U.S. Lacks a Clear Picture of Ukraine’s War Strategy, Officials Say

WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has provided near-daily updates on the Russian invasion on social media; viral video messages showed the effectiveness of Western weapons in the hands of Ukrainian forces; and the Pentagon held regular briefings on the progress of the war.

But despite the flow of all this news to the public, US intelligence agencies have less information about Ukraine’s operations than they would like and have a much better picture of the Russian military, its operations. planned and its successes and failures, according to current and former officials. .

Governments often withhold information from the public for operational security reasons. But these information gaps in the US government could make it harder for the Biden administration to decide how to target military aid as it sends billions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine.

U.S. officials said the Ukrainian government gave them few briefings or classified details about their operational plans, and Ukrainian officials acknowledged they did not tell the Americans everything.

Of course, the US intelligence community collects information on almost every country, including Ukraine. But American spy agencies, in general, focus their collection efforts on antagonistic governments, like Russia, and not on current friends, like Ukraine. And while Russia has been a top priority for American spies for 75 years, when it comes to Ukrainians, the United States has worked to bolster its intelligence service, not spy on its government.

The result, former officials said, has been blind spots.

“What do we really know about the situation in Ukraine? said Beth Sanner, a former senior intelligence official. “Can you find a person who will tell you with confidence how many soldiers Ukraine has lost, how many pieces of equipment has Ukraine lost?”

Even without a full picture of Ukraine’s military strategy and situation, the Biden administration has advanced new capabilities, like the rocket artillery systems that President Biden announced last week. Ukraine awaits the arrival of more powerful Western weapons systems as both warring sides suffer heavy casualties in the country’s eastern Donbass region.

Pentagon officials say they have a robust process in place for sending weapons, which begins with a request from the Ukrainians and includes a US assessment of the type of equipment they need and how quickly it can be brought under control.

Some European agencies say it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Ukraine to reclaim land Russia has taken since its invasion in February, but US intelligence agencies are less pessimistic, officials said. Yet there are cracks in Ukraine’s defenses, and questions about the state of Ukrainian military forces and strategy in the Donbass have created an incomplete picture for the United States.

Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, told a Senate hearing last month that “it was very difficult to say” how much additional aid Ukraine could absorb.

She added: “We have, in fact, probably more insight on the Russian side than on the Ukrainian side.”

A key question is what measures Mr. Zelensky intends to demand in the Donbass. Ukraine faces a strategic choice: withdraw its forces or risk having them surrounded by Russia.

In recent days, Ukraine has provided more information. On Sunday, Mr Zelensky traveled to the front lines and described the fighting in Sievierodonetsk – a city essential for controlling Donbass – “extremely difficult”. He also acknowledged that up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers die every day and describes how Russia took a fifth of the country.

The government’s more candid public statements could be a precursor to a conversation with its people about strategic choices to be made in the Donbass, analysts said.

“There is probably an ongoing debate about whether to remove any defenses that might be trapped if they remain,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University. “If there is to be a deliberate withdrawal, Zelensky will have to explain that in a way that does not appear to denigrate Ukrainian weapons. He’ll have to tell some sort of story to the Ukrainian people if he decides to pull those troops out, and explaining the casualties they might suffer if they stay is a logical way to do that.

The incomplete information on Ukraine has another reason. Cloud cover has limited the usefulness of aerial satellites.

The United States provides Ukraine with regular, near real-time updates of intelligence on the location of Russian forces, information that the Ukrainians use to plan operations and strikes and strengthen their defenses.

But even in high-level conversations with General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Lloyd J. Austin III, the Secretary of Defense, Ukrainian officials only share their strategic goals, not their detailed operational plans. Ukraine’s secrecy forced US military and intelligence officials to try to learn what they could from other countries operating in Ukraine, training sessions with Ukrainians and public comments from Mr. Zelensky , U.S. officials said.

Ukraine, officials said, wants to present an image of strength, both to the public and to its close partners. The government does not want to share information that might suggest a weakening of resolve or give the impression that it might not win. In essence, Ukrainian officials do not want to present information that could encourage the United States and its other Western partners to slow the flow of weapons.

At the request of the United States, Ukraine has spent years strengthening the protection of its military and intelligence services against Russian spies. Informing other countries of their plans and operational situation could reveal weaknesses that Moscow could exploit if the Russian military knew about them.

(Of course, Ukrainians are not always so careful with American operational plans. Mr. Zelensky once publicly announced that Mr. Austin and Antony J. Blinken, the Secretary of State, were coming to Kyiv for a visit, a fact that US officials had tried to keep it a secret.)

There are good reasons for Ukraine not to speak candidly about its forces or its military strategy, Dr Biddle said.

“I’m not sure it’s in the interest of the American public or the Ukrainian public for the Ukrainians to be upfront about their losses if the result is that it bolsters the Russian war effort,” Dr. Biddle. “But that means we don’t really know both sides of the story.”

The United States has better estimates of Russian casualties and equipment losses, a senior US official said. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, estimates that the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action is similar to that of Russia, but the agency has a much lower level of confidence in its estimate of Ukrainian casualties.

The picture US officials have presented of a bitter war, with neither side making decisive progress, appears to be accurate, Dr Biddle said. Nevertheless, public information on Ukrainian casualties, equipment losses and morale is incomplete.

But there may be a potential cost if the intelligence community cannot present a fuller picture to the public or Congress of Ukraine’s military prospects, Ms Sanner said. If Russia goes further, failure to understand the state of Ukraine’s military could open the intelligence community to accusations that it has failed to provide decision-makers with a full picture of Ukraine’s prospects in the war.

“It’s all about Russia’s goals and Russia’s prospects for achieving its goals,” Sanner said. “We’re not talking about whether Ukraine might be able to defeat them. And to me, I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for another intelligence failure by not talking about it publicly.

Eric Schmitt in Washington and Michael Schwirtz in Ukraine contributed to the report.

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