The U.S. spy agency Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has boots on the ground in Ukraine and operates a clandestine supply network to help the government in Kiev to fight Russia, leading U.S. weekly Newsweek reported on Wednesday, citing anonymous sources within the US government.
“The CIA was central to the war even before it started,” claimed the article, written by William Arkin.
CIA’s director William Burns famously visited Moscow in January 2022 and, though he failed to persuade Russia not to invade,” he got the Kremlin to accept U.S. “rules” – at least according to Arkin and his sources.
Supposedly articulated by U.S. President Joe Biden, the “rules” state that Washington and Kiev “will not undertake any actions that might threaten Russia itself or the survival of the Russian state.”
In return, Moscow “won’t escalate the war beyond Ukraine or resort to the use of nuclear weapons.”
It “falls to the U.S. to enforce those pledges,” a senior defense intelligence official told Newsweek on condition of anonymity.
Arkin said he spoke with “over a dozen” officials and intelligence experts over the course of a three-month investigation. No named sources appear in the article.
Arkin’s sources admitted that the CIA is running a campaign of support for Ukraine based out of Poland, including a “gray fleet” of commercial aircraft shuttling weapons and other material through central and eastern Europe. CIA agents also “went into and out of Ukraine on secret missions, to assist with the operations of new weapons and systems,” but always tried to “avoid direct confrontation with troops.”
“Is the CIA on the ground inside Ukraine? Yes, but it is also not nefarious,” said another senior intelligence officer, who framed it as part of a Biden administration effort to “keep Americans out of harm’s way and reassure Russia that it does not need escalate.”
The problem appears to be that Ukraine is not following Biden’s “rules,” however. Newsweek blames Kiev for the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines, the Kerch Bridge bombing, and the drone attacks on Russian air bases and the Kremlin. These attacks have “raised questions” as to whether the CIA knows enough about Ukrainian plans “to both influence them and to adhere to their secret agreement with Moscow.”
The agency is now “as uncertain about Vladimir Zelensky’s thinking and intentions as it is about Vladimir Putin’s,” the article claims.
“The CIA learned with the attack on the Crimean Bridge that Zelensky either did not have complete control over his own military or did not want to know of certain actions,” according to the anonymous military intelligence official.
Zelensky himself directly contradicted Arkin’s article two days before it was published. “We do not have any secrets from the CIA,” he told CNN on Monday, commenting on a recent visit to Kiev by the agency’s director.
The Newsweek report (05/07/2023) — Exclusive: The CIA’s Blind Spot about the Ukraine War (https://www.newsweek.com/2023/07/21/exclusive-cias-blind-spot-about-ukraine-war-1810355.html) — said:
The Agency is straining to understand what the two sides will do — because President Joe Biden has determined that the United States (and Kyiv) will not undertake any actions that might threaten Russia itself or the survival of the Russian state, lest Putin escalate the conflict and engulf all of Europe in a new World War. In exchange, it expects that the Kremlin won’t escalate the war beyond Ukraine or resort to the use of nuclear weapons.
“What is happening off the battlefield is now most important,” says the official, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly. “Both sides pledge to limit their actions, but it falls to the United States to enforce those pledges. This all hinges on the quality of our intelligence.”
“There is a clandestine war, with clandestine rules, underlying all of what is going on in Ukraine,” says a Biden administration senior intelligence official who also spoke with Newsweek.
The official (and numerous other national security officials who spoke to Newsweek) say that Washington and Moscow have decades of experience crafting these clandestine rules, necessitating that the CIA play an outsize role: as primary spy, as negotiator, as supplier of intelligence, as logistician, as wrangler of a network of sensitive NATO relations and perhaps most important of all, as the agency trying to ensure the war does not further spin out of control.
Newsweek has examined in depth the scale and scope of the CIA’s activities in Ukraine, especially in light of growing Congressional questions about the extent of U.S. aid and whether President Biden is keeping his pledge not to have “boots on the ground.” Neither the CIA nor the White House would give specific responses for confirmation, but they asked that Newsweek not reveal the specific locations of CIA operations inside Ukraine or Poland, that it not name other countries involved in the clandestine CIA efforts and that it not name the air service that is supporting the clandestine U.S. logistics effort. After repeated requests for an on-the-record comment, the CIA declined. Neither the Ukrainian nor Russian governments responded to requests for comment.
