Russia Ukraine War

A local resident looks at his home, damaged in a Russian rocket attack in Sloviansk, Donetsk region, Ukraine on Friday. Roman Chop via Associated Press

Ukraine’s military intelligence agency developed plans to conduct covert attacks on Russian forces in Syria using secret Kurdish help, according to a leaked top-secret U.S. intelligence document.

The introduction of a new battlefield – thousands of miles from the war in Ukraine – appeared designed to impose costs and casualties on Russia and its Wagner paramilitary group, which is active in Syria, and possibly force Moscow to redeploy resources from Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directed a halt to the planning in December, but the leaked document, based on intelligence gathered as of Jan. 23, lays out in detail how the planning progressed and how such a campaign could proceed if Ukraine revived it.

The document – which in places bears the marking HCS-P, indicating that certain information is derived from human sources – details how officers of the Main Directorate of Intelligence, the Ukrainian defense ministry’s military intelligence service, could plan deniable attacks that would avoid implicating the Ukrainian government itself.

The Washington Post obtained the document, which has not been previously reported, from a trove of intelligence material allegedly leaked to a Discord chatroom by Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. The Department of Defense declined to comment.

President Vladimir Putin’s 2015 intervention in Syria to help the embattled Assad regime retain power during the civil war has created a permanent presence of thousands of Russian troops there. The deployment, which includes advanced warplanes and air defense systems, has bolstered Moscow’s regional presence but exists in an environment Russia does not totally control. Moscow transferred some troops and hardware from Syria to the Ukraine battlefield last fall, which may have led Kyiv to assess that their departure created vulnerabilities.


Attacks on Russian forces in Syria “might raise the threat level to the point where the Russians would need to call in reinforcements,” which could help the war effort back in Ukraine, said Aron Lund, a fellow at the think tank Century International.

Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of Ukraine’s Main Directorate for Intelligence, declined to comment.

During planning in December, the document states, Ukrainian military intelligence officers favored striking Russian forces using unmanned aerial vehicles and starting “small,” or possibly limiting their strikes only to forces of the Wagner mercenary group.

Ukrainian officers considered training operatives of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military force of Syria’s Kurdish-controlled autonomous northeast, to strike Russian targets and conduct “unspecified ‘direct action’ activities along with UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] attacks,” according to the document.

APTOPIX Russia Ukraine War

A Ukrainian soldier of the 28th brigade fires a grenade launcher on the frontline during a battle with Russian troops near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine on Friday. Libkos via Associated Press

As planning occurred last fall, the SDF sought training, air defense systems and a guarantee that its role would be kept secret in exchange for supporting Ukrainian operations. The leadership of the SDF also forbade strikes on Russian positions in Kurdish areas, the document says.

“The documents that you are talking about regarding our forces are not real; our forces have never been a side in the Russian-Ukrainian War,” said Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesperson.


The document indicates that Turkey was aware of the planning, stating that Turkish officials “sought to avoid potential blowback” and suggested that Ukraine stage its attacks from Kurdish areas instead of those in the north and northwest held by other rebel groups, some of them backed by Turkey.

Turkey opposes the SDF, however, and considers its core military element, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, to be a terrorist group. The SDF is the main partner of U.S. troops in Syria, where they often share bases on an ongoing mission to stifle the resurgence of the Islamic State.

The Turkish foreign ministry and embassy in the United States did not return requests for comment.

While it is not clear how much Ankara knew about Kyiv’s plan, having Ukraine help arm their enemy may not have been intolerable if Turkey thought it might draw a violent response from Moscow, according to a former U.S. official who worked in the region, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due of the sensitive nature of the intelligence.

“Turkey’s goal in the region is to eliminate the military capability and leadership of the SDF,” the former official said. “If Turkey were to be greeted with such a plan, it would be in their interest to bait the Ukraine-SDF alliance into drawing the wrath of Russia.”

Moscow likely knows the location of SDF units and would not face great difficulties in striking them, because SDF forces often operate near Russian military bases, the former official said.

Lund said that Ukraine’s plans represented a “high-risk project for the SDF,” which needs to maintain a good working relationship with Russia. “For the SDF to agree to something like this – it seems like a real gamble,” said Lund, who also works as a Middle East analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

In November, according to the leaked document, Ukrainian military intelligence officers identified potential logistical constraints to their ambitions, including “issues with intra-Kurdish border controls and establishing a base of operations.” By Dec. 29, the officers appear to have found out that Zelensky had halted their planning. It is unclear why Zelensky directed the HUR to cease planning operations, but the document assesses that he may have done so for a variety of reasons: U.S. pressure, Ukraine’s limited supply of drones or doubts about whether the attacks could succeed.

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