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Leaked Pentagon Documents Reveal Secrets About Friends and Foes

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Leaked Pentagon Documents Reveal Secrets About Friends and Foes
https://www.nytimes.com/explain/2023/russia-ukraine-war-documents-leak
A soldier atop a vehicle on a muddy road in a forest.

A Ukrainian armored vehicle carried soldiers near the front line on Friday in Bakhmut, Ukraine. According to a leaked classified document, the city and the forces defending it were in immediate danger of being encircled in late February.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

KHARKIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian Army was close to losing a key battle of the war. A single, tenuous supply road for Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the streets of the eastern city of Bakhmut was taking fire. A general called the threatened road the “last breathing tube.”

This dire assessment of fighting in Bakhmut, one of the longest running and most lethal battles of Russia’s war in Ukraine, appears in a new batch of classified documents that appears to detail American national security secrets.

The assessment captures only one moment, from late February, in the now 10-month-long fight for Bakhmut, a midsize university and mining town of questionable strategic significance but one that both sides have freighted with political meaning.

The city is now mostly in ruins, as fires sweep through buildings and soldiers fight in fierce, block-by-block combat.

Ukrainian soldiers have fought human-wave assaults by former convicts in the Wagner mercenary group and by elite Russian special forces troops, and they have endured round-the-clock artillery bombardments.

However, the leaked assessment focused on a related theater of the battle for Bakhmut, including two flanking maneuvers by the Russian Army through fields and villages to the city’s northwest and southwest that were intended to encircle Ukrainian troops by cutting off supply roads.

It described internal Ukrainian military deliberations on how to respond, with commanding generals deciding to deploy elite units from the military intelligence agency to push back the Russians.

The documents, from late February and early March but found on social media sites in recent days, outline critical shortages that the Ukrainian military is facing. The intelligence reports show that the United States also appears to be spying on Ukraine’s top military and political leaders, a reflection of Washington’s struggle to get a clear view of Ukraine’s fighting strategies.

The leak pulled back the curtain on decision-making inside the Ukrainian military command in a way not seen in public before.

The Ukrainian military has effectively safeguarded key secrets throughout the war, including foreshadowing of the successful, surprise counterattack last summer in the Kharkiv region that swept over Russian lines. Ukrainian officials have called the document leak a Russian propaganda ploy.

A soldier with the Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade in February near Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials deployed elite units to the Bakhmut area in late February to try to push back Russian forces.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York TimesA Ukrainian soldier after returning from the front line in Bakhmut on Friday, during the now 10-month-long battle for the city.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

“Ukrainian forces as of 25 February were almost operationally encircled by Russian forces in Bakhmut,” the leaked intelligence assessment noted.

Senior U.S. officials said an inquiry, launched by the F.B.I., would try to move swiftly to determine the source of the leak. The officials acknowledged that the documents appeared to be legitimate intelligence and operational briefs compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, using reports from the government’s intelligence community, but that at least one had been modified from the original at some later point.

The leaked assessment said that Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s director of military intelligence, offered to deploy elite units under his command for two weeks to push back Russian troops threatening the supply road. It cited General Budanov as describing Ukraine’s position at the time as “catastrophic.”

Roman Mashovets, an adviser to Andriy Yermak, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff, also offered a cleareyed assessment in a briefing, the document says.

Mr. Mashovets advised that a single supply road, winding over hills to the west of Bakhmut, remained accessible for the forces inside the city — and that it was under artillery fire.

“Mashovets reported that, for those reasons, the morale in Bakhmut was low, with the Ukrainian forces under the impression that they were almost operationally encircled,” the leaked assessment said.

In the fighting on the plains of southeastern Ukraine, encirclement poses a grave danger feared by soldiers on both sides.

Once surrounded, ammunition quickly runs low, wounded soldiers cannot be evacuated and those still fighting are at risk of being overrun and killed. The commander of ground forces in the east, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, called the single supply road the “last breathing tube” and asked that Kraken, a unit in the military intelligence agency, be deployed to Bakhmut, the document said.

The leak opened a window on internal deliberations in the Ukrainian leadership and showed a Western intelligence assessment that Bakhmut was teetering by late February.

