When Russia launched the invasion, the United States handed over to Ukrainian troops detailed intelligence about when and where Russian missiles and bombs were to strike, prompting Ukraine to move its air defenses and aircraft out of harm’s way, current and former US officials told NBC News.
This near-real-time intelligence sharing also paved the way Ukraine Shoot down a Russian transport plane carrying hundreds of troops in the early days of the war, officials say, helping to repel a Russian attack on a key airport near Kyiv.
It was part of what U.S. officials are calling a massive and unprecedented intelligence-sharing operation with a non-NATO partner that they say was critical to Ukraine’s success against the larger and better-equipped Russian military.
Previously unreported details about the air defense and transport plane highlight why, two months into the war, officials believe U.S. and Pentagon intelligence has been a major factor in helping Ukraine thwart Russian efforts to take over much of the country.
“From the very beginning, we were quite eager to share both strategic and operational intelligence with Ukraine,” one U.S. official briefed on the matter told NBC News. “It was effective both on a tactical and strategic level. There are examples where you can tell a story quite clearly about how it makes a big difference.”
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A White House National Security Council spokesman said in a statement: “We regularly provide detailed and timely information to Ukrainians on the battlefield to help them defend their country from Russian aggression, and we will continue to do so.”
NBC News is withholding some specific details the network has confirmed about the intelligence sharing at the request of the US military and intelligence officials, who say reporting it could help the Russians close down important sources of information.
“There was a lot of real-time intelligence being shared in terms of things that could be used for specific purposes for the Russian forces,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the situation. The information includes commercial satellite imagery, “as well as a lot of other intelligence information, such as where certain types of Russian units operate.”
Ukraine continues to move air defenses and aircraft almost every day with the help of American intelligence, which is one of the reasons Russia has failed to establish air supremacy. In some cases, Ukraine moved targeted air defense systems or aircraft on time, officials said.
“The Russian military is literally breaking up empty fields where an air defense system was once installed,” one US official said. “It had a huge impact on the capabilities of the Russian military on the ground.”
While U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation has evolved since Russia took over Crimea in 2014, Biden administration gained momentum in the weeks before the Russian invasion, when US military team visited assess the state of air defense of Ukraine. The Americans provided Ukraine with detailed recommendations on how to disperse their air defense systems, which US officials say helped Ukraine prevent Russia from seizing control of the skies.
As soon as the invasion began, lawyers for the US Department of Defense and Intelligence introduced recommendations that, in some cases, limited exchanging target designation information that could allow Ukraine to deliver lethal strikes against Russians. But as Russian aggression deepened and under pressure from Congress, all those obstacles were removed, officials say.
Earlier this month, for example, the director of National Intelligence withdrew and replaced a memorandum banning intelligence sharing to retake captured territory or assist Ukrainian strikes in Crimea or the Donbas, officials said. NBC News was the first to report on extended exchange.
Intel Helped Ukraine Defend and Attack
Even before the change, the US provided Ukraine with timely information to better target Russian forces.
Ukrainian forces used specific coordinates shared by the US to fire on Russian positions and aircraft, current and former officials told NBC News.
This early shelling helped disrupt a Russian air assault operation aimed at seizing the Gostomel airport near Kyiv, which would allow the Russians to move troops and equipment to the area around the capital. The Russians eventually took over the airport for a while, but they never had enough control to transport the vast amount of equipment. According to US officials, this setback had a significant impact on the course of the battle for Kyiv.
The CIA is also devoting significant resources to intelligence gathering to protect Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom the Russians want to kill, according to current and former officials. The agency is consulting with the Ukrainians on “the best way to move him to make sure he’s not near his entire chain of command and stuff like that,” a US official said.
“I would say that we are in revolutionary in terms of what we were able to do,” Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, Director of the U.S. Department of Defense Intelligence Agency, said Congress last month described the exchange of information and intelligence between the US and Ukraine.
CIA Director William Burns told Congress last month that when he met with Zelensky in Kyiv in January, “We shared with him the intelligence we had at the time about some of the most visible and detailed Russian plans for Kyiv.” , and we’ve continued to do it every day since.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that the U.S. shared “a significant amount of detailed, timely intelligence about Russia’s plans and actions with the Ukrainian government to help Ukrainians defend themselves,” adding that the material “includes information that should help them inform and develop their military response to the Russian invasion, that’s what is happening – or happened.”
The US military and the CIA began seeking to deepen their relationship with their Ukrainian counterparts after Russia seized Crimea in 2014. The CIA first helped Ukrainian services root out Russian spies, the former senior official said, and then provided training and guidance. The US military also trained Ukrainian soldiers.
“There has been a very strong relationship between the U.S. intelligence services and Ukrainians over the past eight years,” the official said, adding that by the time of the Russian invasion two months ago, the U.S. trusted Ukraine enough to provide details about Russian troop deployments. , attack routes and real-time targeting information.
“What we knew ahead of time about Russia’s plans and intentions shows that our intelligence was very confident about the overall situation,” said John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Logically, if we sincerely want them to win, as we have publicly stated, it only follows that we will give them intelligence results. It would be something like, “Here’s what we know—it doesn’t matter how we know it.”
One Western intelligence official noted that not only intelligence, but how Ukrainians use it is crucial. The source said that the Ukrainians fought the Russians with dexterity and courage, and when they received operational information, they acted with astonishing speed.
McLaughlin said the Ukrainians were clever at using so-called open-source intelligence — commercial satellite imagery and wiretapping of Russian conversations over unencrypted radios.
“The fact that there is so much open source [intelligence] Accessibility means that those who collect classified intelligence can focus on things that are really complex and not publicly available.”
The Ukrainian government believes intelligence sharing has improved, a source familiar with the government’s view told NBC News. That’s all he’ll go for.
“It got better,” he said.