US President Joe Biden on Wednesday unveiled a new aid package for Ukraine that includes heavy weapons and more intelligence. Since the beginning of the war, the United States has made innovative use of releasing and sharing sensitive information with the public and Ukraine. An approach that obviously affects the course of the conflict.
On Wednesday, April 13, the United States decided for the first time to send heavy weapons – including howitzers – to Ukraine to defend against Russia. A new step in Washington’s engagement with Kyiv that has not been missed by the media.
But that’s not all. The new US aid plan for Ukraine – worth $800 million – has another, much more overlooked component devoted to intelligence agencies.
US President Joe Biden has pledged to send more data collected by his intelligence services to Ukraine as the Russian army appears ever closer to unleashing the great battle for Donbass.
Joe Biden even equated arms deliveries and secret services. The exchange of this sensitive information “plays an obvious role in the development of the Ukrainian-Russian balance of power on the ground,” acknowledges Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian security issues and Russian-US relations at the London School of Economics of France 24. The United States are by far “the most advanced country for collecting satellite data and intercepting signals, and having access to that information can be invaluable,” he notes.
But their real impact remains difficult to assess: the impact of timely information is less visible than that of an anti-aircraft missile or anti-tank missile. Moreover, they are, by definition, doomed to circulate behind the scenes, far from the eyes of the public and the enemy.
Since the beginning of the war, much of the debate surrounding the role of the Secret Service has revolved around its “unprecedented” approach to declassifying sensitive information. From the first months of the Ukraine crisis, the Biden administration showered the media with data—war risk assessments, satellite images of Russian troop mobilizations—directly from the backrooms of the various American foreign intelligence services (CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence).
Documents that were normally reserved for the Allied governments alone fueled public debate. This strategy “did not prevent the war, but it did allow most to accept that Russia is the aggressor. This then facilitates international coordination to impose the sanctions,” said Ofer Riemer, a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a specialist in intelligence matters , contacted by France 24. Hawn.
Another indirect effect of this very public display of “secret” Russian plans before the start of the invasion war could have been “to stir up distrust between the Kremlin and the Russian secret service,” believes Ofer Riemer. This dissemination of revelations may have given the impression of a Russian general staff infiltrated by Western intelligence agencies. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the highly respected Russian secret services apparently did not play a decisive role in this conflict: Vladimir Putin no longer wanted to listen to his spies.
Information that can kill
This repeated declassification of information has made people almost forget that spies continued to spy after war was declared. But this time it’s hard to say how much Ukraine has benefited.
“There are two types of information that the United States can transmit to Kyiv: more general strategic information about Russian war plans and objectives, and tactical data for real-time monitoring of troop movements,” Jeff Hawn summarizes.
The United States has made no secret of continuing to transmit information of the first kind to Kyiv since the beginning of March. But Washington maintains an artistic vagueness about delivering tactical data. Asked directly about it in early March, Democrat Adam Smith, chairman of the US House of Representatives for Armed Forces, denied that such information was being shared, while hours later Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, assured Adam Smith “didn’t get it all”. But she didn’t want to go into detail.
A reluctance that is understandable. This kind of intelligence can kill: geolocation data tracking Russian troops on the ground would allow Ukrainians to conduct targeted elimination operations. The United States would then risk being more than just a warring party in Ukraine, paving the way for a dangerous escalation of the conflict.
Hence the importance of announcing an intensification of the exchange of sensitive information with Kyiv. “A new doctrine has been developed in Washington that will allow American intelligence agencies to exchange data that will allow Kyiv to get a very accurate picture of the Russian military system in Donbass and Crimea,” Wall StreetJournal confirms.
The American government therefore seems to have decided to “provide raw data that will enable the Ukrainian army to get a real-time picture of Russian troop movements,” estimates Jeff Hawn. The US General Staff also appears to have confirmed this to the Wall Street Journal, reiterating that the new doctrine’s red line is “not to provide information about Russian positions in Russia, in order not to allow Ukraine to engage in offensive operations.” writes the newspaper. In other words: everything else would be allowed.
A major change in teaching explained by the evolution of the context on site. Jeff Hawn believes that the planned offensive in Donbass requires more than strategic information. It is a narrower front on which Russian forces will try to encircle, which makes it all the more important “that the Ukrainians know exactly where the enemy is coming from in order to be able to defend themselves properly,” emphasizes the specialist.
And even if the United States did not in fact provide this famous tactical piece of information, the mere assertion “can have a demoralizing effect,” Ofer Riemer estimates. Russian soldiers, who have already suffered a setback in their attempt to take Kyiv, risk becoming more defensive if they believe Ukraine knows their precise position from the Americans.
But this opening of America’s intelligence tap is not just a hostile act by the United States toward Russia. Paradoxically, it is also “a sign that they will not intervene further and directly in the conflict,” assures Ofer Riemer. A nation willing to engage militarily on a frontline keeps its information to itself for use when the need arises. In other words, the day the American spies go silent, Moscow will really have to worry.