Classified Pentagon documents appeared on social media sites including Discord, Twitter, and a pro-Russian channel on Telegram, a platform with more than half a billion active users. The documents detailed the nature of US and NATO assistance to Ukraine, including information on arms and military equipment that Washington was providing to Kiev. They also contained a more precise timeframe than what the Biden administration had publicly announced regarding when the US would provide weapons and training to the Ukrainian army. The leaked documents included highly sensitive US analyses on China and the Middle East, as well as confidential US national security information. The documents were prepared for Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and top US military officials, but were also accessible to various individuals and contractors with security clearance.
The US Department of Justice launched an investigation into the leak of the Pentagon documents, which one senior US official described as a "massive intelligence breach." This prompted the US Department of Defense to launch an internal review of how the documents could have been leaked and posted on social media sites. Many US officials alleged than Russia or Russian-aligned elements were behind the leaks.
The leak of the Pentagon documents, whose contents were reported on by US media following this incident, has various potential implications, including the following:
1. Disinformation campaigns from both sides: Some US officials indicated that the leaked documents could be part of a Russian operation to sow mistrust between the US and Ukraine, and that the documents had been doctored or used as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This is because the documents describe the number of Russian casualties in the war as significantly lower than official estimates. One of the documents states that there have been 16,000 to 17,500 Russian casualties since Russian military operations began in Ukraine on 24 February 2022. US sources indicate that the actual numbers are around 200,000 casualties. According to the most recent official figures from the Russian Ministry of Defense in September 2022, there have been 5,937 Russian soldiers killed in the war. This last figure does not include fighters from the Wagner Group who are not officially affiliated with the Russian army.
Meanwhile, Russian sources claim that the leaked documents were part of a disinformation campaign by Ukrainian or US intelligence. The Gray Zone, a telegram channel linked to the Wagner Group, suggested that the documents contained misinformation that Ukraine was spreading in order to mislead Russian leadership prior to a planned Ukrainian attack on Russia.
2. Evidence that US provides intelligence to Ukraine: President Biden and numerous US officials have repeatedly denied media reports that the US was supplying intelligence to Ukraine on the locations of Russian military headquarters and ammunition depots. This intelligence enabled Ukraine to target Russian forces and assassinate top generals. US officials maintained that Ukraine had played the decisive role in planning and implementing these strikes. However, the documents leaked thus far suggest that the US provided intelligence it obtained through infiltrating Russian intelligence and security agencies to help Kiev defend itself. The leaked documents contained daily and real-time warnings from US intelligence agencies regarding the timing of Russian strikes and their particular targets, as well as warnings for Kiev on future strikes that Moscow was planning to carry out. There were also assessments of Russian war machinery. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, stated that the documents demonstrated beyond doubt that the US and NATO had been directly or indirectly involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which would complicate and prolong the war.
3. Information on sophisticated US intelligence capabilities: The documents indicated that the US has high-level intelligence capabilities and had successfully infiltrated almost every Russian intelligence, military, and security agency. This was how the US obtained knowledge of Russian planning so that it could warn its allies of Moscow’s future operations.
4. Expanding capabilities of the Wagner Group: The leaked documents show that at a time when the Russian army is experiencing many crises during its military operations in Ukraine, including a lack of soldiers and equipment, the Wagner Group remains a formidable force. It has influence not only in Ukraine but also in many other areas of the world. The documents indicate that the Wagner Group is working against US interests in Africa, and exploring expanding in Haiti. The documents suggested that the group was trying to obtain arms from Turkey—a NATO member—but did not specify to what extent the Turkish government was aware of this or whether it had actually approved such deals. The documents indicated that the Wagner Group had 22,000 fighters in regions around Bakhmut, which is higher than the number of Ukrainian units on that front.
5. Inability of the Ukrainian army to win the war: Some of the leaked documents included US assessments of the Ukrainian army, which it deemed to be in a dire state. Other documents indicated that Ukraine was lacking ammunition for air defense and that the performance of the Ukrainian army was declining. The documents also revealed that Bakhmut was "almost operationally encircled" and was significantly lacking in military equipment, which could jeopardize the potential for a Ukrainian victory in the war and necessitate further Western and US support. Miscalculations could lead to direct US involvement in the war, that the Ukrainian crisis could drag on longer, with resolution of the crisis potentially at Ukraine’s expense.
