On May 4, The New York Times revealed that the U.S. was providing classified Russian asset targeting intelligence to the Ukrainian military. While it's not surprising that the military would provide an ally with information about Russian troop movements, publicly admitting it is a dangerous mistake.
The anonymous U.S. officials who spoke to the Times did not say how many Russians were killed thanks to American intel. But it's unlikely that Ukrainians could have killed a dozen Russian generals without assistance. In an attempt to downplay the disclosure, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said U.S. battlefield intelligence was not provided to the Ukrainians "with the intent to kill Russian generals." Is that technicality supposed to placate Russian President Vladimir Putin?
The intelligence leak also revealed that U.S. information sharing was happening in "real time" and was not limited to Russian troop movement across Ukraine's contested Donbas region, where the population leans pro-Russian. For instance, U.S. officials told NBC that America gave the Ukrainian military details about the location of the Russian ship Moskva. Ukraine used American intel, in conjunction with its own maritime intelligence, to sink the warship with two Neptune missiles on April 14 (although Moscow still claims the Moskva sank due to a fire).
Following that victory, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby denied that the U.S. gave the Ukrainian military "specific targeting information" and claimed the U.S. "had no prior knowledge of Ukraine's intent to target the ship." Given the anonymous leak to The New York Times, this statement is hard to take at face value.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, President Joe Biden has insisted that "our forces are not and will not be engaged in a conflict with Russia in Ukraine." But leaking covert operations is an unnecessary escalation of an already precarious situation. While talking to leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported, Biden used "the strongest and most colorful language" to explain how "this kind of loose talk is reckless and has got to stop immediately."
These disclosures, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin's comment to the media that Russia should be "weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine," can't sit well with Putin. And the last thing the U.S. should be doing is poking a nuclear bear.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Rattling Sabers at Russia".