U.S. intelligence leak sheds light on Ukrainian weapons shortages

Of the dozens of Pentagon documents released on the internet, the most critical are about the ongoing war — and where Ukraine is faltering.

Ukrainian soldier on the frontline in Bakhmut, Ukraine on Saturday, April 8.
Ukrainian soldier on the frontline in Bakhmut, Ukraine on Saturday, April 8. (Libkos/AP)

The Ukrainian government’s reluctance to share some of its most sensitive information about its war plans with the United States now appears well-justified in light of last week’s leak of classified U.S. intelligence. The true damage of the breach, coming a year into Europe's largest land war since World War II, remains to be seen, but the picture it paints of Ukraine's military capability shows an army running out of ammunition and a Western-led effort to make up for the deficiencies through open and covert means.

A trove of U.S. Defense Department slides, many marked “Secret” or “Top Secret” and printed out and photographed by an as-yet-unknown source were posted to the Discord chat platform on Friday. While the files have since been deleted, they remain widely available after being downloaded and copied.

Most of the material, U.S. officials have said, appears to be genuine. Many are the result of digital and communications intercepts, not only from U.S. enemies but also from allies and partners. The Pentagon and FBI are investigating the leak, which contains intelligence culled from a host of spy agencies — the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and more — with a limitless purview reaching all regions of the globe. “At least two of the reports were derived from human intelligence,” meaning spies or informants in place in other countries, Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told Yahoo News. “And very specific targets now know their communications are intercepted.”

A Ukrainian soldier fires at the Russian positions on the frontline in Ukraine on Wednesday, April 5.
A Ukrainian soldier fires at the Russian positions on the frontline in Ukraine on Wednesday, April 5. (Roman Chop via AP)

The majority of the content deals with Ukraine and the campaign of allied assistance to the embattled country spearheaded by the United States.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the breach occurred just as Ukraine’s military was preparing to launch a long-anticipated spring counteroffensive designed to claw back more terrain from the Russian occupiers, who control 18% of the country.

For Kyiv, one of the most alarming revelations from the leak was that it confirmed that Ukraine was on the cusp of launching a full-scale military operation this spring. The documents also provided a U.S. assessment of the force disposition of the Ukrainian brigades gearing up for the imminent push. The leak details how nine of the 12 Ukrainian brigades being prepared for the offensive have been heavily supplied with Western equipment and assesses in detail precisely how much Western equipment has been donated and to which Ukrainian brigade it has been assigned.

The 82nd Air Assault Brigade seems to have received particular attention. It is slated to receive three battalions of Stryker infantry fighting vehicles from the U.S., a battalion of Marder infantry fighting vehicles from Germany and a battalion of Challenger 2 main battle tanks from the United Kingdom. The documents further reference the existence and names of two corps, the 9th Strategic Reserve Corps and the 10th Operational Corps, that will be employed for force reconstitution and offensive operations. The brigade force structures depicted also reveal the deep, wide-ranging contributions from Ukraine’s other allies, such as Canada and Poland, countries that have committed to equipping multiple Ukrainian battalions.

A Ukrainian serviceman adjusts his helmet in a trench during incoming artillery shelling on the frontline in Ukraine on Saturday, April 8.
A Ukrainian serviceman adjusts his helmet in a trench during incoming artillery shelling on the frontline in Ukraine on Saturday, April 8. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Detailed information in the leak about the rapidly diminishing numbers of surface-to-air missile systems in Ukraine’s inventory has also prompted concern about the direction the war is going. Despite the increasing transfer of Western air defense systems to Ukraine, the Ukrainian military still largely relies on its dwindling stockpile of Soviet-era air defense systems to defend its air space from both Russian aircraft and incoming munitions. Western countries, according to the leaked information, have been trying to make up for the shortfall by quietly sourcing resupplies through third-party buyers, quite possibly some still connected to Russia’s military-industrial complex.

Ukrainian forces, however, withstood Russia’s grueling winter campaign to freeze and black out the country by targeting its electricity network and energy infrastructure. That Russian campaign was devised by its former operational commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergey Surovikin. The documents detail a typical engagement between Ukrainian air defense units and a wave of Russia’s Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 suicide drones on Feb. 27, 2023, confirming claims made by the Ukrainian government that it shot down 11 of the 14 incoming drones, mainly around Kyiv, during a five-and-a-half hour air raid.

The documents also go some way toward illuminating the extraordinary lengths to which Ukraine’s Western partner nations have gone to keep Kyiv’s Soviet-era air defense systems in the fight. The United Kingdom, despite not operating any of the systems itself, managed to source Soviet-made Buk medium-range surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine, likely purchased on the international arms market.

A Ukrainian MSLR BM-21
A Ukrainian MSLR BM-21 "Grad" fires toward Russian positions on the frontline in Ukraine on Saturday, April 8. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Poland is also listed in the documents as having donated three S-300P platforms, a sophisticated air defense system that the Poles never officially possessed in what was yet another probable purchase from unnamed vendors on behalf of Ukraine.