6. China sees Ukraine war as opportunity to expose NATO aggression: The leaked documents indicate that it is likely that Beijing will see Ukrainian attacks deep into Russian territory as an opportunity to cast NATO as an aggressor. The documents reveal that China could increase its support for Russia if it feels that the Ukrainian attacks are having an impact. The documents show that although there is not currently any indication that China has provided military aid to Russia, if Ukraine were to strike Moscow with US or NATO weapons, Beijing would likely hold Washington directly responsible for escalating the conflict. In this scenario, China could use these events as a justification for arming Russia.
7. US spying on its allies: The documents confirm that Washington has spied on political and military leaders in Ukraine as well as other US allies, including Israel. The leak cast doubt on US capabilities to keep secrets, especially as a member of the Five Eyes intelligence group. Some documents showed that the US was spying on South Korea, and one document indicated that the National Security Council of South Korea had discussed a US request that the country provide Ukraine with ammunition without provoking Moscow. The document, which cited various intelligence reports, stated that a South Korean national security adviser had studied selling ammunition to Poland, which oversees key weapons supply routes. This was so that materials could reach Ukraine as quickly as the US had requested.
8. Interest in Iranian and North Korean nuclear activities: According to the leaked documents, Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs have been a key point of interest for Washington in recent years. The documents indicated that the US was closely monitoring Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Reports detailed recent Iranian attempts to produce short-range ballistic missiles. Another International Atomic Energy Agency report described Iranian efforts to expand its uranium enrichment facilities. Some of the documents seemed to be routine updates for policymakers. However, one of the documents, allegedly based upon intelligence and diplomatic reports, gave a pessimistic impression of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s capacity to carry out its duties in the field of nuclear security. The leaked documents also included updates on North Korea’s nuclear arms program, including regarding missiles.
9. Monitoring internal Israeli crises: The documents suggested that the US has been monitoring how the Israeli Mossad backed protests against the judicial reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In February, Mossad leaders called on officials and civilians to demonstrate against the reforms. This is an important revelation because Mossad is not legally permitted to engage with domestic politics, and the Netanyahu-appointed director of Mossad, David Barnea, remained quiet about the judicial reforms. The leaks do not provide details on what Mossad leadership might have done to encourage the protests against Netanyahu’s plans.
It is believed that the information in this memo was obtained through the US spying on Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East. This could provoke tensions between the US and Israel. The US National Security Council, Director of National Intelligence, Department of State, and Israeli authorities all declined to comment on the memo. This could also suggest that the US is secretly involved in inciting protests to topple Netanyahu.
The leaked Pentagon documents on the Russia-Ukraine war, the nature of US and Western military aid to Kiev, and other issues pertaining to Washington’s allies could have various repercussions. In particular, this could shape how Russian military operations progress during the coming period and affect US relations with its strategic allies around the world. Potential fallout from the leak could include the following dimensions:
1. Undermining Ukrainian military plans: Although the leaked documents do not contain specific Ukrainian battle plans, they do provide Russia with valuable information at a time when it is preparing for a Ukrainian counterattack. This timeframes for when Ukraine would receive weapons and reinforcements as well as information on the number of Ukrainian forces and other military details. One leaked document indicated that Ukraine was preparing to assemble twelve new brigades, including nine trained by the US. These included six that would be ready to fight by 31 March 2023, while the rest would be ready by 30 April. The document stated that the necessary military equipment for these nine brigades included more than 250 tanks and 350 mechanized vehicles. It also shed light on Ukraine’s fighting capabilities, potential points of weakness, and steps that NATO would take to fend off the Russian attack.
