Special forces on the ground. Undisclosed arms transfers. The documents offer a snapshot of Europe’s involvement in the war.
BY CRISTINA GALLARDO AND JACOPO BARIGAZZI
APRIL 14, 2023 – https://www.politico.eu/
Europe has special forces on the ground in Ukraine. Poland and Slovenia are providing nearly half of the tanks heading to Kyiv. And Hungary may be letting arms through its airspace.
Those are just a few of the eye-catching details about Europe’s participation in the war buried in a 53-page dossier POLITICO reviewed from a leak of unverified U.S. military intelligence documents.
The disclosure has generated a tempest of head-spinning revelations that has the U.S. playing clean-up with allies. The documents detail American doubts about Ukraine’s spring offensive, suggest it was spying on South Korea and display intelligence accusing Egypt of plotting to prop up Russia’s quixotic war.
Yet Europe, for the most part, has been spared these relationship-damaging divulgences.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t knowledge to be gleaned about Europe’s war effort from the documents, however. The leaked files contain insights on everything from a U.K.-dominated special forces group in Ukraine to how — and when — France and Spain are getting a key missile system to the battlefield. The documents also contain allegations that Turkey is a potential source of arms for Russian mercenaries.
POLITICO has not independently verified the documents, and there have been indications that some of the leaked pages were doctored. But the U.S. has acknowledged the intelligence breach and arrested a suspect late on Thursday.
Here are a few of POLITICO’s findings after poring over the file.
Europe has boots on the ground
There is a Europe-heavy special forces group operating in Ukraine — at least as of March 23 — according to the documents.
The United Kingdom dominates the 97-person strong “US/NATO” contingent with 50 special forces members. The group also includes 17 people from Latvia, 15 from France and one from the Netherlands. Fourteen U.S. personnel round out the team.
The leaked information does not specify which activities the forces are carrying out or their location in Ukraine. The documents also show the U.S. has about 100 personnel in total in the country.
Predictably, governments have remained mostly mum on the subject. The Brits have refused to comment, while the White House has conceded there is a “small U.S. military presence” at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, stressing that the troops “are not fighting on the battlefield.” France previously denied that its forces were “engaged in operations in Ukraine.”
The rest of the countries did not reply to a request for comment.
Europe is providing the bulk of the tanks
Tanks are one area where Europe — collectively — is outpacing America.
Within the file, one page gives an overview of the 200 tanks that U.S. allies have committed to sending Ukraine — 53 short of what the document says Ukraine needs for its spring offensive.
Poland and Slovenia appear to be the largest contributors, committing nearly half of the total, according to an assessment dated February 23. France and the U.K. are also key players, pitching in 14 tanks each.
Then there’s the Leopard 2 crew, which is donating versions of the modern German battle tanks that Ukraine spent months convincing allies it needed. That lineup includes Germany, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Greece and Finland.
The document indicates Germany had committed just four Leopard 2s — the most high-end model — but Berlin said in late March that it had delivered 18 Leopards to Ukraine. It also shows Sweden pledging 10 tanks of an “unknown type,” which media reports suggest may be Leopards.
Separately, the U.S. has said it will send Ukraine 31 of its modern tanks, though those aren’t expected to arrive until at least the fall.
Europe’s deliveries are lagging, too
The idea behind Europe taking the lead on tanks was partly that it could get the tanks to Ukraine and ready for battle swiftly — ideally in time for the spring offensive.
But the document shows that as of February 23, only 31 percent of the 200 tanks pledged had gotten to the battlefield. It did note, however, that the remaining 120 tanks were on track to be transferred.
Separately, another leaked page recounts that France told Italy on February 22 that a joint missile system would not be ready for Ukraine until June. That’s the very end of a timeline the Italian defense ministry laid out in February, when officials said the anti-aircraft defense system would be delivered to Ukraine “in the spring of 2023.”
Hungary sees America as the enemy — but might be letting allies use its airspace
Hungary pops up a couple of times in the pile of creased pages, offering more insights into a country that regularly perplexes its own allies.
The most eye-popping nugget is buried in a “top secret” CIA update from March 2, which says Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán branded the U.S. “one of his party’s top three adversaries during a political strategy session” on February 22.
The remarks, it notes, constitute “an escalation of the level of anti-American rhetoric” from Orbán.
Indeed, Orbán’s government has charted its own course during the war, promoting Russia-friendly narratives, essentially calling on Ukraine to quit and caustically dismissing allied efforts to isolate Russia’s economy.
However, the leaked U.S. documents also indicate Hungary — which shares a small border with Ukraine — may be secretly letting allies use its airspace to move arms toward the battlefield, despite pledges to bar such transfers.
One of the leaked documents details a plan for Ukrainian pilots to fly donated helicopters from Croatia to Ukraine “through Hungarian air space.” If true, the information would not only show Hungary is letting arms pass through its skies, but also contradict press reports indicating the helicopters would be transferred on the ground or through flights into Poland.
Hungarian and Croatian officials didn’t reply to requests for comment.
Did the Brits downplay a confrontation with Russia?
Publicly, the U.K. has told a consistent story: A Russian fighter jet “released” a missile “in the vicinity” of a U.K. surveillance plane over the Black Sea last September. A close call, to be sure, but not a major incident.
The leaked U.S. dossier, however, hints at something more serious. It describes the incident as a “near shoot-down” of the British aircraft. The language appears to go beyond what U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told lawmakers last October. This week, The New York Times reported that the Russian pilot had locked on the British aircraft before the missile failed to fire properly.
The document also details several other close encounters in recent months between Russian fighter jets and U.S., U.K. and French surveillance aircraft — a subject that jumped into the news last month when a Russian fighter jet collided with a U.S. drone, sending it crashing into the Black Sea.
Wallace has not commented on the leaked description, and a ministry spokesperson on Thursday pointed to a prior statement saying there was a “serious level of inaccuracy” in the divulged dossier.
Turkey is the war’s middleman in Europe
Turkey has portrayed itself as a conciliator between Ukraine and Russia, helping negotiate a deal to keep grain shipments flowing through the Black Sea and maintaining diplomatic ties with Russia while also providing Ukraine with drones.
The leaked pile of clandestine U.S. intelligence reports, however, shows a darker side to Turkey’s position as a middleman that distinctly favors Russia.
One page describes how Turkey helped both Russia and its ally Belarus evade strict Western sanctions — a concern U.S. officials have expressed publicly.
For Belarus, the document says, “Turkish companies purchased sanctioned goods” and then “sold them in European markets.” In the opposite direction, it adds, these companies “resold goods from Europe to Russia.”
More alarming is another leaked document that describes a meeting in February between “Turkish contacts” and the Wagner Group, the private militia firm fighting for the Kremlin. It says Wagner was seeking “to purchase weapons and equipment from Turkey” for the group’s “efforts in Mali and Ukraine.”
The information, which the document says came from “signals intelligence” — a euphemism for digital surveillance — does not explain whether the purchases have occurred.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.