “We were not involved in the Ukrainians’ decision to hit the ship or in the operation they carried out. We had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intention to target the vessel. The Ukrainians have their own intelligence capabilities to track and target Russian Navy 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 to use two valuable Neptune missiles, which were in short supply, according to people familiar with the strike.

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The sinking of such an important ship, and capable of defending itself against anti-ship missiles, was a humiliation for Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of Ukraine’s most spectacular successes in the war so far. present, analysts said. In accordance with intelligence-sharing rules, which are intended to avoid escalating the conflict in Putin’s eyes, Biden administration officials have repeatedly stressed that they did not directly assist Ukraine in the attack. .

On Friday, the day after the Washington Post and other news outlets revealed the US role in the Moskva strike, Biden separately called CIA director William J. Burns, the director of national intelligence April Haines and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a senior administration official. mentioned. The president made it clear he was upset by the leaks and warned they undermined the US goal of helping Ukraine, the administration official said.

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

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