WASHINGTON — A trove of leaked Pentagon documents reveals how deeply Russia’s security and intelligence services have been penetrated by the United States, demonstrating Washington’s ability to warn Ukraine about planned strikes and providing an assessment of the strength of Moscow’s war machine.
The documents portray a depleted Russian military that is struggling in its war in Ukraine and a military apparatus that is deeply compromised. They contain daily real-time warnings to American intelligence agencies on the timing of Moscow’s strikes and even its specific targets. Such intelligence has allowed the United States to pass on to Ukraine crucial information on how to defend itself.
The leak, the source of which remains unknown, also reveals the American assessment of a Ukrainian military that is itself in dire straits. The leaked material, from late February and early March but found on social media sites in recent days, outlines critical shortages of air defense munitions and discusses the gains being made by Russian troops around the eastern city of Bakhmut.
The intelligence reports seem to indicate that the United States is also spying on Ukraine’s top military and political leaders, a reflection of Washington’s struggle to get a clear view of Ukraine’s fighting strategies.
The new documents appear to show that America’s understanding of Russian planning remains extensive and that the United States is able to warn its allies about Moscow’s future operations.
The material also reinforces an idea that intelligence officials have long acknowledged: The United States has a clearer understanding of Russian military operations than it does of Ukrainian planning. Intelligence collection is often difficult and sometimes wrong, but the trove of documents offers perhaps the most complete picture yet of the inner workings of the largest land war in Europe in decades.
The leak has the potential to do real damage to Ukraine’s war effort by exposing which Russian agencies the United States knows the most about, giving Moscow a potential opportunity to cut off the sources of information. Current and former officials say it is too soon to know the extent of the damage, but if Russia is able to determine how the United States collects its information and cuts off that flow, it may have an effect on the battlefield in Ukraine.
The leak has already complicated relations with allied countries and raised doubts about America’s ability to keep its secrets. After reviewing the documents, a senior Western intelligence official said the release of the material was painful and suggested that it could curb intelligence sharing. For various agencies to provide material to each other, the official said, requires trust and assurances that certain sensitive information will be kept secret.
The documents could also hurt diplomatic ties in other ways. The newly revealed intelligence documents also make plain that the United States is not spying just on Russia, but also on its allies. While that will hardly surprise officials of those countries, making such eavesdropping public always hampers relations with key partners, like South Korea, whose help is needed to supply Ukraine with weaponry.
Analysts say the size of the trove is likely about 100 pages. Reporters from The New York Times have reviewed more than 50 of those pages. The documents appeared online as hastily taken photographs of pieces of paper sitting atop what appears to be a hunting magazine. Former officials who have reviewed the material say it appears likely that a classified briefing was folded up, placed in a pocket, then taken out of a secure area to be photographed later.
Senior U.S. officials said an inquiry, launched Friday by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would try to move swiftly to determine the source of the leak. The officials acknowledged that the documents appear to be legitimate intelligence and operational briefs compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, using reports from the government’s intelligence community, but that at least one had been modified from the original at some later point.
One senior U.S. official called the leak “a massive intelligence breach,” made worse because it lays out to Russia just how deep American intelligence operatives have managed to get into the Russian military apparatus. Officials within the U.S. government with security clearance often receive such documents through daily emails, one official said, and those emails might then be automatically forwarded to other people.
Another senior U.S. official said tracking down the original source of the leak could be difficult because hundreds, if not thousands, of military and other U.S. government officials have the security clearances needed to gain access to the documents. The official said that the Pentagon had instituted procedures in the past few days to “lock down” the distribution of highly sensitive briefing documents.
Much of the information in the documents tracks with public disclosures officials have made but in many cases contains more detail. One document reports the Russians have suffered 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, including up to 43,000 killed in action. American officials have previously estimated Russian losses at about 200,000 soldiers. While American officials are more circumspect in describing Ukrainian losses, they have said there have been about 100,000. The leaked document says that as of February, Ukraine had suffered 124,500 to 131,000 casualties, with up to 17,500 killed in action.
