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Home » Leaks Show US is Underestimating Us Again, Ukrainian Officials Fume

Leaks Show US is Underestimating Us Again, Ukrainian Officials Fume

by Cahan Garakhanova
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KYIV — Ukrainian officials are fuming over the leak of classified United States intelligence documents — some stamped “top secret” — that were initially shared on a social media site associated with gamers, before subsequently spreading more widely. 

Their ire lies less with the assessments of Ukrainian military preparedness and resilience, or the highlighted shortfalls in weaponry — including air defense missiles — but more with the pessimism regarding Ukraine’s chances of capturing significant amounts of territory when an expected counteroffensive is likely launched in the next couple months. 

Publicly, Ukrainian authorities are downplaying the leaks, saying they won’t impact relations between Kyiv and Washington. And following a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted on April 11 that “‪@SecBlinken reaffirmed the ironclad US support and vehemently rejected any attempts to cast doubt on Ukraine’s capacity to win on the battlefield.”

But behind the scenes, there is less equanimity and signs of increasing distrust. Two senior Ukrainian officials who talked with POLITICO on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the classified documents reflect the views of skeptics in the upper echelon of the Pentagon and the U.S. National Security Council who have long been naysayers. 

“They were ones arguing a year ago that we wouldn’t be able to hold on in the face of a Russian invasion for more than a few days,” one official said.

Therefore, the verdict in the documents that only “modest gains” can be expected from a Ukrainian counteroffensive “should be discounted,” one senior Ukrainian adviser argued. Another said that the downplaying of Ukraine’s counteroffensive prospects could also have an adverse knock-on effect on European allies, making it more difficult to persuade them of the need for more advanced weaponry deliveries and speedier supplies, decreasing the chances of more than just modest gains.

That worry is also shared by some retired U.S. generals, like Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. “If this leak is legit, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy by the US Admin which won’t say Ukraine must win, resulting in incremental delivery of capability to actually win,” he tweeted midweek. 

Hodges, for his part, has been far more optimistic than Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley about Ukrainian prospects, and he has been a leading advocate of Ukraine taking the land fight to Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. He has complained that the West’s vacillation on what to supply and when, and the internal debates among Western allies and within the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden on weapons supplies, risks having a demoralizing effect. The spooning out of military support fuels calls for compromise and negotiations, he fears.

Ukrainian officials have long been frustrated with what they see as foot-dragging by Washington — as well as some other Western allies, notably Germany — when it comes to the provision of advanced arms and weaponry. They see the Pentagon leadership as especially obdurate and cautious, while the U.S. State Department under Blinken has been much more supportive.

“I think both in the administration and on Capitol Hill, there are some officials and lawmakers who are looking to calibrate security assistance to incentivize the Ukrainians to cut some sort of deal that, I’m afraid, is not in Ukraine’s interests, and not in the interests of the West,” said a U.S.-based adviser to the Ukrainian government who declined to be named for this article, as he’s not authorized to speak with the media.

“It has gone back and forth over the last year. Initially, [U.S. National Security Adviser] Jake Sullivan was the main advocate for restraint, which is why we didn’t have a single Stinger missile supplied to the Ukrainians until 10 days after the invasion, when everyone was wrongly assuming Kyiv would fall. His caution was part of the reason why assistance was sluggish for the first, especially six months, but his perspective changed then somewhat, and supplies started to flow more freely,” he said. 

“But our understanding is that Jake is now going back to the posture that the war needs to be wound down, hence the calibrating of security assistance to Ukraine. Blinken has been very solid in terms of robust support for the Ukrainians, but he has proven himself to be less influential and less effective in terms of convincing President Biden,” he added.

How useful all the information contained in the trove is to the Russians is a matter of contention as well. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on April 12 that the leak contained a “mix” of true and false information. Speaking at a conference in Madrid, he added that the accurate information is already outdated.

Some of the details contained in the documents about Western training and assistance and Ukrainian battalion sizes, as well as Ukraine’s rates of fire of missiles and artillery shells, could be useful. But much has already been publicly reported about Ukraine’s dwindling supplies — as have worries about the state of Ukrainian air defenses

Since November, Ukraine itself has made no secret of its desperate need for many more air defense systems — and fighter jets — both to protect the country’s infrastructure from Russian missile and air strikes, and for the protection of forces on the front lines. Therefore, none of the data revealed in the leaks so far will be news to Russia, said Ukrainian officials.

And crucially, what the documents don’t reveal are hints about Ukrainian battle plans for the counteroffensive — which may be due to Ukrainian foresight. Ukraine has long been cautious about what operational details it shares with the U.S. and other allies for fear of leaks. “We don’t give to the U.S. all the information, even of where units [are] and their sizes and capabilities,” a military commander told POLITICO. 

The U.S. has helped Ukrainians with war-gaming various counteroffensive scenarios, but the final decision on where to strike and how will be closely guarded, he said. 

An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN that Kyiv has already amended some military plans in the wake of the leak — not strategic but tactical ones. And there has been some media speculation about whether the leak has prompted a delay in launching the much-anticipated counteroffensive following remarks made this week by Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, who said the operations aimed at regaining lost territories were unlikely to start in the spring but are slated to commence in the summer. 

But pushing back the offensive, which is likely to be in June now, has more to do with the arms supplies Ukrainians are desperate to get before attacking, as well as the weather — as the ground in the south and east of Ukraine is sodden thanks to the mild winter’s constant downpours.


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