Yet the broader picture it paints was hardly secret. Russian forces had closed in on supply roads in February, according to the military’s daily briefings and public comments by soldiers fighting in the area, before Ukraine sent in reinforcements. A variety of elite units joined the fight.

This fighting, which came after the intelligence assessment was written, was successful in pushing Russian forces far enough from the roads to allow resupply of soldiers in the city and evacuation of the wounded.

But it came at a strategic cost for Ukraine, which has been seeking to retain its best trained and equipped soldiers for a counteroffensive anticipated in the coming weeks or months.

A Ukrainian soldier moving toward the Bakhmut front line on Friday. Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

A multilane highway full of cars in each direction, with a large billboard on the side of a building in the background.

A recruitment ad for the Wagner mercenary group in Moscow last month. Very little was public about the group before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it has now emerged as a main force in the war.Credit…Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

LVIV, Ukraine — A cache of leaked Pentagon documents circulating online portrays the Russian military as running out of steam, short on men and equipment, and facing stalemate. But one group of Russian fighters stands as an exception.

The mercenary group Wagner — known for its skill on the battlefield, its army of former prisoners and its murder of at least one perceived traitor with a sledgehammer — remains a potent force, with influence not just in Ukraine, but all over the world, according to the documents. Wagner, the documents say, is actively working to thwart American interests in Africa and has explored branching out to Haiti, right under the nose of the United States, with an offer to help that country’s embattled government take on violent gangs.

Senior U.S. officials said the F.B.I. was working to determine the source of the leak. The officials acknowledged that the documents appeared to be legitimate intelligence and operational briefs compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, using reports from the government’s intelligence community, but that at least one had been modified from the original at some later point.

According to one confidential document, emissaries from Wagner secretly met with “Turkish contacts” in February, slipping onto NATO territory in search of weapons and equipment for its fight in Ukraine.

Whether weapons actually changed hands and the Turkish authorities were aware of the effort was not clear. Officials from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not immediately comment on the revelation.

But the brazenness of the outreach, conducted even while NATO as a whole is deeply involved in supporting Ukraine with arms and equipment, underscores the cowboy nature of Wagner. It also points to its apparent autonomy from the Russian military establishment, thanks to supply networks that extend far outside Russian territory. The document discussing the meeting in Turkey suggested that the West African nation of Mali, where Wagner has set up a significant outpost, could serve as a proxy and acquire the weapons from Turkey on Wagner’s behalf.

The choice of Mali as a fig leaf for such an arms smuggling operation shows just how influential Wagner has become since it first established a presence in that country a few years ago, working to provide security for a military junta that took over in 2021. Another document, citing a Wagner employee, said there were more than 1,645 Wagner personnel in Mali, which the document said had sparked security concerns in neighboring Ivory Coast.

A demonstrator holding a Russian flag during a rally in Bamako, Mali, in February 2022 to celebrate the withdrawal of French forces from the country.Credit…Florent Vergnes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the weapons scheme also shows how much further Wagner must now go for its supplies, a sign that Western sanctions against Russia have begun to bite.

“This is a very interesting sign that there’s a degrading of their capabilities,” said Candace Rondeaux, an expert on Wagner who is a senior director at New America, a Washington think tank. “Going further afield certainly suggests impact U.S. and European sanctions are starting to have on degrading the pipeline.”

Before the Ukraine war, little was known about Wagner. Though mercenary fighters associated with the group known by that name had appeared on the battlefields of Syria and Libya, its origins were shadowy and there was debate over whether Wagner existed at all or was simply a product of Kremlin mythmaking.

But in September, after years of denying any connection with the group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and a businessman who had served as caterer for important Kremlin events, acknowledge that he had created Wagner.

Since then, Mr. Prigozhin has become an unavoidable — and menacing — fixture of the war, donning a helmet and body armor to visit his troops at the front line, while calling for the firing (or worse) of military leaders who have refused to follow his cavalier example. In one of the more disturbing episodes of the war, he endorsed the execution by sledgehammer of a Wagner fighter who had defected to the Ukrainian side but was sent back in a prisoner exchange.

He has created an army out of freed Russian convicts and hired guns that one of the leaked Pentagon documents assessed to be about 22,000 strong in the area around Bakhmut —possibly larger than the entire Ukrainian contingent along that front.

