Does U.S. intelligence sharing with Ukraine constitute direct participation in war with Russia?

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

In an age where information is as much a weapon as it is an essential tool for daily life, does passing on crucial intelligence to one of the two sides in a war constitute direct participation?

The answer may be complicated and nuanced but it is certainly not an outright no. That is what makes the U.S. decision to arm Ukraine with very specific intelligence that has led to the killings of top Russian generals as well as even the sinking of Russia’s flagship missile cruiser Moskva problematic.

So far Washington has steadfastly stayed away from putting American military boots on the ground for two obvious reasons, one being that Ukraine is not a member of the NATO and the other, more importantly, that doing so would escalate the conflict into a feared third world war.

However, heavy weaponry worth hundreds of millions of dollars has been provided by the U.S. apart from other military assistance. What is extraordinary, however, are the disclosures in two New York Times stories on two successive days on May 4 and 5. One said U.S. intelligence “is helping kill Russian generals” and the other “U.S. intelligence helped Ukraine strike Russian flagship.”

It would not be altogether inconceivable that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, reputedly increasingly isolated in Moscow, would call the U.S. action a direct military involvement with Ukraine. Although wars have been fought in history using proxy nations and their soldiers’ shoulders to fire the guns on, Washington’s specific intelligence sharing with Ukraine in an era where information is a weapon creates an uncharted territory.

“The administration has sought to keep much of the battlefield and maritime intelligence it is sharing with the Ukrainians secret out of fear it will be seen as an escalation and provoke President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia into a wider war. But in recent weeks, the United States has sped heavier weapons to Ukraine and requested an extraordinary $33 billion in additional military, economic and humanitarian aid from Congress, demonstrating how quickly American restraints on support for Ukraine are shifting,” said the Times story on May 5 by Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes.

It is obvious that Washington would have much rather kept its specific actionable intelligence sharing with Kyiv a secret. Now that it is out it is in the realm of how the world generally and Putin particularly interpret it. The U.S. has defended sharing intelligence with Ukraine. Russia’s response to the stories has not been specific so far but the disclosures surely will not be lost on Putin. Moscow has quite curiously countered saying the Moskva was not destroyed by missile strikes but a fire onboard the ship that triggered a munitions explosion sinking it. It is in Moscow’s public relations interest to spin thus as it is in the U.S./Ukraine’s interest to call it specific missile strikes.

It has been argued by many that one of the reasons why Ukraine has been so successful in significantly thwarting the Russian forces is because the intelligence provided by America. It is possible that the international community may soon begin to debate whether such intelligence sharing ought to be viewed active involvement. After all, the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, has changed the traditional definition of war. With ever more smart robotic weapons underway, how long before something seemingly soft and undefinable as intelligence/information would be characterized as a weapon by countries?

Traditional notions of wars meaning infantry and tank-based confrontations with aerial strikes are being upended by the rise of technologically brilliant but potentially devastating remotely operated weapons, which are also highly effective intelligence gatherers, including military satellites.

It would be unreasonable to insist that specific, actionable intelligence sharing with one of the two sides in a war does not approach the definition of direct participation. The shoulders may be Ukrainian, but many weapons and intelligence are American.