WAR IN UKRAINE UPDATE: Intelligence Leak Shocks U.S., Ukraine
Alleged Leaker Arrested
Federal authorities on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old U.S. servicemember believed to be responsible for leaking hundreds of classified documents pertaining to the Russia-Ukraine war and other international issues. The leak has left Washington scrambling to address the fallout, including frustrations in Kyiv.
A researcher from the investigative outlet Bellingcat first traced the leak to an obscure chatgroup on Discord, a messaging platform popular with video gamers, where someone posted photos of classified documents over the last few months. Some of the documents later surfaced on the website 4Chan before circulating on the Russian social media app Telegram last week. After the initial leak, a portion of one document, concerning U.S. estimates of the number of Russian and Ukrainian troops killed in action, was sloppily altered to reduce Russia’s casualties and inflate Ukraine’s. So far, however, there’s been no evidence that other documents were altered or forged.
Once the leak came to light, the Pentagon and Justice Department launched investigations to determine its culprit, scope, and impact. Some of the documents are just over a month old, making their disclosure especially risky. Many contain potentially compromising information about intelligence sources and methods.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post, citing members of the Discord chatgroup, reported that the leaker, who administrated the chatgroup, works at an American military base. The leaker, whom The New York Times later identified as part of the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s intelligence wing, reportedly resented what he characterized as shadowy U.S. government operations. He allegedly shared transcriptions and eventually photos of hundreds of classified documents, posted in a private channel within the Discord chatgroup.
That channel reportedly comprised around 25 active members, roughly half of them foreigners, including from Russia and Ukraine. A senior U.S. official cited by The Post, along with Microsoft’s CEO, asserted that Russian intelligence operatives have previously sought to infiltrate gaming platforms such as Discord. But there’s been no public evidence thus far of Russian government involvement in the initial leak.
Kyiv Frustrated by Leak
The breach has frustrated Kyiv and could undermine its willingness to share sensitive information with the United States. Even after Russia’s invasion last year, the Ukrainians remained reluctant to share details regarding their operational plans, although they eventually grew more forthcoming.
Following the leak, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the rest of Ukraine’s Stavka, or high command, discussed measures to prevent further leaks, according to a press release from the president’s office. CNN later cited a source close to Zelenskyy as saying Ukraine had already altered some of its military plans due to the security breach.
Perhaps most damaging: One of the leaked documents, produced in early February, assessed that Ukraine’s spring offensive would likely achieve only “modest territorial gains.” The document pointed to Ukrainian shortages of equipment, ammunition, and well-trained troops, as well as to extensive fortified defensive lines Russia has built since last year. This revelation could provide fodder to American critics of U.S. aid for Ukraine.
But while it’s true that Kyiv will face daunting challenges in its spring counteroffensive and beyond, these obstacles are not insurmountable. Indeed, Ukraine’s battlefield prospects depend largely on whether the United States and its allies provide sufficient assistance. Kyiv needs additional armored fighting vehicles, plus mine-clearing and bridging equipment. To ease Ukraine’s shortage of artillery ammunition, Washington could send Kyiv DPICM artillery-fired cluster munitions.
The Ukrainian military also needs better long-range strike capabilities — something the country’s prime minister raised during a meeting with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin on Wednesday. ATACMS missiles would enable Ukraine to hit key logistics nodes, command-and-control posts, and other high-value targets beyond the range of its current Western-supplied rocket artillery, thereby softening up Russian defenses.
Russia Gains Ground in Bakhmut
Moscow’s Wagner paramilitary group continues to push deeper into the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, while Russian Airborne elements support Wagner on city’s northern and southern flanks, according to the Russian Defense Ministry and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin claimed on Tuesday that Russia had taken 80 percent of Bakhmut, leaving just a western chunk of the city in Ukraine’s hands.
Russian forces indeed seem to have advanced around a kilometer in parts of central Bakhmut over the last week or so. Russian Telegram channels on Tuesday shared footage of Wagner fighters at a stadium near the center of the city, allegedly captured days earlier. A Ukrainian soldier in Bakhmut said on Thursday that Russian forces were assaulting a nearby rail station while Russian artillery and aircraft pound adjacent buildings.
The previous day, the soldier admitted he doesn’t know much longer Ukraine can continue to “fight the math” in Bakhmut, noting that Russian forces there “have many times more resources.” Another soldier said that despite repeated Russian assaults, Ukrainian troops continued to hold a key supply route into Bakhmut, dubbed the “road of life.”
It remains unclear how Ukraine will respond to Russia’s gains in Bakhmut, which has little inherent strategic value but has taken on symbolic importance for both sides. When Russia appeared poised to encircle Bakhmut earlier this year, Kyiv deployed reinforcements to hold the line. But continuing that strategy could hurt Ukraine in the long run, since Kyiv needs to husband its resources for the spring counteroffensive.