The leak of classified documents is awkward for the U.S. and dangerous for Ukraine. Not least because an old debate has gotten new fuel.
The WikiLeaks trauma runs deep in Washington, D.C. Twelve years ago, classified documents revealed details about U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Around a quarter of a million more documents gave the entire world insight into the work of American diplomats – how they think, how they communicate, how they talk about enemies and allies as well.
From the point of view of the Department of State and the Department of Defense, this was an absolute nightmare that should not under any circumstance happen again. However, as early as 2013, Edward Snowden went public with secrets from the National Security Agency. The fact that the U.S. was extensively spying not just on internet users but also international partners like then-Chancellor Angela Merkel created turbulence in international relations.
Now, documents have been leaked once again, supposedly briefings for high-ranking officials in the Pentagon. This time it’s mainly about the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. It’s only a small handful of documents in comparison to WikiLeaks, about 100 in all. However, they apparently give insight into the core of the Ukrainian defense strategy, among other things. Highly sensitive details like troop locations are among them, as well as potential vulnerabilities. The documents have also revealed that the Ukrainian air defense will no longer be able to withstand Russian attacks without replenishment of ammunition.
Small but Significant
It’s dangerous for Ukraine that this information has now become public because Russia could use it as an opportunity to attack again more fiercely using fighter jets. The New York Times has reported that, according to one of the documents, the stock of old Soviet anti-air missiles, which makes up a large portion of Ukraine’s supply, will be used up by the beginning of May at the latest – at least at the rate of consumption that was calculated at the end of February.
Despite the fact that this calculation might have already been surpassed, the most notable characteristic of the leaked documents is this: They are only a few weeks old. This means they offer a sort of live feed, if you will, into the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Additionally, they include information on Russia as well as on allies such as Israel, Turkey and South Korea, which, according to the documents, were plagued by calls from the West to send Ukraine urgently needed ammunition. Egypt, in turn, which receives over $1 billion in military aid from the U.S. each year, allegedly planned to secretly provide Russia with missiles.
This leak may be smaller than others, but it is not any less significant: It is obviously of immediate relevance to the question of which direction the war in Ukraine may now take.
However, there is still another more pressing issue: It is still unclear where the documents came from, and who photographed them and put them on the internet*. Their authenticity is currently being determined by the Pentagon. South Korea wants to know the result already: “Both countries are in agreement that much of the leaked information is fabricated,” Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Tae-hyo said.
According to research by the investigative network Bellingcat, at least some of the documents indeed seem to have been manipulated: The number of casualties on the Ukrainian side was stated as higher, and those on the Russian side lower, than they really were. The pro-Russian dissemination channels on social media are also reason to be cautious. Will Russia be behind this in the end, as Ukraine claims?
The Leak Is Awkward for the US
That doesn’t change how seriously U.S. authorities are taking the leaks. Neither the Pentagon nor the National Security Council will comment on specific details. They are only saying that the possible impacts of the leaks on the national security of the U.S. and its allies are being investigated. And now they also intend to reevaluate which groups of people should have access to such information in the future. Hundreds, possibly even thousands, of people are potentially the originators of the leak, and although some of the documents have likely been coursing through the internet for a while, the Department of Defense only found out about them in recent weeks.
This is awkward for the U.S. Not only were things that should never have been made public made so once more: how the intelligence agencies operate, like tracking Russian troops through satellite technology, as well as the extent of their reach – for example, how far they operate in foreign government circles. This entails the very real risk of informants and agents being exposed. However, it also causes resentment from important partners: “We cannot wait for their assessment. Right now we are doing our own,” CNN quoted an official from a country that is part of the Five Eyes intelligence agreement with the U.S. This includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Great Britain.
It’s not surprising that the U.S., as Ukraine’s most important ally, is informed in detail about Ukrainian strategy – all the more so that such documents, especially those marked top secret, could be leaked so easily. The contents are also sensitive. Regarding a possible counteroffensive on Ukraine’s side, The Washington Post reports it would likely result in only “modest territorial gains” because of the “shortfalls” in troop buildup and because Russian defenses are too strong.
What Does the US Think Ukraine Can Do?
This assessment comes from early February and could have changed since then. Joe Biden and his administration are constantly and publicly signaling trust in Ukraine’s chances of victory. However, what do they really think Ukraine can do? The question has come up constantly in recent months, especially regarding the goal of retaking Crimea – and the government in Washington has always moderated this question. However, one could conclude from the recent leak that the U.S. has concrete ideas of what Ukraine can accomplish. And more importantly, what it cannot.
It’s probably not only Russia who will find this “quite interesting,” as Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said, not without malice. The more time passes, the more financial and military support flows to Kyiv, but more importantly: The closer the next congressional and presidential elections get, the louder the voices from the Republican Party become that demand an end to the support for Ukraine in favor of “America First.” The fact that this support will continue “as long as it takes,” according to Biden’s promise, even though prospects of victory or even just significant progress are currently considered poor by the U.S. government, may be debated more fiercely than before in light of these documents.
It’s not just in the U.S. In Europe, too, there are frequent calls for negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow. This leak makes the position of those who are in favor of continued comprehensive support for the Ukrainian defense even more difficult. Especially since the leak might get even bigger: Because it’s not clear where it came from, no one can say whether even more won’t seep through. “We don’t know. We truly don’t know,” said National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby in response to the question of whether even more classified material is in circulation. It sounds as if another debate entirely could start up soon in Washington.
*Editor’s Note: On April 12, National Air Guardsman Jack Teixeira was arrested in connection with the alleged leaking of the secret documents.