Even as Mr. Prigozhin has criticized Russia’s military leadership, demanding in one instance that failed generals be stripped of their ranks and forced to march barefoot to the front, the military establishment appears to have jumped to do Wagner’s bidding, according to the leaked documents.

After years of denying any connection with Wagner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin acknowledged last September that he had created the mercenary group.Credit…Yulia Morozova/Reuters

After Mr. Prigozhin publicly accused the Russian military in late February of failing to provide his troops with sufficient ammunition, unnamed Defense Ministry officials seemed to go into damage-control mode, acknowledging Mr. Prigozhin’s claims might be true and proposing to double the amount of munitions supplied to Wagner forces, according to a C.I.A. document.

Later, the ministry issued a rare public response to Mr. Prigozhin, but gave no hint that it had caved. The ministry declared that it devoted “priority attention to the supply of everything necessary for all volunteers and fighters in assault units,” and gave a detailed account of the number of shells provided over a three-day period in late February.

What neither the Russian military nor Wagner have been able to escape is infiltration by the American intelligence establishment.

The documents indicate American spies have been gathering signals intelligence from Prigozhin associates, allowing them to glimpse the inner workings of Wagner’s operation. One document describes how American intelligence operatives apparently listened in on a Prigozhin associate in February planning to recruit prisoners again into Wagner’s ranks.

American intelligence officials also picked up that Mr. Prigozhin wanted prisoners returning home from the battlefield to help in the recruitment effort.

A mounted Israeli officer patrols an anti-government protest.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Israel in March to demonstrate a proposed overhaul of the judicial system. Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

The Israeli government issued a statement on Sunday firmly rejecting assertions contained in the leaked Pentagon documents that the leadership of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, had encouraged the agency’s staff and Israeli citizens to participate in the anti-government protests that roiled the country in March.

Mossad and other senior Israeli defense officials denied the assessment’s findings, and The New York Times was unable to independently verify the U.S. intelligence assessment.

The statement issued on Sunday by the Israeli prime minister’s office on behalf of the Mossad described the assertion as “mendacious and without any foundation whatsoever.”

Senior U.S. officials said the F.B.I. was working to determine the source of the leaked documents. The officials acknowledged that the documents appeared to be legitimate intelligence and operational briefs compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, using reports from the government’s intelligence community, but that at least one had been modified from the original at some later point.

The apparent authenticity of the documents, however, is not an indication of their accuracy.

Israel, which returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power in December as the head of the most far-right government coalition in its history, was paralyzed by protests and strikes in March after the government revealed plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary. The proposed changes, which were criticized by Israel’s closest ally, the United States, aim to curb judicial review of legislation and give the government more control in the selection of judges.

According to the leaked documents, an assessment attributed to a Central Intelligence Update from March 1, leaders of the Mossad “advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest against the new Israeli Government’s proposed judicial reforms, including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli Government.”

According to a leaked American assessment, Israel’s foreign intelligence service encouraged its staff and Israeli citizens to participate in the anti-government protests.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

According to the documents, the information was obtained through signals intelligence. Many of the leaked documents are labeled with orders that they are to be shared only among American intelligence agencies.

Current and former Israeli intelligence officials said the agency’s rules and longstanding tradition of nonpartisanship would have precluded direct involvement by the agency’s leadership in a political crisis.

The Israeli government said in its statement that “the Mossad and its senior officials did not — and do not — encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government, political demonstrations or any political activity.”

It added: “The Mossad and its serving senior personnel have not engaged in the issue of the demonstrations at all and are dedicated to the value of service to the state that has guided the Mossad since its founding.”

Some Mossad employees, however, requested and received permission to participate in the demonstrations as private citizens. The Mossad chief, David Barnea, in consultation with Israel’s attorney general, allowed junior employees to participate so long as they did not identify themselves as members of the organization, according to a defense official familiar with the agency’s policy.

Several hundred former Mossad employees, including five former chiefs, also signed a statement in March opposing the overhaul promoted by the government.

Israeli political commentators said on Sunday that the leaked assessment appeared to confuse the notions of “encouraging” and “allowing,” and to mix up the actions of former Mossad employees with those of current employees.

Ultimately, the protesters stalled the proposal’s progress and the government said it would delay the legislation for several weeks and allow time for negotiations with the opposition parties.