Over the course of its three-month investigation, Newsweek spoke to over a dozen intelligence experts and officials. Newsweek also sought out contrary views. All of the credible experts and officials Newsweek spoke to agreed that the CIA has been successful in discreetly playing its part in dealing with Kyiv and Moscow, in moving mountains of information and materiel and in dealing with a diverse set of other countries, some of whom are quietly helping while also trying to stay out of Russia’s crosshairs. And they did not dispute that on the CIA’s main task — knowing what is going on in the minds of the leaders of Russia and Ukraine — the Agency has had to struggle.
The Newsweek report said:
Intelligence experts say this war is unique in that the United States is aligned with Ukraine, yet the two countries are not allies.
Thus, much of what Washington does to aid Ukraine is kept secret – and much of what is normally in the realm of the U.S. military is being carried out by the Agency.
“The corporate CIA worries that too much bravado about its role could provoke Putin,” the intelligence official says.
That is partly why the CIA is also keen to distance itself from anything that suggests a direct attack on Russia and any role in actual combat — something Kyiv has repeatedly done, from the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline and the Kerch Strait bridge to drone and special operations attacks across the border. These attacks seem contrary to pledges by Zelensky that Ukraine would not take actions that might expand the scope of the war.
“The view advanced by many that the CIA is central to the fighting — say, for instance, in killing Russian generals on the battlefield or in important strikes outside Ukraine, such as the sinking of the Moskva flagship–doesn’t play well in Kyiv,” says one retired senior military intelligence official granted anonymity to speak with Newsweek.
The CIA was central to the war even before it started. At the beginning of his administration, Biden tapped director William Burns as his global trouble shooter — a clandestine operator able to communicate with foreign leaders outside normal channels, someone who could occupy important geopolitical space between overt and covert, and an official who could organize work in the arena that exists between what is strictly military and what is strictly civilian.
As former Ambassador to Russia, Burns has been particularly influential with regard to Ukraine. The CIA had been monitoring Russia’s buildup and in November 2021, three months before the invasion, Biden dispatched Burns to Moscow to warn the Kremlin of the consequences of any attack. Though the Russian president snubbed Biden’s emissary by staying at his retreat in Sochi on the Black Sea, 800 miles away, he did agree to speak with Burns via a Kremlin secure phone.
“In some ironic ways though, the meeting was highly successful,” says the second senior intelligence official, who was briefed on it. Even though Russia invaded, the two countries were able to accept tried and true rules of the road. The United States would not fight directly nor seek regime change, the Biden administration pledged. Russia would limit its assault to Ukraine and act in accordance with unstated but well-understood guidelines for secret operations.
“There are clandestine rules of the road,” says the senior defense intelligence official, “even if they are not codified on paper, particularly when one is not engaged in a war of annihilation.” This includes staying within day-to-day boundaries of spying, not crossing certain borders and not attacking each other’s leadership or diplomats. “Generally the Russians have respected these global red lines, even if those lines are invisible,” the official says.
The report added:
By last July, both sides settled in for a long war. As the war shifted, Washington’s focus changed from very public and symbolic troop deployments to Europe to “deter” further Russian moves, to providing weapons to sustain Ukraine’s ability to fight.
Behind the scenes, dozens of countries also had to be persuaded to accept the Biden administration’s limits. Some of these countries, including Britain and Poland, are willing to take more risk than the White House is comfortable with. Others — including some of Ukraine’s neighbors — do not entirely share American and Ukrainian zeal for the conflict, do not enjoy unanimous public support in their anti-Russian efforts and do not want to antagonize Putin.
The report added:
It fell to the CIA to manage this underworld, working through its foreign intelligence counterparts and secret police rather than public politicians and diplomats. The Agency established its own operating bases and staging areas. The CIA sought help from Ukraine’s neighbors in better understanding Putin as well as Zelensky and his administration. Agency personnel went into and out of Ukraine on secret missions, to assist with the operations of new weapons and systems, some of which were not publicly divulged. But the CIA operations were always conducted with an eye to avoid direct confrontation with Russian troops.
“The CIA has been operating inside Ukraine, under strict rules, and with a cap on how many personnel can be in country at any one time,” says another senior military intelligence official. “Black special operators are restricted from conducting clandestine missions, and when they do, it is within a very narrow scope.” (Black special operations refers to those that are conducted clandestinely.)
Simply, CIA personnel can routinely go — and can do — what U.S. military personnel cannot. That includes inside Ukraine. The military, on the other hand, is restricted from entering Ukraine, except under strict guidelines that have to be approved by the White House. This limits the Pentagon to a small number of Embassy personnel in Kyiv. Newsweek was unable to establish the exact number of CIA personnel in Ukraine, but sources suggest it is less than 100 at any one time.