These documents were leaked at a time when the US and NATO were undertaking extensive efforts to arm and train Ukrainian forces in order to prepare for the anticipated spring attack to reclaim territory that Russia had occupied in the east and south. The documents could therefore negatively impact the spring war effort. The leaked material also outlines the quantity of US arms and other equipment that has reached Ukraine, the number of Ukrainian soldiers who have been trained to use this equipment, and how Kiev has organized its aircraft and air defenses to fend off Russian missile attacks. It includes sensitive information on Howitzer artillery and mortar launch rates, how quickly these are depleted, cargo shipments, and battlefield assessments, including for Bakhmut. Bakhmut is the city where Russian and Ukrainian forces have been engaged in fierce combat for months.
2. Unraveling US spy networks: The leaked documents revealed some of the intelligence sources that the US relies upon to obtain information. For example, the documents indicated which Russian agencies the US knows about, which gives Moscow the opportunity to figure out how Washington gathers its intelligence. Russia could also cut off sources of information that the US has used to track Russian military plans in Ukraine, which could negatively affect Western and US efforts to defeat Russia in Kiev. This spying is not limited to Russia but also includes Washington’s allies such as South Korea and Israel. The documents contain data from within certain institutions in these countries, which will make them more cautious. They will aim to limit the ability of these sources to leak further information to Washington.
3. Challenges in sharing US intelligence with allies: The leaked documents will also affect the ability of the US intelligence community to share sensitive and precise information with intelligence agencies belonging to US partners and allies around the world, especially the Five Eyes. This group facilitates intelligence sharing between the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada in order to bolster efforts among intelligence partners against China.
A top intelligence official described the leak as a "nightmare for the Five Eyes," because some of the leaked documents were labeled "NOFORN," which means that they were not supposed to be shared with foreign allies such as the UK, France, Germany, or Ukraine. A European intelligence official voiced concerns that if the US restricted its allies’ access to future US intelligence reports, allies would be left in the dark. This would undermine their capability to deal with regional threats in areas of strategic importance to the US, such as the Indo-Pacific region, which has become the US’s top priority.
4. Pentagon efforts to prevent intelligence breaches: The leaked documents also include information on how leading US intelligence agencies operate, especially the National Security Agency, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office. They detail US spying activities and sources of intelligence, including the kinds of satellite images that the US uses to track Russian forces and the types of advanced technologies through which it obtains information. The documents revealed that the files had been shared over a chat platform called Discord by a user known as "Wow Mao." This situation will undoubtedly spur Washington to conduct an in-depth inquiry into how these documents were leaked and how the Pentagon could counter such intelligence breaches.
5. Further erosion of trust between Washington and its allies: The information in the leaked documents about the US spying on its allies will have repercussions for these relationships, and in particular will exacerbate tensions between the US and Israel. US-Israel relations have already been tense recently since Washington criticized Israeli government policies. Now, the leaked Pentagon documents indicate that Mossad, whose mission is focused on foreign intelligence gathering, had encouraged its employees and the Israeli public to participate in protests against the Netanyahu’s government’s proposed judicial reforms in March 2023. The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office denied US media reports about this matter, and issued a statement that Mossad had not encouraged its top officials, nor any member of the organization to join anti-government protests or to participate in any other kind of political demonstration or activity.
6. Escalating controversy over arming Ukraine: The leaked documents could also intensify disagreements between Western countries on arming Ukraine. Various documents suggested that it is likely that Ukrainian air defense missile supplies will run low by May, which has raised concerns about Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself against Russia. The leaks occurred during discussions between Washington and other Western countries on the possibility of providing additional military aid to Kiev. For this reason, some have suggested that the leaks could have been intentional in order to increase pressure on Western governments to provide additional aid, especially with regard to supplying missiles.
In conclusion, the leaked classified documents outline US and NATO plans to strengthen the Ukrainian army leading up to its counterattack against Russia. In this phase of the conflict, the war over information has become more important than direct clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Moscow is trying to regain the lead after experiencing military losses in recent months. The leaks are a point in Moscow’s favor that will hinder the US’s ability to gather intelligence in Ukraine. They will also make it more difficult for the US and its European partners to share intelligence on Russian plans in Ukraine, and impede intelligence sharing between the Washington and its allies around the world. This could have negative implications for the US administration’s ability to counter international and regional threats, which is currently a top priority.