The Mossad itself has never taken a position on any political or social controversy in Israel. Also, in contrast to the Shin Bet, which deals with domestic security, the Mossad works exclusively outside the country.

The information included in the leaked documents, however, has some overlap with unsubstantiated accusations promoted by Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son. The younger Mr. Netanyahu has claimed that hostile elements inside Israel’s intelligence community and the U.S. State Department were behind the protest. The State Department has denied any involvement.

The protests, which paralyzed cities across the country, were attended by some junior Mossad employees who received permission from the agency to participate as private citizens.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A camouflage-painted armored vehicle in front of some warehouselike buildings.

A K9 howitzer at a test site for Hanwha Aerospace, South Korea’s largest defense contractor. The country has become a major exporter of weapons.Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

SEOUL — When reports emerged late last year that South Korea had agreed to sell artillery shells to help the United States replenish its stockpiles, it insisted that their “end user” should be the U.S. military. But internally, top aides to President Yoon Suk Yeol were worried that their American ally would divert them to Ukraine.

Mr. Yoon’s secretary for foreign affairs, Yi Mun-hui, told his boss, National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han, that the government “was mired in concerns that the U.S. would not be the end user if South Korea were to comply with a U.S. request for ammunition,” according to a batch of secret Pentagon documents leaked through social media.

The secret report was based on signals intelligence, which meant that the United States has been spying on one of its major allies in Asia.

Both Mr. Yi and Mr. Kim stepped down last month for unclear reasons. Neither man could be reached for comment.

South Korea was aware of the news reports about the leaked documents and planned to discuss “issues raised” by the leak with Washington, a senior government official in Seoul told reporters on Sunday. When asked whether South Korea planned to lodge a protest or demand an explanation from Washington, he said the government would study precedents from the past and similar cases involving other nations.

Although U.S. officials have confirmed that the trove of leaked documents appear to be legitimate intelligence and operational briefs compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, at least one had been modified from the original at some point. And the apparent authenticity of the documents is not an indication of their accuracy.

The documents pertaining to South Korea showed a key American ally torn between Washington’s pressure on Seoul to help supply ammunition to Ukraine and its official policy of not providing lethal weapons to countries at war. Seoul feared that President Biden would call Mr. Yoon directly to press the matter.

“Yi stressed that South Korea was not prepared to have a call between the heads of state without having a clear position on the issue, adding that South Korea could not violate its policy against supplying lethal aid, so officially changing the policy would be the only option,” the document said.

Mr. Yi said that Mr. Yoon’s presidential secretary for national defense, Im Ki-hun, had promised to determine “a final stance by March 2.”

But their boss, Mr. Kim, was worried that if the announcement of Mr. Yoon’s state visit to Washington coincided with an announcement of South Korea changing its stance on providing lethal aid to Ukraine, “the public would think the two had been done as a trade.” Mr. Yoon’s state visit to Washington, which is to take place on April 26, was announced March 7.

Instead, according to the document, Mr. Kim “suggested the possibility” of selling 330,000 rounds of 155-millimeter artillery shells to Poland because “getting the ammunition to Ukraine quickly was the ultimate goal of the United States.”

Mr. Yi agreed that it might be possible for Poland to agree to being called the end user and send the ammunition on to Ukraine, but that South Korea would need to “verify what Poland would do.” It is unclear exactly what he meant by this because South Korea’s export control rules stipulate that its weapons or weapon parts sold to a foreign country should not be resold or transferred to a third country without Seoul’s approval.

The senior South Korean official on Sunday declined to reveal details of what he called “internal discussions” within Mr. Yoon’s government. But he added that “nothing has been finalized” and that there was still “no change” in Seoul’s policy on Ukraine. South Korea has been shipping humanitarian aid to Ukraine but has insisted that it would not directly provide any lethal weapons.

“South Korea’s position has been that it will cooperate with the United States while not clashing with Russia,” said Yang Uk, a weapons expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “The documents leaked put South Korea in a more difficult position.”

And the mere fact of the spying taking place, leaving aside what it might uncover, is a damaging revelation, he said.

“It’s reasonable to suspect that the United States spies on top defense and security officials in Seoul, but it’s bad news for the general public ahead of the South Korea-U.S. summit,” he added. “People will ask, ‘We have been allies for seven decades, and you still spy on us?’”