In a sign that the West is also modifying its own equipment for plug-and-play use in Soviet-made weapons, one document specifies that the U.S. repurposed and modified AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles so that they could be launched by a Buk. This effort, along with other similar hybridizations, is even referred to in the documents as “FRANKENsam.”

Regardless of the creative workaround solutions to keep Ukraine’s war machine chugging along, the leaked documents lay out the prospects for the coming months in stark terms. The U.S. assessed that Ukraine will have completely expended its stockpile of medium-range surface-to-air missile systems by mid-May, leaving the Ukrainian military at a severe disadvantage in protecting its troops on the frontline. That air defense should be so badly depleted at the exact time of the forecast counteroffensive makes things worse. Yurii Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, told the Wall Street Journal, “If we lose the battle for the skies, the consequences for Ukraine will be very serious.”

The revelations, now public, will likely increase pressure on Kyiv’s Western partners to both accelerate the transfer of additional air defense systems to Ukraine and perhaps increase the volume on the debate of whether or not to provide Kyiv with Western-made fighter jets such as the American F-16, a major outstanding request on Ukraine’s security assistance wish list.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet.
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet. (Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images)

In the past month, both Poland and Slovakia have pledged over a dozen of their own ex-Soviet aircraft — MiG-29s — to replenish Ukrainian stocks, but these donations will largely serve as replacements for aircraft lost in combat over the past 13 months or as sources for spare parts.

The supply of other munitions, particularly artillery shells, is a subject frequently discussed in the leak. One document muses how Israel might supply arms to Ukraine while maintaining a stable relationship with Moscow, noting, as Yahoo News has previously reported, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to send Ukraine’s drones and artillery without jeopardizing his ties to Vladimir Putin.

The U.S. spied on its ally South Korea, according to one leaked document, to obtain evidence of internal concerns in Seoul about its possible supply of 330,000 155 millimeter artillery shells to Poland. The understanding was that the Poles would then send this ammunition on to Ukraine, despite Poland’s being described as the end-user in the arms deal.

A Ukrainian serviceman prepares 155 mm artillery shells.
A Ukrainian serviceman prepares 155 mm artillery shells. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

Other documents in the leak give more context or an interesting perspective on previously reported events. There is a reference to a Sept. 29 “near-shoot down” of a Royal Air Force (RAF) Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft, which was flying in international air space over the Black Sea, for instance. Despite British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace claiming at the time that “we don’t consider this a deliberate escalation by the Russians,” questions have understandably arisen as to the true severity of the incident and whether the British government was deliberately downplaying the risk to the RAF aircraft. Wallace stated at the time that a Russian Su-27 had “released a missile in the vicinity of the RAF Rivet Joint beyond visual range.” In response to official Russian statements that the incident was the result of a technical malfunction, he added, “Our analysis would concur it was a malfunction.”

A British government source claimed that the leaked documents contained “inaccuracies” and “did not reflect what happened in international airspace over the Black Sea.” Despite this denial, all subsequent RAF Rivet Joint flights in the area have been accompanied by escorting RAF Typhoon fighter jets.

A Ukrainian serviceman reacts to incoming artillery shelling in a trench on the frontline on Saturday, April 8.
A Ukrainian serviceman reacts to incoming artillery shelling in a trench on the frontline on Saturday, April 8. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

The leaks also reveal how limited and out of date certain streams of information on the war now are.

The documents range from February to early March and there is no telling what the U.S. and its allies have done to mitigate some of the worst-case forecasting contained in these assessments. Nor is it clear to what extent these leaks will have far-reaching repercussions on the Ukrainian battlefield. An unnamed adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN yesterday that Kyiv had already altered part of its battle plans in response to the intelligence breach — a claim Ukraine's Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksiy Danilov called into question owing to the small number of officials who are even aware of those plans. Indeed, there's a fair chance that Ukrainians are simply saying they’ve had to make last-minute changes to their coming counteroffensive simply to tweak the American intelligence community for allowing this embarrassment to happen in the first place. (Another unnamed adviser to Zelensky previously claimed the documents were crude Russian fabrications.)

One document states that “Ukrainian forces as of 25 February were almost operationally encircled by Russian forces in Bakhmut,” a city in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, which for months the Russians have poured enormous resources and manpower into trying to seize. The Russians had never severed Ukraine’s supply lines into central Bakhmut, which has been reduced to an uninhabitable ruin of rubble and corpses. The chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency (HUR), Kyrylo Budanov, described the situation as “catastrophic,” according to U.S. intelligence. His remedy was to dispatch HUR’s elite Kraken unit to bolster Ukraine’s defenses there.

While the risk of Bakhmut falling to Russia is still present, this emergency recourse appears to have succeeded in diminishing the threat of encirclement. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that Ukraine’s current assessment is that in the six weeks since Budanov’s dire warning, it has fought the Russians “to a standstill in the battle for two key roads, the T504 highway and a route known as the 506.”