Is the U.S. helping Ukraine target Russian troops?

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

I suspect Russia knew, or assumed, this was true even before NBC published its scoop yesterday.

But I wonder at what point U.S. assistance to Ukraine becomes so blatant and humiliating to the Kremlin that Putin decides he has no choice but to take a shot at us. Looking the other way as we escalate is a tacit admission that he’s afraid to engage NATO, a green light for the Pentagon to do anything it wants in the name of defeating Russia short of the U.S. Army firing bullets or missiles itself.


At some point, if we’re the ones aiming those bullets and missiles at Russian targets, what does it matter if it’s a Ukrainian who technically pulls the trigger?

Russians are destined to ask that question. A dictator whose power depends on projecting strength may begin to fear losing face at home more than he fears attacking NATO.

U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine have evolved over time from smaller weapons like Javelins that are conducive to ambush attacks to heavier weaponry like artillery and helicopters as the battle has shifted to the east. That was a “reward” of sorts for Ukraine to show that the west admires its bravery in repelling the Russian attack in the north and believes it can win the fight in the Donbas. Intelligence-sharing has been different, however. NBC reports that, from the first days of the war, Washington has provided more intel to the Ukrainians than it ever has before to a non-NATO state. Some of that intelligence has been defensive, like tipping off the Ukrainian troops to impending Russian air attacks. That’s given them just enough time to move important assets on the ground out of harm’s way. If you’ve been wondering why Russia’s air campaign has seemed so ineffective, there you go. We’re reading their battle plans.

But not all of the intelligence is defensive. I remember reading somewhere a month ago that the intelligence-sharing between the U.S. and Ukraine, while significant, didn’t include “real-time” targeting of Russian positions. That was seemingly a case of the White House drawing a red line, refusing to assist Ukrainian battlefield operations for fear of antagonizing Russia. That restraint is now out the window, says NBC:


“There has been a lot of real-time intelligence shared in terms of things that could be used for specific targeting of Russian forces,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the situation. The information includes commercial satellite images “but also a lot of other intelligence about, for example, where certain types of Russian units are active.”…

Once the invasion got underway, lawyers in the U.S. defense and intelligence bureaucracy imposed guidance that in some cases limited the sharing of targeting information that could enable lethal Ukrainian strikes against Russians. But as Russia’s aggression has deepened, and under pressure from Congress, all of those impediments have been removed, officials say…

Ukrainian forces have used specific coordinates shared by the U.S. to direct fire on Russian positions and aircraft, current and former officials tell NBC News.

We’re aiming their guns for them, so much so that U.S. intelligence reportedly helped Ukraine shoot down a transport plane carrying hundreds of Russian troops in the first days of the war, when they were trying to seize an airport near Kiev. In fact, as the battle moves to the Donbas, NBC reports that the office of the Director of National Intelligence has withdrawn a memo that had forbidden intelligence-sharing with Ukraine for the purpose of recovering territory in the east. That had been another concession to Russia, preferring a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine to one in which the Ukrainians go on offense with U.S. help and risk a major escalation with Moscow. Now that Moscow is insisting on that escalation in Luhansk and Donetsk, however, the U.S. is taking off the gloves.


Can this status quo be maintained? What sort of reprisal is in store for the U.S. if Ukraine starts to push Russia out of the Donbas, raising the prospect of total defeat for Putin?

Gotta assume that Ukraine’s success in targeting Russian logistics inside Russia itself is also partly due to help from Uncle Sam:

American weapons shipments to Ukraine have become so robust lately that we’re actually *inventing new weapons* for them. California-based Aevex Aeronautics came up with something called the “Phoenix Ghost” drone, which is essentially a Switchblade kamikaze drone except capable of flying for much longer. The Switchblade has about 30-40 minutes of airtime before it runs out of gas. The Phoenix Ghost has six hours.

How’s Russia handling all of this? Not great:

The lunatics on state TV have reportedly taken to speculating that nuclear war might be inevitable. We’re not just fighting Ukraine now, they remind their audience, we’re fighting NATO — which isn’t totally wrong, per the NBC scoop above. And so to win the war, NATO may also need to be crushed:


In perhaps the most shocking declaration about a nuclear holocaust delivered on Russian television in recent months, Simonyan concluded that the idea “that everything will end with a nuclear strike, to me, is more probable than the other outcome. This is to my horror, on one hand, but on the other hand, with the understanding that it is what it is.” Solovyov chimed in: “But we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.” Simonyan comforted the audiences by adding: “We’re all going to die someday.”…

Adding his two cents to the nuclear apocalypse sideshow on Wednesday was military expert and retired Colonel Yury Knutov. “I’ve been observing the American approach from its top levels of leadership towards Russia for several years now,” he said on the state TV show 60 Minutes. “For some reason, they believe that Russia can be choked for as long as it takes, until it surrenders, and Russia will never respond or use its nuclear weapons or its nuclear potential… They themselves are creating the situation when there is a threat to the existence of our nation and our military doctrine prescribes that it gives us the right to use nuclear weapons.”

“Final decisions are being made not in London, but in Washington,” said one panelist after another proposed attacking the UK. “If we want to hit the real center of the West, then we need to strike Washington.”

Not all of Russia’s tribulations are due to Ukrainian derring-do and American intelligence, however. Part of the problem for Russia is that Russian intel just ain’t what it used to be:


NPR has an amusing report today about a key flaw in Russian battlefield communications. Russian troops brought their smartphones with them when they invaded Ukraine, but those quickly proved useless when the Ukrainian government cut off service for all Russian numbers. Some Russian soldiers then seized Ukrainians’ phones and started using those instead — which made it painfully easy for Ukrainian intelligence to listen in on their calls and to track their locations. Russia’s not sending its best these days, which may explain why U.S. intel seems to have had such an easy time anticipating their next moves.

I’ll leave you with this intriguing anecdote about Russian incompetence, also from the NPR piece: “Inexplicably, the analysts say, Russia has used basic, off-the-shelf, unencrypted radio communications in many cases that made it relatively easy for the Ukrainians and others to listen in. Also, it’s not clear why Russia hasn’t simply bombed Ukrainian communications networks to rubble.”


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