Still Waiting for the Ukrainian Counter-offensive

In the meantime, the timing for a complete “de-occupation” of the entire Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, promised by president Zelensky has been altered. Lately, American generals spoke of a victory by October; in his address to the nation, the day of Catholic Easter celebrations, the Ukrainian president spoke of another year fighting before victory. The situation on the ground had become more confuse, notably around Bakhmut, with heavy losses on both sides; Russia and Ukraine have tightened the rules concerning men’s call-up; Western intelligence released pictures showing the massive reinforcement by the Russian forces against a counter-offensive. In Ukraine, in Russia, and in the West, there was a growing feeling that “something has to be done”, and that a Ukrainian counter-offensive was a question of “when” not of “if”. Ukrainians are tired of promises and plans; Westerners want to see the results of their financial efforts.

The leaks’ effect

All those expectations, and even certitudes in some places, were shattered by the publication in the New York Times, on 6 April, of documents which had been circulating in social media from late February to early March. The leak contains about 100 classified documents from American intelligence, the first of this importance since the Snowden affairs in 2013, but much more damaging in the context of the war in Ukraine. It was so sensational that at first everyone accused each other of a crude disinformation operation. But the Pentagon quickly confirmed that the information was genuine, albeit some had been “altered”, and that the inquiry opened by the FBI and the Justice Department shall not fail to discover the culprit.

American medias, much more than the European one, had echoed doubts in military milieu about the Ukrainian tactics, and in political circles about the sustainability of the Western aide. But it did not affect the will to support Ukraine up to the end, and to fit the bills. Then came the damming leaked reports, giving flesh to what was merely speculations or unofficial discussions between insiders. Some documents question the capacity of the Ukrainian army to deal with a successful counter-offensive due to a shortage of arms and the lack of trained soldiers because of losses much heavier than told in officials’ statistics. The reports go into substantial detail about the state and capabilities of Ukraine’s armed forces, and even about the composition of battle groups equipped with the best Western military technology.

Mutual accusations

But the leaks that have been recognised in Washington as a failure of American intelligence agencies, made waves around the world, with the sharpest reactions in Russia and Ukraine. In Moscow, whose intelligence services had demonstrated their incompetence during this war, there was a freudenschade at this exposition of the other camp’s weaknesses and hypocrisy. It also vindicated Moscow’s previous accusations of NATO and American direct involvement in the war in Ukraine. Less comfortably, the reports also exposed the level of penetration by U.S. intelligence of Russian command-and-control centers, even access to discussions in high level circles. The information was then passed to Ukrainians, who used it to anticipate Russian strikes and target their enemies. All that has been reflected in the first public intervention of President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov. After stating that those reports were “of great interest for everyone”, he underlined that they were also showing that even the Americans are doubting the Ukrainian capacities; that they spy on everyone, including president Zelensky and their own allies in the world. Official source and media repeated earlier assertions that the announcements by Zelensky of a soon-to-be counter-offensive were a sign of political desperation. The press visited Russian troops training specifically to destroy the equipment due to help the Ukrainian counter-offensive, insisting that Russians “have studied well, and know their strengths and their weaknesses”.

In Ukraine, shock and dismay prevailed, as the country was confronted to the lack of trust by the US intelligence and the Pentagon, plus evidence that the US had spied on Zelensky. In consequence the country was in denial, even after the Pentagon had admitted the reality of the reports. Ukrainian officials sticked to the claims that the revelation was organised by the Russian special services in order to plant panic in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ukrainian society, and to sow divisions between Ukraine and its allies. Typically, the influent presidential adviser Mikahylo Podolyak dismissed the leaks as a plot by Russian intelligence that were afraid of Ukrainian capacities to led a successful operation. And a spokesman for the Defence Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, Andriy Yusov, declared that the Ukrainian public has no reason to worry about leaked details of the USA’s plans to supply the Ukrainian army with hardware ahead of its expected counter-offensive. “There will be a counter-offensive, and the enemy will see and feel the main plans on the battlefield” he said.

Independent policy

But the lack of trust by the US intelligence led some analysts to question the right of Ukrainians to act independently, or if they were obliged to do what the Americans say. Zelensky had to act, and he did by meeting the top brass on 7 April, to discuss measures to limit further disclosures about the plans of the defence forces, and the formation and arming of new brigades. Then he went to the political offensive, using the publication of the decapitation of a Ukrainian prisoner by Russians, taken months earlier, to call on the international community back to his narrative: that Russia was “evil”, a terrorist state that has no place in international organisations, including UN. The horror of the pictures, whose origin was not verified at the time of the publication and Zelensky’s appeal, led to international protests and condemnations.

Much will depend now of the arrest of the culprit who, according to information released on 13 April, is not part the culprit of the circles with access to secret documents but an astute hacker. It is not much more reassuring but, in the immediate, it might reduce the fear that the disclosure could lead to a reduction in the exchange of classified information with Nato partners, with U.S. allies, and even with Ukraine.

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