What in the hell: "Senior American officials" leak that US intel directing attacks on Russian generals?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

On one hand, the impulse to cheer is undeniable, especially with the brutality and clear ethnic-cleansing strategy behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the other, the US and NATO seem to be edging very closely to fulfilling Vladimir Putin’s propaganda needs, if this New York Times report is accurate.

And it might end up giving Putin a pretext to widen the war, all thanks to the flapping gums of “senior American officials”:

The United States has provided intelligence about Russian units that has allowed Ukrainians to target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action in the Ukraine war, according to senior American officials.

Ukrainian officials said they have killed approximately 12 generals on the front lines, a number that has astonished military analysts.

The targeting help is part of a classified effort by the Biden administration to provide real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine. That intelligence also includes anticipated Russian troop movements gleaned from recent American assessments of Moscow’s secret battle plan for the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the officials said. Officials declined to specify how many generals had been killed as a result of U.S. assistance.

The United States has focused on providing the location and other details about the Russian military’s mobile headquarters, which relocate frequently. …

U.S. intelligence support to the Ukrainians has had a decisive effect on the battlefield, confirming targets identified by the Ukrainian military and pointing it to new targets. The flow of actionable intelligence on the movement of Russian troops that America has given Ukraine has few precedents.

In one sense, the broader intelligence sharing is already known. The US and its NATO partners have not acted coyly in their support for Ukraine’s military operations, and it’s hardly been limited to intel. The West has shipped a tsunami of materiel into Ukraine to bolster their military, to the point where Ukraine reportedly has more functional tanks than Russia. Joe Biden just openly demanded $33 billion in new arms shipments to Ukraine and will almost certainly get it. We haven’t been wallflowers.

However, the accusation of providing targeting intelligence on Russia’s high command would be another incremental escalation in this fight. At the very least, the leak of those efforts to the New York Times forces Russia and Putin to react to it, and Putin isn’t exactly a man with surplus equanimity at the moment. This goes beyond temperament to survival, though; if Putin doesn’t do something about this open targeting of his command officers, those same officers might decide to fight their next battle in Moscow rather than the Donbas. Putin’s savvy enough to understand this.

But let’s consider just how much intel we might be providing them … and how much the Russians are giving to the Ukrainians themselves:

Ukrainian officials have combined that geographic information with their own intelligence — including intercepted communications that alert the Ukrainian military to the presence of senior Russian officers — to conduct artillery strikes and other attacks that have killed Russian officers.

I don’t doubt that the US is providing battlefield intelligence. However, we already know that Russian telecommunications are a complete mess and that their units use uncoded and open transmissions to discuss locations, tactics, and maneuvers. It’s as if the Russian military never bothered to upgrade their comms from World War II. It may well be that the US intel allows Ukraine to refine their targeting, but they likely are gleaning enough off of Russian comms to get a pretty good idea of who is where at any one time.

The real question is why “senior American officials” are talking about this at all. What benefit does this deliver to the US to have this publicly known, to the extent that it happens at all? It’s a question that Thomas Friedman asked the day before in the same newspaper:

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” he [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin] said. “So, it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”

Please tell me that this statement was a result of a National Security Council meeting led by the president. And that they decided, after carefully weighing all the second- and third-order consequences, that it is in our interest and within our power to so badly degrade Russia’s military that it will not be able to project power again — soon? ever? not clear — and that we can do that without risking a nuclear response from a humiliated Putin.

Have no doubts: I hope that this war ends with Russia’s military sharply degraded and Putin out of power. I’d just never say so publicly if I were in leadership, because it buys you nothing and can potentially cost you a lot.

Loose lips sink ships — and they also lay the groundwork for overreach in warfare, mission creep, a disconnect between ends and means and huge unintended consequences.

There has been way too much of this from the Biden team, and the messes have required too much mopping up.

This leak is arguable worse. It practically dares Putin to use it as a pretext for some sort of attack on NATO that would produce a response in kind. The only real reasons for rubbing Putin’s face in this with a leak to the media about this program are either (a) they want a war with Russia, (b) they need to bolster Biden’s standing with voters by making him look tough, or (c) both. The more these leaks keep springing up, the more it looks like (b) or (c), and (c) mainly for the same purpose as (b) — attempting to shore up Biden and Democrats ahead of the midterms.

But who knows? Maybe this will precipitate a military coup with the generals still left above room temperature in Moscow. That kind of maneuver would replace Putin with someone else who’d have a lot of reasons to carry a blood grudge with the US, armed with thousands of nukes.  Will that be better or worse than the situation at hand? Maybe the geniuses leaking these secrets to the New York Times should think long and hard about that question, eh?