Combat Support: Western Intelligence and the Support for Ukraine


The Ukraine crisis has galvanized the world, becoming one of the most pressing current events and resulting in daily news updates. The crisis is now one of the worst refugee crises since 1960 and is also one of the worst genocides in Europe since the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. The crisis also has resulted in many Americans becoming more aware of foreign policy and international affairs, commenting on social media and elsewhere on these topics and areas.

Many Western nations, nation-states normally allied with the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other international Liberal Democratic institutions, have widely condemned Russia’s invasion. Others, nations not normally used to condemning Russian movements or policies, have also denounced Putin and Russia for their activities. Yet, the West moves much farther in this by providing intelligence support to Ukraine in their time of need.

Beginning, at the latest, in February of 2022 (but most likely going back to the beginning of Fall 2021), the United States and other Western nations took a close look at Russian troop and equipment movements along the Ukrainian-Russian border. One of the most effective ways to countering Russian encroachment in Ukraine was by publicly sharing information. NPR reported that, when CIA Director William Burns began publicly releasing information about Russia’s overall goals in Ukraine this worked to “counter the Russian disinformation narrative, this notion that Ukraine was somehow threatening Russia… and as a result… the NATO countries have been unified. We’ve seen a largely unified response politically and on issues like sanctions”. John Sipher, a former CIA operative who served in Russia for a time, believes (alongside other retired or former CIA officials) this to be an effective strategy to countering Russia, saying, “They try to create sort of false stories. They try to create false narratives… It’s trying to get information out on what they know the Russians are up to, to try to tell both publics in Europe and the United States, here is the kind of stuff we can expect from Russia. Here’s their game plan”.

Not only did the CIA take this route, but Britain’s intelligence services took a very similar route as well. More used to operating secretively, covertly and clandestinely throughout the globe, the Ministry of Defence released a video on social media which “carefully intones… that Russia has been rapidly been building up forces near Ukraine’s border – as has been documented by independent analysts – and that “an invasion could happen within days”… [marking] an unusually determined and focused effort to seize control of the Ukraine story from the Kremlin, traditionally considered expert in what is sometimes described as information warfare”.

As the war got underway on February 24th, however, Western intelligence with the United States leading the charge began providing intelligence and other forms of combat support to Ukraine.

Beginning in early March (and most probably occurring earlier), the United States confirmed, after some denial by others in positions of power, that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and U.S. Armed Forces were sharing intelligence with the Ukrainians. Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated during a briefing, “We have been sharing it real time…Without getting too far into details of what we do, for obvious reasons, we have consistently been sharing intelligence that includes information the Ukrainians can use to inform and develop their military response to Russia’s invasion. That has been ongoing and reports that suggest otherwise are inaccurate”.

This caused some controversy in Washington as there is a fine demarcation between supporting an ally and becoming an invested party in warfare operation. Representative Adam Smith, the Democratic Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee detailed in an MSNBC interview “We want to support the Ukrainians in every way we possibly can, without going to war with Russia. When it comes to intel-sharing and targeting, that’s a fine line… We’re not doing that, because that steps over the line to making us participating in the war. So the Pentagon is really struggling and walking that very fine line”.

It was later detailed by British morning paper The i that both the United States and United Kingdom were sharing information “including satellite images and communications intercepts [and] situation reports that meld surveillance imagery and intercepts to show the whereabouts and disposition of Russian forces” with Ukraine yet also “carefully stripped… any information that could betray the source and is delivered within two hours of reception of satellite imagery, meaning it cannot be misdescribed by the Kremlin as live targeting data”. In this context, the United States and UK are able to get around the legal definitions and protections concerning targeting information versus intelligence sharing. Not only does this work around any legal quandaries, this also makes it more difficult for the Russian Federation to try and claim the U.S. or UK are assisting directly in the destruction of Russian tanks, aircraft, or personnel.

This intelligence sharing has existed up to the current day, with Psaki mentioning in a press briefing aboard Air Force One on April 12th that the U.S. did have “credible information before today that Russia may use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, that would cause stronger symptoms in order to weaken and incapacitate entrenched Ukrainian fighters and civilians as part of its aggressive campaign to take Mariupol” and this information was “shared that information with the Ukrainians at the time” and that the U.S. “[continues] to share up-to-date intelligence-gathering information”.

The Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), perhaps one of the most important is unknown entities within the U.S. Intelligence Community, Lieutenant General (LTG) Scott Berrier, detailed to the House Armed Services Committee that the relationship between Ukraine and the United States is “revolutionary in terms of what we can do”. General Paul Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA), was quoted as saying “in my 35 years… [I] never seen a better sharing of accurate, timely and actionable intelligence than what has transpired with Ukraine” emphasizing how such intelligence sharing and collaboration missions builds strong relationships with likeminded allies and also works very effectively to combat a common national and international enemy like Russia.

The U.S. and UK’s intelligence activities are really remarkable and very interesting, given this is about as open as either intelligence service has been with the public in regards to a currently ongoing geopolitical conflict with worldwide ramifications. Professor Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, said in an interview “[The open sharing of sensitive information publicly is] a very different approach from the past, when intelligence and information was more closely guarded. What Britain and the west have learned from the last Ukraine crisis in 2014 is that if you don’t actively use your intelligence to shape the narrative, then you will lose ground to Russia”.

Similarly, Steve Hall, a retired CIA National Clandestine Services who specialized in Russia and Eurasia, told CNN recently “It makes intelligence professionals, even former ones like me, nervous, because, of course, it’s so ingrained in us to protect sources and methods… it’s an interesting political decision to say, look, it’s worth perhaps showing the Russians how good we are at collecting this stuff, in order to get the word out to citizens of both countries, citizens of the world, as to what’s really going on in the Russian military right now. It’s an interesting decision, but it’s been very illuminating”.

The decision to openly share intelligence, not only with other friendly services, but with the worldwide public, is a significant departure from previous intelligence operations and how secretive these agencies have been. It is quite possible that, in future operations with such a strong geopolitical power, that the U.S. Intelligence Community and potentially all of the Five Eyes may work to provide information that can benefit combating misinformation, disinformation, and working against a very prescient threat to global security.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.


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