Intelligence sharing between U.S. and Ukrainian spy agencies has expanded significantly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, with the two countries exchanging information gained from eavesdropping on Russian military activities and cooperating on cybersecurity issues, according to more than half a dozen former U.S. and national intelligence agencies. security officials.
US and Ukrainian intelligence services have even participated in joint offensive cyber operations against Russian government targets, according to former officials.
CIA officials have also visited Ukraine regularly for intelligence exchanges, and Ukrainian intelligence officials have made reciprocal visits to the United States to exchange information, according to former officials.
The exchanges are just one part of a growing, albeit informal, intelligence alliance between the United States and Ukraine. Yahoo News previously reported that, since 2015, CIA paramilitaries have held a secret training program for Ukrainian special ops personnel and other Ukrainian intelligence officials at an undisclosed facility in the southern United States.
While unique, in many ways the US-Ukrainian intelligence relationship “is about as strong…as anyone else in Europe,” says a former senior CIA official.
US officials deemed the partnership critical enough to at least partially overcome long-standing security concerns within the US intelligence community over Russian penetration of Ukrainian spy services. Historically, CIA personnel were even banned from socializing with Ukrainian nationals and required to officially report any contact with them, for fear of pro-Russian elements, according to former officials.
For their part, before 2014, many Ukrainian security officials — aware of the immutable facts of geography, or ideologically pro-Russian, or simply opportunistic in nature — were skeptical of the idea of throwing themselves into the United States.
But Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, its support for separatists in two breakaway provinces and its repeated slashing of Ukraine’s borders have caused a tilt towards Washington – accelerating the very movement towards the West that the actions of Moscow ostensibly tried to prevent.
Now, with US officials growing confident that Russian President Vladimir Putin will order another military incursion into Ukraine and more than 100,000 Russian troops massing on that country’s border, the budding intelligence relationship between the United States and Ukraine could be tested like never before.
So far, the partnership has paid off for both parties. Intelligence provided by the Ukrainians – often based on intercepted communications – regarding Russian military activities in eastern Ukraine and western Russia has been particularly valuable to the NSA and CIA, according to reports. former officials.
The CIA declined to comment. The NSA did not respond to a request for comment.
Due to the War on Terror and the so-called pivot to Asia, the NSA’s coverage of Europe had shrunk in 2014, with US spy satellites also blocked in the Middle East, according to reports. former officials. As US agencies rushed to redirect technical resources to Eastern Europe after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine’s own interception capabilities helped fill the gaps in information and have remained an important intelligence feed for the United States ever since.
“The latency and granularity of their information was just better than what we had,” said a former NSA official. The Ukrainians were reportedly adept at picking up Russian tactical battlefield communications, such as those from unencrypted Russian military radios.
The NSA’s weak collection capabilities in the region – and the need for Ukrainian or outside intelligence support – were underscored by its lack of good intelligence on the ground after Russian-backed forces shot down a plane. Malaysian civilian airliner flying over Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board, a former official recalled.
Although the NSA eventually stepped up its espionage in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, simply because of its location, continues to have an inherent advantage in technical espionage of Russia, according to former officials. . “At the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to proximity and line of sight and the Ukrainians, because of where they are, are a huge SIGINT [signals intelligence] platform for the Russians,” the former senior CIA official said.
The United States and Ukraine have also increasingly cooperated on cybersecurity issues. What began with the Ukrainians ad hoc sharing with the United States of Russian malware samples – including from Russia’s 2015 cyberattack on Ukraine’s power grid and the catastrophic 2017 NotPetya attacks, which crippled Ukrainian banks, government agencies and the country’s energy grid before spreading globally – became more formalized over time, former officials say. U.S. intelligence officials have also traveled to Ukraine to examine systems targeted by Russian cyber attacks to learn more about how to protect U.S. national critical infrastructure and help Ukrainians defend against future attacks.
Recently, the Ukrainians passed samples of the WhisperGate malware, which was used last month to destroy data on Ukrainian government websites, to contacts at the US Army Cyber Command for analysis, according to a former US intelligence official. (Cyber Command did not return a request for comment.)
But cooperation on cyber issues has gone beyond information sharing. Seeking to retaliate against the Russians for the 2016 campaign of election interference, the CIA began working with the Ukrainians on joint offensive cyber operations to disrupt Russian government targets, according to former US officials.
“The Ukrainians had a good understanding at the tactical level of Russian cyber operations,” explains the former intelligence official. “I was surprised at what we shared with them, what we did with them” on offensive cyber operations, recalled this former manager.
According to a former national security official, joint U.S.-Ukrainian cyber operations have increased under the Trump administration, which shifted decision-making powers for such activities from the National Security Council to CIA and intelligence officials. NSA.
Ukraine also played a critical role in providing US spy agencies with financial intelligence, which was shared with Treasury Department investigators involved in the sanctions designations, according to former officials. (The Treasury did not return a request for comment.)
This intelligence “was most useful for things like financial flows into the country, and Russian or Ukrainian oligarchs who might be in Russia or have ties to the Russian government – there’s a wealth of information they had otherwise we would have had a lot more trouble accessing time,” the former national security official said.
US intelligence agencies have looked for ways to reciprocate, albeit cautiously. Senior NSA officials instructed subordinates to find intelligence that could be shared with Ukrainians without revealing sensitive US spy techniques, former officials say, sometimes with the idea that US capabilities could help confirm previous Ukrainian reports, bolstering Ukraine’s confidence in its own intelligence flows. .
But while generally beneficial to US spy agencies, the information provided by Ukrainians can be spotty.
Their analysis was often “intriguing” and “not considered authoritative”, said a former agency official.
Some CIA officials suspected that the Ukrainians’ analysis or reporting was more aimed at persuading US decision-makers on particular issues, former agency officials recalled.
How seriously taking reports from Ukrainians has become a matter of debate within the CIA, according to the agency’s former top official.
“There have certainly been excuses for ‘How dare you criticize or think twice about everything Ukrainians tell us,’ which has been frustrating for many analysts,” said the former senior law enforcement official. CIA.
But overall, say former officials, the evolution of U.S.-Ukrainian intelligence relations has been mutually beneficial — and even friendly at times. During a trip to the United States, according to a former CIA official, Ukrainian intelligence officials brought a gift to their agency’s interlocutors: rolls of toilet paper with Putin’s face printed on them, and T-shirts with his face on it with text that read: in Russian, “Putin is an asshole”.