US rules for sharing intelligence with Ukraine

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

Information on the location and movements of Russian forces is reaching Ukraine in real time and includes satellite imagery and reports compiled from sensitive US sources, according to US and Ukrainian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the cooperation.

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

The United States is not at war with Russia and the assistance it provides is intended to defend Ukraine against an illegal invasion, Biden officials have emphasized. But in practical terms, US officials have limited control over how their Ukrainian beneficiaries use military equipment and intelligence.

That risks provoking the Kremlin to retaliate against the United States and its allies, and raises the threat of direct conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The administration has produced guidance on intelligence sharing that is calibrated to avoid escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow. Given to working-level intelligence personnel, the guidance has placed 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 is unable to provide detailed information that would help Ukraine kill Russian leadership figures, such as senior 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 that category.

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

The United States is not “actively helping them kill generals of any kind,” the defense official said.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on May 5 that the United States is not involved in the Ukrainian military’s targeting decisions. (Video: The Washington Post)

The second category of prohibited intelligence sharing is any information that would help Ukraine attack Russian targets outside Ukraine’s borders, officials said. That rule is intended in part to prevent the United States from becoming a party to attacks that Ukraine might launch inside Russia. Those concerns prompted the administration to halt earlier plans to provide Polish-supplied fighter jets 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 dissuaded Ukraine from undertaking such operations on its own.

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

Blinken made his comments after Ukrainian officials said unexplained fires and explosions against sensitive targets in Russia were justified, without claiming responsibility for them.

In addition to the restricted categories of intelligence sharing, the United States has a rule against providing what officials call “target information” to Ukraine. The officials said the United States will not tell Ukrainian forces that a particular Russian general has been seen in a specific location and then tell or help Ukraine attack him.

But the United States would share information about the location of, for example, command and control facilities – places where top Russian officials are often located – as it could help Ukraine in its own defense, officials said. If Ukrainian commanders decided to attack the facility, that would be their decision, and if a Russian general was killed in the attack, the United States would not have attacked him, officials said.

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

“If the US were providing targeting information to a foreign party, and we are heavily 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 official. Department official who was legal counsel to the US Embassy in Baghdad. “That could be seen as getting close to the line of actually attacking Russia, at which point Russia could arguably respond back.”

“Targeted intelligence is different from other types of shared intelligence 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, however indirect, risks plunging the country deeper into war.

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

The United States routinely 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 such as Odessa, a senior defense official said. But, the official emphasized, that intelligence is not “specific target information on the ships.” The information is intended to help Ukraine mount a defense. Ukrainian officials could have decided that instead of attacking Moskva, they should take steps to strengthen protections around Odessa or evacuate civilians.

“We do not provide Ukraine with specific targeting information for Moskva,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a written statement. “We were not involved in the Ukrainians’ decision to attack the ship or in the operation they carried out. We had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intention to target the ship. The Ukrainians have their own intelligence capabilities to track and target Russian warships, as they did in this case.”

But without US intelligence, Ukraine would have struggled to target the warship with the confidence to expend two valuable Neptune missiles, which were in short supply, according to people familiar with the attack.

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The sinking of such an important ship, and one that had the ability to defend against anti-ship missiles, was a humiliation for Russian President Vladimir Putin and one of Ukraine’s most dramatic successes in the war so far, analysts said. In accordance with intelligence-sharing rules, which are designed to prevent an escalation of the conflict in Putin’s eyes, Biden administration officials repeatedly emphasized that they had not directly aided Ukraine in the attack.

On Friday, the day after The Washington Post and other news organizations revealed the US role in the Moskva attack, Biden separately called CIA Director William J. Burns and Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a senior administration official. he said. The president made it clear that he was upset about the leaks and warned that 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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