How the U.S. helped Ukraine prepare for a Russian invasion

While President Biden has made clear that U.S. troops won’t deploy to Ukraine to help defend the country from an unfolding Russian attack, the U.S. has provided other types of overt — as well as secret — security and intelligence support to Ukraine.

The support has included billions of dollars in military aid; enhanced intelligence sharing between the CIA, the National Security Agency and Ukrainian spy agencies; anti-corruption assistance; and enhanced cybersecurity coordination.

As Yahoo News reported in January, the CIA has also conducted paramilitary training for Ukrainian special operations forces at a facility in the Southern U.S. as part of a secret program that began in 2015, and has sent agency paramilitaries to the front in eastern Ukraine to advise their counterparts there.

U.S. service members, in camouflage and carrying guns, take part in a drill in Ukraine.
U.S. service members take part in a drill in Ukraine in 2015. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images)

Recently, as the threat of a Russian invasion became more acute, U.S. officials quietly stepped up coordination with Ukraine on shared cybersecurity threats, according to current and former officials.

"There is continued work with Ukraine and neighboring states to shore up cyber defenses, [and] we have been seeing warnings, both publicly and privately, that cyberattacks could be part of a broad Russian effort to destabilize and further invade Ukraine,” a DHS cyber official told government and law enforcement officials on an internal call last week on escalating Ukraine-Russia tensions that was exclusively reported by Yahoo News. “And so there have been U.S. government efforts to work closely with Ukraine, and we continue to do so and will do so in the days ahead.”

The U.S. bolstered its support of Ukraine in late January, sending cyber experts and resources there, according to current U.S. government officials.

“For the last 10 years, [Ukraine has] been a testing ground for Russian cyber weapons,” Jaak Tarien, a senior NATO cybersecurity official, said at a conference in Munich last week.

Ukraine has come under increasing waves of disruptive cyber operations in the run-up to Russia’s assault, with another group of “wiper” attacks on Thursday hitting institutions in Ukraine as well as NATO allies Lithuania and Latvia. The attacks on Ukraine’s financial and government networks were reported by Ukrainian government officials and are expected to continue.

“The Ukrainians are very capable folks, but at the same time you have the force of three [intelligence] services laying everything they have to bear on you,” a current NATO official said of the Russian cyberattacks. “And I’m not sure how many countries in the world, if any, could handle that kind of pressure.”

Ukrainian servicemen and tanks get ready to repel an attack.
Ukrainian servicemen get ready to repel an attack in the Luhansk region on Thursday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

But with a shooting war having begun, some of the enhanced cooperation with the Ukrainians on cybersecurity has taken a back seat to more acute worries.

“Incident response during a shooting war is going to be all but impossible,” said a former U.S. national security official still closely involved in Ukraine issues. “No one’s going to be focused on computer forensics when they are being shot at or bombed and their lives and that of their families are at stake.”

In addition to cybersecurity help, the U.S. has provided advanced military training to elite Ukrainian military and special operations units. A small contingent of U.S. special operations and other military personnel were based in Ukraine to train their counterparts there, though they were were recently evacuated by the Pentagon because of the looming threat of a Russian invasion.

The CIA has also provided secret training to Ukrainian security officials. In 2015, the agency began sending a small cohort of paramilitary officers to the eastern front to help advise Ukrainian forces there, former U.S. intelligence officials told Yahoo News.

One area where U.S. paramilitary trainers have been focused on helping shore up defenses against a Russian strike or occupation is the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to a former CIA executive.

While held by the Ukrainian government, Mariupol — which has already reportedly come under Russian attack — is claimed by a nearby Russian-backed statelet carved out of Ukraine. There is widespread expectation that the new Russian offensive will seek to wrest the city, which is strategically located on the Sea of Azov, from Ukrainian control.

Smoke rises from an air defense base in the aftermath of a strike.
Smoke rises from an air defense base after an apparent Russian strike in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo)

Since 2015, CIA paramilitaries have also run an intensive U.S.-based training program for Ukrainian special operations forces and other intelligence personnel, former officials told Yahoo News. The program has included training in firearms, land navigation and camouflage techniques, among other areas, according to former officials.

Begun during the presidency of Barack Obama, the U.S.-based program was later augmented under then-President Donald Trump and has increased in size again during the Biden administration, according to former officials. Since Russia’s initial 2014 military incursion in Crimea, the U.S. and Ukraine have also stepped up intelligence sharing regarding Russia’s military activities and movement in the region, former U.S. intelligence officials told Yahoo News.

U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence agencies have even cooperated on offensive cyber operations against Russian targets, according to former officials.

The U.S. has also provided over $2.7 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014, according to the State Department, “to help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve interoperability with NATO.”

Where are Russian forces surrounding Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

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