Damage Assessment From Major War Plans Leak Underway In U.S., Ukraine

Ukrainian intelligence and military officials are analyzing whether documents leaked about U.S. and NATO plans to support Kyiv ahead of the looming spring counteroffensive are real and what damage was caused to future efforts if they are.

“Right now we are checking and comparing these materials” in the documents, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Directorate, told The War Zone Friday.

Ukraine is investigating the leaked documents, Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov told The War Zone. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

The documents were apparently initially released on a Discord server in the beginning of March and in recent days on social media, including the Telegram messaging app. They are part of a much larger trove of more than 100 documents with top secret and other restricted classifications that were leaked, according to Aric Toler, director of training and research for Bellingcat.

“Topics include lots of Russia/Ukraine, but also some briefs on unrelated topics, such as ISIS, China, etc.,” he said on Twitter. 

The existence of the first tranche of about six documents, and an ensuing Pentagon investigation to determine the source of the leak, was first reported by The New York Times Thursday evening.

The documents apparently show a wide range of details from Ukrainian and Russian troop dispositions, Ukrainian combat power generation, the anticipated delivery time of donated tanks and other armor, casualty figures, the number of U.S. and allied special operations forces in Ukraine, the number of U.S. and NATO troops and aircraft and U.S. submarines in the region, status of the conflict as of March 1, projected weather ahead of the anticipated counteroffensive and even the Ukrainian usage of munitions, including the U.S. donated Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) munitions for the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS.

HIMARS UKRAINE
Ukraine will now receive munitions that have twice the range of those fired by the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) (U.S. Army photo) US ARMY

The documents purport to have emanated from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff with at least some distributed to Ukraine, NATO, the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance of the U.S. its and allies Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. At least one of the documents purports to also have been shared with Finland, which was not a NATO member at the time of their creation.

“Senior US official confirms to me these are real slides produced by the Joint Staff but have been heavily doctored,” Lara Seligman of Politico Tweeted.

Publicly, Ukrainian officials are downplaying the release, calling it Russian disinformation. But several former U.S. military and intelligence officials tell The War Zone that if these documents are real, they present a dangerous security breach, could imperil Ukraine’s war efforts and threaten to make the notoriously wary Ukrainian military and intelligence even more reticent to share information.

“Since the USSR collapse [Russian] intelligence has degraded to an extent that the only way to redeem themselves after ‘Salisbury,’ ‘3-day plans’ etc. is photoshop & ‘virtual fake leaks,'” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mikhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter Friday. “Moscow is eager to disrupt [Ukraine’s] counteroffensive but it will see the real plans on the ground. Soon.”

Ukrainian officials contacted by The War Zone Friday also discounted the documents.

“It looks like a Russian disinformation campaign in order to undermine the joint efforts,” a Ukrainian defense expert in Kyiv said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. 

“We don’t feel yet any damages,” the expert said of the documents.

“This is Russian disinformation,” a Ukrainian government official, also speaking on condition of anonymity to address classified information, told The War Zone.

The Pentagon isn’t saying much officially.

Pentagon
Officially, the Pentagon is saying little about the document leak. ((Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images) (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“We are aware of the reports of social media posts, and the Department is reviewing the matter,” Sabrina Singh, deputy Pentagon spokesman, told The War Zone. She declined to comment on whether the documents are real, whether the Pentagon was investigating, or what if any damage may have been caused by this leak.

However, three U.S. officials told Reuters that Russia or pro-Russian elements are likely behind it.

At least one of the documents being circulated appears to have been altered to lower the number of casualties suffered by Russian forces, the U.S. officials told Reuters, adding that their assessments were informal and separate from an investigation into the leak itself.

A view of debris at the Russian Armed Forces’ temporary deployment, where 89 Russian troops died after Ukrainian artillery attacks near Makiivka, Ukraine on Jan. 16, 2023. (Photo by Vladimir Aleksandrov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Toler, of Bellingcat, told The War Zone that in his assessment, the original documents posted on Discord are real, while later versions, posted on Russian Telegram channels, were “edited.”

One former senior U.S. special operations officer who routinely dealt with classified materials told The War Zone that the documents he observed via social media at least appear to be real.

“They look legit,” said the former officer, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified materials. “The real question is what is coming out of the Pentagon and who has access?”

Of the documents, the biggest concern is one, marked Top Secret, purporting to show the disposition of Russian and Ukrainian troops on March 1.

The information – assuming that the document is real – would give Russian intelligence analysts important insight into Ukraine’s future plans, said the former officer. 

Showing the disposition of troops would let the Russians know not only how Ukraine committed its forces at the time, but perhaps more importantly, which units were not listed that might have been held in reserve for a counteroffensive.

Ukrainian servicemen fire artillery in Bakhmut on April 2. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“This is not good,” said the former special operations officer. “If accurate, this information is the holiest of the holies.”

The leak raises a number of issues, a former high-ranking U.S. military official told The War Zone.

“The first issue is how did they get into the public sphere?” that former official said. “Who lost control of it and was it someone who deliberately gave it to the Russians, or was it someone who carelessly lost it or was stolen out of a hotel room? There are a whole range of possibilities.”

The next issue is trust, that former official said.

“Can the allies trust the U.S.? Can the Ukrainians trust the U.S. to keep sensitive information? I think the Ukrainians are probably shocked this got into the public sphere.”

The Ukrainians were already reluctant to share information, said the former official. This could very well exacerbate that level of mistrust.

The Pentagon and various intelligence agencies are now trying to determine how this leak happened.

The Pentagon and major U.S. defense contractors have better security than NATO or some subcontractors, a former senior U.S. intelligence official told The War Zone.

“If the documents are real, there is also a limited distribution, and intelligence agencies should be able to track down where they came from,” said the former intelligence official. “It’s not like the old days of the Pentagon Papers, when hundreds of pages were Xeroxed. Everything has a cyber fingerprint and I think it would be pretty easy for them to determine if they are real and where the leak came from.”

The New York Times resumed publication of its series of articles based on the secret Pentagon papers in its July 1, 1971 edition, after it was given the green light by the U.S. Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Jim Wells)

That’s how the National Security Agency (NSA) managed to track down former NSA contractor Reality Winner, who leaked documents to The Intercept about Russia secretly trying to gain access to U.S. voting systems in 2016.

She was sentenced to five years and three months behind bars for releasing a classified report that alleged the Russian military “executed cyber espionage” against local U.S. election officials in 2016, according to CBS.

She was since released and now lives in Texas, according to CBS.

NATO declined to comment on the leaks.

“We never comment on alleged leaks of classified documents,” a NATO official told The War Zone.

The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said he is monitoring the situation.

“Any leak of classified information is extremely alarming and I’m glad to see that the Pentagon is investigating this matter,” Sen. Mark Warner, (D-Va), told The War Zone. “Russia has a long history of disinformation efforts, so Americans should remember to be wary of trusting the information they see online. I will continue to follow this situation closely.”

When it comes to the documents, what’s real and what’s disinformation is not yet fully clear. There is a very hot information battle burning on both sides of this war. We will have to see how this story plays out.

We will update this as more information comes to light. 

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

Howard Altman Avatar

Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.

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