Newsweek has examined in depth the scale and scope of the CIA’s activities in Ukraine, especially in light of growing Congressional questions about the extent of U.S. aid and whether President Biden is keeping his pledge not to have “boots on the ground.” Neither the CIA nor the White House would give specific responses for confirmation, but they asked that Newsweek not reveal the specific locations of CIA operations inside Ukraine or Poland, that it not name other countries involved in the clandestine CIA efforts and that it not name the air service that is supporting the clandestine U.S. logistics effort. After repeated requests for an on-the-record comment, the CIA declined.
One of the biggest secrets of the Ukraine war is how much the CIA doesn’t know. The Agency is as uncertain about Volodymyr Zelensky’s thinking and intentions as it is about Vladimir Putin’s.
“There is a clandestine war, with clandestine rules, underlying all of what is going on in Ukraine,” says a Biden administration senior intelligence official who also spoke with Newsweek. The official, who is directly involved in Ukraine policy planning, requested anonymity to discuss highly classified matters. The official (and numerous other national security officials who spoke to Newsweek) say that Washington and Moscow have decades of experience crafting these clandestine rules, necessitating that the CIA play an outsize role: as primary spy, as negotiator, as supplier of intelligence, as logistician, as wrangler of a network of sensitive NATO relations and perhaps most important of all, as the agency trying to ensure the war does not further spin out of control.
“Don’t underestimate the Biden administration’s priority to keep Americans out of harm’s way and reassure Russia that it doesn’t need to escalate,” the senior intelligence officer says. “Is the CIA on the ground inside Ukraine?” he asks rhetorically. “Yes, but it’s also not nefarious.”
All of the credible experts and officials Newsweek spoke to agreed that the CIA has been successful in discreetly playing its part in dealing with Kyiv and Moscow, in moving mountains of information and materiel and in dealing with a diverse set of other countries, some of whom are quietly helping while also trying to stay out of Russia’s crosshairs. And they didn’t dispute that on the CIA’s main task — knowing what’s going on in the minds of the leaders of Russia and Ukraine — the Agency has had to struggle.
Intelligence experts say this war is unique in that the United States is aligned with Ukraine, yet the two countries are not allies. And though the United States is helping Ukraine against Russia, it is not formally at war with that country. Thus, much of what Washington does to aid Ukraine is kept secret – and much of what is normally in the realm of the U.S. military is being carried out by the Agency. Everything that is done, including work inside Ukraine itself, must comply with limits established by Biden.
The CIA was central to the war even before it started. At the beginning of his administration, Biden tapped director William Burns as his global trouble shooter — a clandestine operator able to communicate with foreign leaders outside normal channels, someone who could occupy important geopolitical space between overt and covert, and an official who could organize work in the arena that exists between what is strictly military and what is strictly civilian.
Once Russian forces poured into Ukraine, the United States had to quickly shift gears. The CIA, like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, had misread Russia’s military capacity and Ukraine’s resilience as Russia failed to take Kyiv and withdrew from the north.
In the face of Zelensky’s masterful public lobbying, the United States slowly and reluctantly agreed to supply better and longer-range weapons, weapons that in theory could threaten Russian territory and thus flirt with the feared escalation.
“Zelensky has certainly outdone everyone else in getting what he wants, but Kyiv has had to agree to obey certain invisible lines as well,” says the senior defense intelligence official.
After all the members of the U.S. military were publicly withdrawn from Ukraine in February 2022 including special operations forces that had been behind the scenes, the White House established the roles that different agencies could play in the U.S. response. President Biden signed national security directives and a “presidential finding” authorizing certain covert operations against Russia. “Lanes of the road” were established between the Pentagon and the CIA, just as they had been established in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. Burns and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin work closely together; the relations of the two agencies, according to the CIA, have never been better.
Now, more than a year after the invasion, the United States sustains two massive networks, one public and the other clandestine. Ships deliver goods to ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, and those supplies are moved by truck, train and air to Ukraine. Clandestinely though, a fleet of commercial aircraft (the “grey fleet”) crisscrosses Central and Eastern Europe, moving arms and supporting CIA operations. The senior administration official said much of the network had been successfully kept under wraps, and that it was wrong to assume that Russian intelligence knows the details of the CIA’s efforts.
As billions of dollars worth of arms started flowing through Eastern Europe, another issue that the CIA is working on is the task of fighting corruption, which turned out to be a major problem. This involves not only accounting for where weapons are going but also quashing the pilfering and kickbacks involved in the movement of so much materiel to Ukraine.
Less than a month after Russian tanks crossed the border on their way to Kyiv, CIA Director Burns landed in Warsaw, visiting with the directors of Poland’s intelligence agencies and putting together the final agreements that would allow the CIA to use Ukraine’s neighbor as its clandestine hub.
Since the end of the Cold War, Poland and the United States, through the CIA, have established particularly warm relations. Poland hosted a CIA torture “black site” in the village of Stare Kiejkuty during 2002-2003. And after the initial Russian invasion of Donbas and Crimea in 2014, CIA activity expanded to make Poland its third-largest station in Europe.
Poland’s real value is its role in the CIA’s secret war. Burns returned to Warsaw last April, meeting again with Minister of the Interior and “special services” coordinator Mariusz Kaminski, his Polish counterpart, to discuss the scope of cooperation between the two countries, especially in collecting intelligence. From Poland, CIA case officers are able to connect with their many agents, including Ukrainian and Russian spies. CIA ground branch personnel of the Special Activities Center handle security and interact with their Ukrainian partners and the special operations forces of 20 nations, almost all of whom also operate from Polish bases.
A senior Polish government official told Newsweek that it might be impossible to convince Kyiv to abide by the non-agreement it made to keep the war limited. “In my humble opinion, the CIA fails to understand the nature of the Ukrainian state and the reckless factions that exist there,” says the Polish official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
In response, the senior U.S. defense intelligence official stressed the delicate balance the Agency must maintain in its many roles, saying: “I hesitate to say that the CIA has failed.” But the official said sabotage attacks and cross border fighting created a whole new complication and continuing Ukrainian sabotage “could have disastrous consequences.”