A recent New York Times story by no less than three writers carried the headline,
“U.S. Intelligence Is Helping Ukraine Kill Russian Generals, Officials Say”
The story claims that anonymous sources in the intel community and the Pentagon had confirmed that US intelligence played a vital role in killing as many as 12 Russian generals in the last two months since Russia invaded Ukraine,
“The United States has provided intelligence about Russian units that has allowed Ukrainians to target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action in the Ukraine war, according to senior American officials.
The targeting help is part of a classified effort by the Biden administration to provide real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine. That intelligence also includes anticipated Russian troop movements gleaned from recent American assessments of Moscow’s secret battle plan for the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the officials said. Officials declined to specify how many generals had been killed as a result of U.S. assistance.
The United States has focused on providing the location and other details about the Russian military’s mobile headquarters, which relocate frequently. Ukrainian officials have combined that geographic information with their own intelligence — including intercepted communications that alert the Ukrainian military to the presence of senior Russian officers — to conduct artillery strikes and other attacks that have killed Russian officers.”
National Security Council Quickly Refutes Story
Sometime after the article was published on May 4th, a paragraph was added that directly contradicted the story’s premise,
“After this article published, Adrienne Watson, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement that the battlefield intelligence was not provided to the Ukrainians “with the intent to kill Russian generals.”
Watson went on further to say that the US self-prohibits providing intelligence about senior Russian leaders.
One might believe the Ukrainians could get that lucky if we were talking about a single Russian general getting bumped off, but 12?
Along with about 30 colonels and navy captains too?
Nobody is that lucky.
The article states that US officials would only identify the location of a headquarters but that Ukraine would do the rest. One has to assume that the Ukrainian military does not know how to look at a satellite image and see a headquarters in the woods without US help. This is the easy part.
The Hard Part
Without question, the targeted strikes on these officers came from signal intelligence as well, and this is actually the hard part. One of the methods employed to locate these individuals was by their use of cell phones which give off a signal that can be triangulated within a few feet of its location. Ever lose your phone and activate the Find My Phone feature? It pings your phone off of several towers and measures the relative signal strength between them to calculate your phone’s distance from each of the towers to let you know it’s between the couch cushions.
The trick is how to know which phone you are trying to locate. And you don’t just want the general’s phone ID, you want those of his deputies and aides as well, and that of his personal driver too. See, that way, if the General changes phones, you can still track him by the movement of the phones of his staff traveling with him, and that new phone previously undetected within that group? That would be the generals’ new phone, of course.
This is the part that is probably well beyond the technical ability of Ukraine’s intelligence agency, but it is entirely within the means of a major Nation-State like the US. We have the ability to sift through millions of phones and identify them by the owner by various means, including turning on its microphone remotely and listening to everything within earshot of it.
Sun Tzu said, “If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him.” What he is saying is to exploit the revealed weakness of your opponent so he will act rashly out of emotion. Had the ancient Chinese strategist met the Russians he might have also said, “If your opponent is paranoid and suspicious, make him believe you can read his every thought.”
In this leak to the NY Times, the leakers probably thought what they were doing would further cripple Russia’s already tattered communications. Command and control of any army requires secure communications and security for those doing the actual communicating of orders to their subordinate commands. Revealing that we could locate the communicators of orders and instructions and see them killed would make any Russian general think twice before using radio, phone or other means of communications and since the faults of the Russian command structure requires senior officers to be at the front to get anything done, it might also cause them to remain well in the rear and out of range of Ukrainian artillery, rockets or drones.
This would seriously handicap the Russian command and control system more than it is now and it’s really a clever tactic, except for the one thing that probably required the immediate walk back by the NSC.
We aren’t supposed to be targeting Russian leaders to be killed according to a rather longstanding agreement with Russia.
Yes, with Russia.
During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union had a kind of gentlemen’s agreement to not hunt each other’s spies down and kill each other. It made sense. US and Soviet Embassies in locations all over the world were close by each other and both were filled with CIA and KGB agents posing as diplomatic attaches or even embassy janitors. Had such an agreement not been in place, CIA and KGB agents would have been killing each other in cities all over the world constantly in a tit-for-tat fashion. This agreement was informally known as the Moscow Rules, and under these rules, the US and USSR agreed not to attack each other physically and not do certain things, like counterfeiting each other’s money and interfering in each other’s internal politics(Yeah, I know). In all those years, the CIA and by extension our other intelligence agencies have not killed any Russian agents, dissidents, political opponents, or U.S. Traitors. Russia has pretty much followed the rules as well.
After it was revealed that the CIA had attempted to kill(several times) Cuban leader Fidel Castro and others President Ford issued a Presidential Directive, number 1105 which said in part, “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”
The Directive has been affirmed and amended several times since then to now read under #12333, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
The problem with this Directive is the word “assassination” which is not really defined very clearly. What is an assassination under these terms? Does it include the generals of a foreign army that we provide intelligence on that allows them to be killed by a third party? Under these terms, intel provided to Ukraine would qualify under “engage in” or “conspire to engage in” an assassination.
Would the Russians consider their generals and colonels political officials? Most likely the answer is yes, because they owe their status to a political act of government and they are political actors in the sense that they work for the Russian government under its direct orders.
Maintaining the status quo of the Moscow Rules and the wording of Directive 12333 is the most likely reason a member of the National Security Council was so quick to walk the entire premise of the New York Times story back. The Russians could take these actions as a reason to take reprisals against US officers of similar rank. Not with a missile on a general or admiral’s house, but with a few thousand dollars, a loaded pistol, and a home address given to a criminal, who would be killed himself when he returned to ask for the other half of his payment.
Members of the intelligence community could also end up before Congress in classified hearings explaining why they apparently violated a long-standing Presidential Directive designed to prevent a dangerous tit for tat escalation of assassinations between two nuclear powers like the US and Russia.