After all the members of the U.S. military were publicly withdrawn from Ukraine in February 2022 including special operations forces that had been behind the scenes, the White House established the roles that different agencies could play in the U.S. response. President Biden signed national security directives and a “presidential finding” authorizing certain covert operations against Russia. “Lanes of the road” were established between the Pentagon and the CIA, just as they had been established in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11. Burns and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin work closely together; the relations of the two agencies, according to the CIA, have never been better.
Now, more than a year after the invasion, the United States sustains two massive networks, one public and the other clandestine. Ships deliver goods to ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, and those supplies are moved by truck, train and air to Ukraine. Clandestinely though, a fleet of commercial aircraft (the “grey fleet”) crisscrosses Central and Eastern Europe, moving arms and supporting CIA operations. The CIA asked Newsweek not to identify specific bases where this network is operating, nor to name the contractor operating the planes. The senior administration official said much of the network had been successfully kept under wraps, and that it was wrong to assume that Russian intelligence knows the details of the CIA’s efforts. Washington believes that if the supply route were known, Russia would attack the hubs and routes, the official said.
None of this can be sustained without a major counter-intelligence effort to thwart Russia’s own spying, the bread-and-butter work of the Agency. Russian intelligence is very active in Ukraine, intelligence experts say, and almost anything the U.S. shares with Ukraine is assumed to also make it to Russian intelligence. Other Eastern European countries are equally riddled with Russian spies and sympathizers, particularly the frontline countries.
“A good part of our time is taken up hunting down Russian penetrations of foreign governments and intelligence services,” says a military counterintelligence official working on the Ukraine war. “We have been successful in identifying Russian spies inside the Ukrainian government and military, and at various other points in the supply chain. But Russian penetration of Eastern European countries, even those who are members of NATO, is deep, and Russian influence operations are of direct concern.”
As billions of dollars worth of arms started flowing through Eastern Europe, another issue that the CIA is working on is the task of fighting corruption, which turned out to be a major problem. This involves not only accounting for where weapons are going but also quashing the pilfering and kickbacks involved in the movement of so much materiel to Ukraine.
The Poland Connection
The Newsweek report said:
Less than a month after Russian tanks crossed the border on their way to Kyiv, CIA Director Burns landed in Warsaw, visiting with the directors of Poland’s intelligence agencies and putting together the final agreements that would allow the CIA to use Ukraine’s neighbor as its clandestine hub.
Since the end of the Cold War, Poland and the United States, through the CIA, have established particularly warm relations. Poland hosted a CIA torture “black site” in the village of Stare Kiejkuty during 2002-2003. And after the initial Russian invasion of Donbas and Crimea in 2014, CIA activity expanded to make Poland its third-largest station in Europe.
Poland officially became the center of NATO’s response, first in handling hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the battle, and then as the logistical hub for arms flowing back into Ukraine. The country also became the center of the overt military response. A forward headquarters for the Army V Corps (5th Corps) has been established in Poland. Additional supplies and ammunition for U.S. use are stored in Poland. A permanent Army garrison has been activated, the first ever to be located on NATO’s eastern flank, and today there are now about 10,000 American troops in Poland.
But Poland’s real value is its role in the CIA’s secret war. Burns returned to Warsaw last April, meeting again with Minister of the Interior and “special services” coordinator Mariusz Kaminski, his Polish counterpart, to discuss the scope of cooperation between the two countries, especially in collecting intelligence. From Poland, CIA case officers are able to connect with their many agents, including Ukrainian and Russian spies. CIA ground branch personnel of the Special Activities Center handle security and interact with their Ukrainian partners and the special operations forces of 20 nations, almost all of whom also operate from Polish bases. CIA cyber operators work closely with their Polish partners.
The closeness of U.S.-Polish relations particularly paid off over 24 hours last November. Burns was at Turkish intelligence headquarters in Ankara meeting with Sergei Naryshkin, his Russian counterpart. There he stressed “strategic stability,” according to a senior U.S. government official, and he delivered a new backchannel warning that the United States would not tolerate nuclear threats or escalation. From Turkey he flew on to Ukraine to brief Zelensky on the talks.