Intelligence officials have repeatedly insisted that their casuality numbers are offered with “low confidence,” meaning that they are at best rough estimates. The document also notes the low confidence assessment and further says that the United States is trying to revise how it assesses the combat power of the Russian military and its ability to sustain future operations.
The documents show that nearly every Russian security service appears penetrated by the United States in some way. For example, one entry, marked top secret, discusses the Russian General Staff’s plans to counter the tanks NATO countries were providing to Ukraine, including creating different “fire zones” and beginning training of Russian soldiers on the vulnerabilities of different allied tanks.
Ukrainian officials continue to insist the documents are altered or faked. In a statement on Telegram, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said that the leaks were meant to sow distrust between Ukraine’s partners.
Another entry talks about an information campaign being planned by the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence unit, in Africa trying to shape public opinion against the United States and “promote Russian foreign policy.”
While some of the intelligence briefs offer analysis and broad warnings of Russian plans, others are the kind of actionable information that Ukraine could use to defend itself. One entry talks about the Russian Defense Ministry formulating plans to conduct missile strikes on Ukraine’s forces at specific sites in Odesa and Mykolaiv on March 3, an attack that the U.S. intelligence agencies believed would be designed to destroy a drone storage area, an air defense gun and kill Ukrainian soldiers.
In late March, Russia claimed it had destroyed a hangar containing Ukrainian drones near Odesa. Also in late March, independent military analysts said Russia attacked Mykolaiv and other Ukrainian cities, but called the shelling routine.
Still another entry discusses a report in February disseminated by Russia’s National Defense Command Center about the “decreased combat capability” of Russia’s forces in Eastern Ukraine.
While the documents were compiled by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, they contain intelligence from many agencies, including the National Security Agency, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of the material is labeled as having been collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, noting that its further distribution is not allowed without the permission of the attorney general.
One section of the documents is categorized as coming from a C.I.A. daily intelligence update. The material in that section reveals not just who the C.I.A. is spying on but some details on how. One intelligence report, for example, demonstrates that the C.I.A. is using intercepted communications to spy on discussions inside the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The documents reveal that American intelligence services are not only spying on the Russians, but are also eavesdropping on important allies.
In the pages posted online, there are at least two discussions about South Korea’s internal debates about whether to give the U.S. artillery shells for use in Ukraine, violating Seoul’s policy on providing lethal aid. One section of the documents reports that South Korean officials were worried that President Biden would call South Korea’s president pressuring Seoul to deliver the goods.
Another section of the documents, from the C.I.A., is more explicit about how the United States has learned about the South Korean deliberations, noting the information was from “a signals intelligence report,” a term spy agencies use for any kind of intercepted communications from phone calls to electronic messages.
The first tranche of documents appeared to have been posted in early March on Discord, a social media chat platform popular with video gamers, according to Aric Toler, an analyst at Bellingcat, the Dutch investigative site.
Discord surged in popularity during the pandemic, and became a hub for young people to socialize and for music lovers, anime fans and cryptocurrency enthusiasts to discuss their passions in communities known as servers. By late 2021, the platform had more than 150 million active users each month.
Discord servers are essentially chat rooms, where people can discuss their hobbies and message each other or join audio calls. Some servers are public and contain thousands of people, while others are invitation-only. This setup has enabled Discord to thrive, but it has also caused the company to face problems with harmful content over the years.
Some of the documents were then reposted in the following weeks on other social media platforms including 4chan, an anonymous, fringe message board, but gained much broader attention only when they surfaced in recent days on Twitter and Telegram, analysts said.
On Saturday, pictures of many of the documents were still available on Twitter. While the social media platform in the past could have taken steps to remove the material, under rules that prohibited the distribution of hacked material, Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner, appeared to indicate in a Twitter post on Thursday that he would not delete the material.
Julian E. Barnes, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from London and Michael Schwirtz from Lviv, Ukraine. Kellen Browning contributed reporting.