The Biden administration struggled Wednesday to get its arms around the expanding diplomatic and PR disaster as the leaking of a trove of sensitive intelligence documents online has complicated relations with friend and foe alike.
Fresh revelations from the documents, which apparently first appeared in an obscure chatroom on the gamer social media app Discord weeks ago, continued to tumble out as both the Defense Department and Justice Department launched inquiries into who leaked the material, how they had done it and why.
New reports Tuesday evening appeared to contain confidential U.S. intelligence assessments about NATO member Hungary and fears that nationalist leader Viktor Orban may be tilting away from Washington and toward Moscow as the Biden administration tries to rally Western nations in support of Ukraine. New stories based on the leaks appeared on Wednesday, including reports that a small contingent of U.S. special forces have deployed inside Ukraine and an internal Pentagon document suggesting Serbia, despite its outward tilt toward Russia, has been secretly supplying arms to Kyiv as well.
The Biden administration also has been reaching out to allies and partners like South Korea, where a political tempest has been brewing over internal government deliberations of foreign arms sales that were apparently monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Many of the first documents to come to light involved sensitive assessments of the war in Ukraine, including internal U.S. doubts about Ukraine’s staying power in the war with Russia and logistical details of Ukrainian forces as they prepare for a planned spring offensive against the invading Russian forces. But fears the leaks could explode the delicate dynamic behind the strong U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine appeared to fade a bit.
George Beebe, a former director of the CIA’s Russian analysis department, said the leaked information is unlikely to provide the Kremlin with information that could directly change the dynamics on the battlefield in Ukraine. They didn’t expose any potential war plans but did confirm the existence of U.S. intelligence operations targeting Moscow.
“This allows the Russians to narrow down where they have been penetrated,” Mr. Beebe, now with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told The Washington Times.
The leaked documents indicate that the Biden administration’s narrative of the war in Ukraine may be a bit overly optimistic. They show that the Ukrainians are in a rather precarious position in a bloody war of attrition with the Russian invaders, Mr. Beebe said.
“It’s not that the Russians are suddenly poised for some decisive grab of territory on the battlefield,” he said. “But, the Russians have over time worn down Ukraine’s ability to bring men and munitions to the battlefield. Over time, they can simply erode what the Ukrainians have.”
Ukrainian officials have also moved to downplay the significance of the leaks, saying the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been careful not to share many of its most sensitive deliberations even with a critical ally like Washington.
“If military operations are planned, then only a very narrow circle of people know about the planning of the special operation,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Wednesday on Ukrainian television, the Associated Press reported. “The risk of leaks is very minimal” for the most important decisions on the coming offensive.
Outwardly at least, top U.S. officials share the optimism ahead of what could be a critical time in the 14-month-old war.
“They have a great plan … but only President Zelenskyy and his leadership really know the full details of that plan,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters in Washington Tuesday after discussions with his Ukrainian counterpart.
Kyiv’s apparent shortage of air defense missiles, crucial in countering Russian air attacks, is also potentially a very serious situation. The picture that emerges from the leaks is that Moscow has pursued a fairly effective attrition strategy against Ukraine, Mr. Beebe said.
“This is something, obviously, that the U.S. has known about for quite some time,” Mr. Beebe said. “It’s not a problem of the willingness to provide air defense missiles, it’s a problem of capacity. We simply don’t have the stockpiles to draw from.”
The leaks kept coming Wednesday, even as the Biden administration acknowledged frankly it had not determined the scope of the leak or what other documents may still be revealed.
One leaked Pentagon document contended that Serbia, one of the most pro-Russian countries in Europe, has reportedly promised military hardware for Ukraine or has already sent them. The news, first reported by the Reuters news service, is likely to cause controversy in Serbia where, in a poll last year, 66% of Serbs said they believed Russia to be their country’s “greatest friend.”
A second newly surfaced document, dated March 23 and marked “Secret,” revealed that nearly 100 special forces troops from several NATO countries — including more than a dozen from the U.S. — are currently operating inside Ukraine. While amply supplying Kyiv with weapons and intelligence support, President Biden has repeatedly said U.S. troops will not fight in the war because of the risk of a direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia.
The documents don’t say where in Ukraine the forces are located or what they’re doing. They could be training local troops on the weapons that were sent by the U.S. and other NATO countries. Foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare are core missions of the U.S. Army Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets. The Biden administration has earmarked more than $30 billion for Ukraine since the war started.
The leaked Pentagon documents were apparently posted on an internet message site maintained by a British YouTube personality who goes by the name “Wow Mao.” On Tuesday, he confirmed that one of the moderators for his Discord chartroom had shared more than 30 leaked documents on the site site.
“I won’t name who this moderator is since they’re probably getting a lot of [grief] right now,” Wow Mao said on his YouTube page. “You don’t need me to tell you how bad it is to leak secret war documents. I completely denounce this.”
U.S. officials didn’t have any estimates about the length of the investigation. Mr. Austin said they would turn over every stone to find the leaker.
“The people who are inside the intelligence community charged with investigating what happened, trying to assess the damage and fix the problems, they’ll go about this in a very methodical way. They know what they’re doing,” Mr. Beebe said.
Despite the leak scandal, the war itself ground on, with the U.S. and Britain announcing new sanctions Wednesday on Russian oligarchs Alisher Usmanov and Roman Abramovich, two of Moscow’s wealthiest businessmen known to be close allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
U.S. officials said the new designations, which were coordinated with the British government, aim to reinforce existing penalties and further disrupt Russia’s importation of critical technologies used in its war against Ukraine, the Associated Press reported.
“We are closing the net on the Russian elite and those who try to help them hide their money for war,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement. “There’s no place to hide. We will keep cutting them off from assets they thought were successfully hidden.”
In Washington, visiting Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal revealed an agreement with the World Bank for $200 million in new aid to restore the country’s energy infrastructure, a particular target of Russian bombing campaigns in recent months. The funds will be used for the reconstruction of the electricity grid and heat supply systems in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv oblasts, Mr. Shyhal told reporters.
And in Ukraine itself, outrage was building over a new video that purportedly shows the beheading of a Ukrainian soldier, presumably by Russian captors. The extremely graphic footage could not be independently verified.
The Associated Press reported that the video circulating online appears to show a man in green fatigues wearing a yellow armband, typically donned by Ukrainian fighters. His screams are heard before another man in camouflage uses a knife to decapitate him.
A third man holds up a flak jacket apparently belonging to the man being beheaded. All three men speak in Russian.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.
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