While he was in transit, a missile landed in the Polish town of Przewodow, less than 20 miles from the Ukraine border, setting off a diplomatic and press frenzy. A Russian attack on a NATO country would trigger Article 5 of the NATO charter, the principle that an attack on one was an attack on all. But U.S. intelligence, through monitoring thermal signatures that track every missile launch, immediately knew the missile originated from inside Ukraine and not from Russia. (It turned out to be a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile that had gone awry.) Burns got the intelligence from Washington and immediately transmitted it to Polish president Andrzej Duda.
One crisis was averted. But a new one was brewing. Strikes inside Russia were continuing and even increasing, contrary to the fundamental U.S. condition for supporting Ukraine. There was a mysterious spate of assassinations and acts of sabotage inside Russia, some occurring in and around Moscow. Some of the attacks, the CIA concluded, were domestic in origin, undertaken by a nascent Russian opposition. But others were the work of Ukraine — even if analysts were unsure of the extent of Zelensky’s direction or involvement.
Early in the war, Kyiv made its own “non-agreement” with Washington to accept the Biden administration’s limitations on attacking Russia, even though that put it at a military disadvantage as Russian forces launched air and missile attacks from their own territory. In exchange, the U.S. promised arms and intelligence that came in ever greater quantities and firepower as Zelensky pushed harder.
The “non-agreement held up for quite some time. There were occasional cross-border artillery attacks and some errant weapons that landed in Russia; in each case Ukraine denied any involvement.
Then came the attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines on September 26.
Next came the truck bomb attack on the Kerch Strait bridge on October 8.
“The CIA learned with the attack on the Crimea bridge that Zelensky either did not have complete control over his own military or did not want to know of certain actions,” says the military intelligence official.
The Kerch bridge attack was followed by an even longer-range strike on the Engels Russian bomber base, almost 700 miles from Kyiv. The CIA did not know about any of these attacks beforehand, according to a senior U.S. official, but rumors started to circulate that the Agency was, through some mysterious third party, directing others to strike Russia.
In January this year, Burns was back in Kyiv to meet with Zelensky and his Ukrainian counterparts, discussing the clandestine war and the need to preserve strategic stability.
All of this culminated in the May 3 drone attack inside the Kremlin walls in Moscow. Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev blamed the United States and Britain, saying that “the terrorist attacks committed in Russia are…designed to destabilize the socio-political situation, and to undermine the constitutional foundations and sovereignty of Russia.”
A senior Polish government official told Newsweek that it might be impossible to convince Kyiv to abide by the non-agreement it made to keep the war limited. “In my humble opinion, the CIA fails to understand the nature of the Ukrainian state and the reckless factions that exist there,” says the Polish official, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
In response, the senior U.S. defense intelligence official stressed the delicate balance the Agency must maintain in its many roles, saying: “I hesitate to say that the CIA has failed.” But the official said sabotage attacks and cross border fighting created a whole new complication and continuing Ukrainian sabotage “could have disastrous consequences.”
Another media report said:
Ukraine officials told Burns they aim to move artillery and missile systems near the boundary line of Crimea and push further into eastern Ukraine by the fall. Then Kiev intends to open negotiations with Moscow for the first time since they broke down in March of last year, the report said, citing people involved with the planning.
Officials reportedly later said they hope by agreeing not to take Crimea, Russia would accept whatever security guarantees Kiev can secure from the West.
One Ukrainian official told the outlet “the US agrees that Ukraine should enter the negotiations from a strong position.”
Ukrainian Special Forces Get Targets From CIA Satellite
Soldiers of Ukraine’s ‘Thor’ special operations group are using satellite data provided by the CIA to choose targets when conducting drone strikes against Russian forces, the unit’s commander told The Times.
The 27-man group, which is formally a police special operations unit, functions independently from the Ukrainian army and works in close collaboration with the country’s military intelligence, the GUR, which provides them with ammunition and intel. According to The Times, the unit has complete license to select its missions, where it barracks and when it fights.
The unit’s commander, whose name is said to also be Thor, claims he uses a special application on a tablet that is synced to a CIA satellite to select potential targets for their attacks.
“We select targets in the program, and targets can be placed there both by the CIA satellite and by our own satellite, which our volunteers pay for,” Thor told the outlet.
Another member of the group told the Times that Thor also intentionally uses drones to maim – rather than kill – Russian servicemen.
According to the Times, all members of Thor are veterans of Ukraine’s 2014 military operation against anti-Kiev forces in the Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Russia has long accused the US and its allies of being directly involved in the Ukraine conflict and essentially waging a “proxy war” against Russia by continuing to provide Kiev’s forces with increasingly advanced weaponry, ammunition and intelligence.