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NIAS Europe Studies
Pentagon document leak: Russia-Ukraine Conflict From a Tactical Lens

  Padmashree Anandhan

The document leak reveals the limitations faced by the Ukraine's force and the role of the US and its allies in supporting Ukraine militarily.

On 19 April, The Wall Street Journal reported on the leak of classified documents after it found four documents on Telegram account named “Donbass Devushka.” The leak is considered to have released from “Discord” a messaging platform in January which was reposted in a gaming platform leading to a mass leak. Of the leaked documents, the critical intelligence data on Ukraine military, position of Russia’s forces and involvement of third-parties in the military aid has come out as shocking revelations. The following takeaways aims to bring out the key findings or fill the gaps from the leaked data comparing the proceedings of the war.

Russia-Ukraine Conflict from a Tactical Lens: Four takeaways
First, a negative prediction for Ukraine’s air force and counteroffensive. The document leak confirmed that Ukraine is fighting with limited air defence systems. Since 2023, Ukraine began demanding modern aviation and fighter jets which can change the gears from defensive to offensive. It faces a threat of exhaustion of medium to high-range air-defence systems (S-300, SA-3, and SA-12) such as IRIS-T by March, SA-11 by April, and NASAMS by May 2023. Additionally, the inability to match the “Russian air superiority,” and increased usage of SA-10, while SA-11 depletes. It claims the increased capability of Russia in ariel manoeuvring and improved accuracy in “long-range munitions.” 

Second, fragility and frustration in the Ukraine Armed Forces (UAF). The maps in the leaked documents disclose the vulnerable position of the Ukraine forces in the southwest, northern, eastern, and southern. It confirms the Russian encirclement of the Bakhmut, leaving out West of Bakhmut, the only supply route for UAF subject to attacks. The document also confirms the defeat of Ukraine's forces in the north, forcing it to withdraw from Berkhivka resulting in the loss of the Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) between Bakhmut and the M-03 highway. This highway is considered essential for Ukraine as it connects to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, losing the GLOC would challenge its ground force operation. To ease the difficult position in the Bakhmut, Ukraine plans to involve Shaman or Kraken units of Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR) for a maximum of two weeks. In the battle of Bakhmut as per the leaked documents, clashes have emerged between the UAF and Ukraine’s Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR), as UAF demands only the “combat element” of the HUR units without its “command and control.” HUR Officer has criticized the UAF leadership for asking only for combat as it mandates a “clear ground control” to reduce the complexities faced by Ukraine forces and to secure Yahidne (located in the centre of Bakhmut, another side of Berkhivka). Securing Yahidne is crucial for Ukraine as it is predicted to host an important supply road for Ukraine.

Third, third-party entities and the US allies' role in military support and strengthening. Throughout the war, Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of receiving support from external actors. On the one hand, the US, the EU, and NATO allies have been supporting Ukraine. On the other, Belarus and Iran have been supporting Russia. The leak has exposed the involvement of other actors in the conflict and revealed the military exercises conducted by NATO allies in a 24-48 hours span. The documents confirm the transfer of the Iskander-M division, and Russia’s air defence units into Belarus to launch an offensive into Ukraine. This shows Belarus’s approval to switch from training to launching an offensive into Ukraine from its territory. In the case of South Korea, it has faced pressure from the US to send ammunition to Ukraine. To avoid the public debate of it adhering to US’s demand, it has tried to circumvent its support through Poland, although Poland’s reaction was yet to be verified. For Israel, which has so far agreed to provide non-lethal aid to Ukraine, the documents reveal the possibility of different scenarios which can prompt it to provide lethal aid to Ukraine. Especially under the pressure of the US, a shift in Russia’s behaviour in Syria and its relations with Iran. Apart from this, the most surprising element would be the engagement of the “joint staff” of the US, the UK, France, Latvia, and the Netherlands in Ukraine. The joint land, sea, and air military exercises held between the southeast Flank of Europe, NATO allies, and numerous training camps held by the US, Germany, and Netherlands for UAF showcase the intensity and depths of military strengthening.

Fourth, a grim overview of Russia in the battle for Donbas. When Russia began the war, the first step was to proclaim Donetsk and Luhansk regions as its republics. The war later north and south of Ukraine created an inverted “c.” This area coming under Russia’s control announced the annexation of the republics along with Zaporizhzhia and Kherson despite Ukraine's successful counteroffensive in Kherson. As a result of Russia’s determination to counter Ukraine’s defence, challenges in terms of logistics, command control, and personnel emerged. The same has been validated by the leaked documents. It states that due to Russia’s decision to involve the forces from the self-proclaimed republics, the Wagner Group, its private military security along with the Russian forces in different tactical attacks has led to exhaustion. Therefore, predicting a difficult recovery of Russian forces and replenishment of stocks, resulted in a “stalemate” beyond 2023.


About the Author
Padmashree Anandhan is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.

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