Who benefits from America’s loose lips on Ukraine?
Special to The Washington Post May 9, 2022
The Biden administration has responded admirably to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through both word and deed. Before the war, U.S. intelligence officials were quite vocal about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans, in an effort to wrong-foot his orchestrated invasion. During the war, U.S. officials have conducted real-time statecraft to help shore up the alliance supporting Ukraine. U.S. intelligence has also clearly provided assistance to Ukrainians, helping in their defense of their country.
All of this merits praise. It is worth remembering that in February the widespread expectation was that Russia would be in Kyiv quickly and Putin would have proved Russia’s military might on the global stage. The opposite has occurred, mostly because of Ukraine’s ability and willingness to resist but also the U.S. ability to bolster that resistance. More than two months into the conflict, Russia’s ability to sustain any offensive seems doubtful. If a lesson learned from this war is that great powers can no longer expect to fight and win easy wars, that makes great-power war less likely in the medium term.
As the war has proceeded, U.S. officials have continued to be chatty. The thing is, they have started to say things that threaten to undermine U.S. foreign policy, particularly with respect to U.S. goals in assisting Ukraine. As noted previously, President Joe Biden said in March, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Ramping up war aims like this — especially when the U.S. is not, repeat not, fighting the war — is rash. There is a reason the White House had to walk back Biden’s words.
This past week, anonymous U.S. officials again got chatty with the press. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that senior American officials told it, “The United States has provided intelligence about Russian units that has allowed Ukrainians to target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action in the Ukraine war. … The targeting help is part of a classified effort by the Biden administration to provide real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine.” This raises the philosophical question of whether something is really classified if U.S. officials are telling reporters all about it.
A day later, U.S. officials were even more loquacious. The Washington Post, New York Times and NBC News all reported that U.S. officials said the United States played a critical supporting role in helping Ukrainian forces sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva. As NBC’s reporters put it, U.S. officials were “confirming an American role in perhaps the most embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s troubled invasion of Ukraine.”
It should not take an expert in international affairs to realize that there is little upside in bragging about these kinds of activities to the press. Sure, it might play well in domestic circles. The diplomatic effects, however, are counterproductive. The Russian military is already aware of U.S. activities, so broadcasting them does not intimidate the enemy. Instead, it exaggerates the U.S. role in an interstate war with one declared nuclear power and invites retaliation in the future. When it comes to aiding a belligerent during a war without not crossing any tacitly understood red lines, doing is much better than talking.
Some argued that these news stories were part of a planned information campaign, but the U.S. government’s response suggests otherwise. Pentagon officials disputed both the New York Times story on targeting Russian generals as well as the raft of stories regarding the Moskva. On Saturday, Politico’s National Security Daily quoted a U.S. official as saying, “Someone is eager to take credit, but it’s not helpful.” Politico’s reporters added: “Others we spoke to revealed there’s an internal freakout over the stream of stories, though it’s unclear exactly who is feeding reporters the juicy nuggets. Instead of boasting, a parade of administration officials have denied the direct link between the shared intelligence and targets.”
I have been pretty skeptical of claims that U.S. assistance will lead to an escalation of the conflict beyond Ukraine. That does not mean it is a good idea to needlessly poke a wounded bear. Saying things like the United States is “fundamentally at war” with Russia is the kind of overheated, hyperbolic rhetoric that executive and legislative branch officials should avoid.
The Biden administration has executed a sound foreign policy to resist Russian aggression in Ukraine. It would improve on that policy if it started adhering to greater message discipline, and right quick.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.