Officials push back on report US intel helping Ukraine target Russian generals

"That is not how we operate," one U.S. official said.

May 5, 2022, 6:05 PM

U.S. officials on Thursday pushed back on a New York Times report that said the U.S. provided Ukraine intelligence that helped it target and kill Russian generals and other senior officers.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson took exception to the story's headline: "U.S. Intelligence Is Helping Ukraine Kill Russian Generals, Officials Say."

"The headline of this story is misleading and the way it is framed is irresponsible. The United States provides battlefield intelligence to help the Ukrainians defend their country. We do not provide intelligence with the intent to kill Russian generals," Watson said, drawing a semantic distinction, appearing to want to distance the U.S. from any direct involvement in an attack on Russian commanders.

A second U.S. official with knowledge of U.S. intelligence-sharing with Ukraine confirmed that the U.S. provides intelligence on movements of Russian units and command posts, but not on individual Russian military leaders.

"The U.S. is not providing intelligence on Russian generals," the official told ABC News Wednesday evening.

A third official told ABC News the same: "That is not how we operate."

PHOTO: A Ukrainian soldier jumps of a destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of the village of Mala Rohan, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, April 20, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier jumps of a destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of the village of Mala Rohan, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, April 20, 2022.
Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby offered clarifying remarks during a press briefing Thursday.

"The United States provides battlefield intelligence to help Ukrainians defend their country," Kirby said. "We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield or participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military."

PHOTO: Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 5, 2022.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., May 5, 2022.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The New York Times story originally cited American officials claiming U.S. intelligence "has helped Ukrainians target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action in the Ukraine war."

Officials say it is correct, as reported by the Times, that the Ukrainians are able to combine what they learn from the U.S. with their own intelligence to then target Russian leaders. But they emphasized that the U.S. does not play a direct role in targeting individuals on the battlefield.

Other nations are also sharing intelligence with Ukraine, which has its own "robust" capabilities, according to Kirby.

"Ukraine combines information that we and other partners provide with the intelligence that they themselves are gathering on the battlefield, and then they make their own decisions, and they take their own actions," Kirby said.

The Kremlin also responded to the article, saying its troops are aware of intelligence-assistance for Ukraine coming from the West.

"Our servicemen are well aware that the United States, the United Kingdom and NATO in general are providing intelligence and information about other parameters to the Ukrainian Armed Forces on a permanent basis. This is well known and, of course, together with the arms supply to Ukraine by the same countries and the alliance, all of those actions are not helping rapidly finalize the operation, although they cannot hinder the achievement of objectives set for the special military operation," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said at a press briefing Thursday.

PHOTO: A Ukrainian soldier poses next to a destroyed Russian tank in Malaya Rohan village, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 5, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier poses next to a destroyed Russian tank in Malaya Rohan village, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 5, 2022.
Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

Ukraine's Ministry of Defense has claimed 12 Russian generals have been killed since the invasion, though U.S. officials have not confirmed this when asked.

One reason senior officers might be particularly vulnerable is due to the structure of Russia's military.

"They do not delegate authority," said Mick Mulroy, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East and ABC News contributor. "So, they are out giving orders directly to their forces."

Unlike the U.S. military, Russia does not empower its non-commissioned and junior officers with the authority to make decisions on their own, according to Mulroy.

"It's the only way to effectively fight in modern combined arms maneuver warfare," he said. "The lack of delegation is another reason the Russian military is performing so poorly."

Top American military leaders have publicly stated the U.S. is sharing intelligence to help Ukrainians in their fight against Russia's invading forces.

"We have opened up the pipes," Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told senators Tuesday. "There is a significant amount of intelligence flowing to the Ukraine from the United States."

The officials ABC News spoke to could not say whether the U.S. has any hard rules in place against giving Ukraine intelligence on high-level leaders, including top Russian general Valery Gerasimov, who spent multiple days in the contested Donbas region last week. But according to Mulroy, there is nothing wrong in principle with helping Ukraine kill Russian generals.

"Targeting generals is fully lawful, targeting non-combatant civilians is not," Mulroy said. "If Russian generals don't want to be targeted, they should withdraw their forces and return to Russia."

ABC News' Molly Nagle contributed to this report.

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