Leaked Pentagon documents: What are the major takeaways?

The US, UK and France are among Western countries with special forces deployed in Ukraine, according to leaked intelligence documents.

US special forces
The publication of the documents has prompted a series of media reports [File: Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters]

A series of leaked documents, purporting to contain highly classified Pentagon intelligence related to the war in Ukraine and information gathering on close allies of the United States, have emerged online in recent weeks.

The Pentagon has confirmed that the military documents “appear to contain sensitive and highly classified material”, but the defence department has skirted categorical claims over the authenticity of the documents while repeatedly stressing that at least some have been doctored.

Here is the latest about the leaked documents, which have not been verified.

Western special forces active in Ukraine

A leaked classified US military document suggests that 97 special forces personnel from NATO countries were active in Ukraine during February and March of this year.

Media outlets, including the BBC and The Guardian, reported that a document dated March 23, 2023, indicates that more than half of the Western special forces deployed in Ukraine are from the United Kingdom.

Britain’s Ministry of Defence on Tuesday warned against taking allegations contained in the reported leak of US classified information at “face value”.

UK special forces conducted training with Ukrainian military forces in 2021. However, the UK government has not publicly disclosed whether special forces have been active in the country since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

According to the leaked documents, Latvia – a country with a population of fewer than two million people – had 17 personnel, the second highest number of special forces deployed in Ukraine out of the NATO countries. The US and France had 14 and 15 special forces personnel respectively in Ukraine, while the Netherlands has one.

The document reportedly does not state where the allegedly deployed forces are located or what they are doing. It is also unclear whether the personnel numbers have been maintained at this level.

Serbia ‘agreed to arm Ukraine’

According to another leaked Pentagon document, dated March 2, Serbia, which has refused to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, agreed to supply arms to Kyiv and may have sent them already.

The document summarises European governments’ responses to Ukraine’s requests for military training and “lethal aid” or weapons. It was labelled NOFORN, which means it was not allowed to be distributed to foreign intelligence services and militaries.

The leak also reveals that Serbia declined to provide training to Ukrainian forces.

Serbia’s Defence Minister Milos Vucevic on Wednesday dismissed reports that Belgrade agreed to supply arms to Kyiv or has sent them already. Calling the intel “untrue”, he added: “Serbia did not, nor will it be selling weapons to the Ukrainian nor the Russian side, nor to countries surrounding that conflict.”

Serbia, which relies on Russia for its energy, has sought to maintain its ambition to join the European Union while keeping its relations with Russia since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine.

Egypt denies supplying Russia with weapons

One leaked document, dated February 17 and obtained by The Washington Post, appeared to show that Egypt planned to supply Russia with rockets and munitions.

According to the leak, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is said to have instructed officials to keep production and shipment secret “to avoid problems with the West”.

Egypt is one of the world’s top recipients of US military aid, receiving $1.3bn in military financing annually.

An unnamed Egyptian state official called the document “informational absurdity” and said that Egypt follows a “balanced policy” with all international parties according to the state-affiliated media outlet, Al Qahera News.

What have the leaks already revealed?

Several leaked documents appear to reveal US espionage tactics in relation to the war in Ukraine.

If proven authentic, they show that the US had been monitoring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s calls with defence and military officials. They also reveal apparent weaknesses in the Ukrainian air defence systems and the size of military battalions.

They also suggest that the US had penetrated the Russian military forces and the Wagner Group, a mercenary organisation, much more than previously understood.

Another purported highly classified Pentagon document reveals Russian operatives were building a closer relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which hosts important US military installations. The UAE rejected the allegations, calling them “categorically false”.

Other leaks have concerned allegations that South Korean leaders were hesitant to ship artillery shells to Ukraine and that Israel’s Mossad spy service opposed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the judiciary.

US intelligence analysts believed a recent military parade in North Korea “probably oversells” the threat its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) pose to the United States, according to another leaked document.

Where did the leaks originate?

The leak may have started on a site called Discord, a social media platform popular with people playing online games.

The US Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the incident. Top US officials acknowledge publicly that they are still trying to find answers.

“They were somewhere in the web, and where exactly, and who had access at that point, we don’t know. We simply don’t know,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said.

What has been the US response?

The Pentagon has begun an internal review to assess the leaks’ impact on national security. Officials are also closely monitoring where the leaked slides are “being posted and amplified,” said Chris Meagher, assistant to the US secretary of defense for public affairs.

Separately, the US Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into how the slides were obtained and leaked.

CIA Director William Burns on Tuesday called the leak “deeply unfortunate”.

“It’s something that the US government takes extremely seriously,” he said in remarks at Rice University. “The Pentagon and the Department of Justice have now launched a quite intense investigation to get to the bottom of this.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies