The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leaked documents warn of weaknesses in Ukraine’s defenses

Ukrainian air defense personnel stand next to pickups used to hunt weaponized drones. (Roman Pilipey/Getty Images)
9 min

Leaked U.S. military and intelligence documents indicate alarming Ukrainian shortfalls in Western-supplied weaponry — especially ammunition and air defense — even as they show deep American penetration into Russian plans, equipment and manpower.

The disclosures offer an extraordinarily detailed snapshot of battlefield conditions in the Ukraine war from late February and early March, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the rate of Ukraine’s expenditure of ammunition was “many times higher” than the rate at which its benefactors could produce it.

That vulnerability and urgency still exists. The United States, NATO, the European Union and allies much farther afield have been furiously seeking more ammunition from South Korea to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the means to produce more themselves in anticipation of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that may just be weeks away.

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Air defense, to protect sensitive sites, military personnel and equipment and civilians, is also critical. According to one of the documents, a late February assessment from the Defense Department’s Joint Staff, Ukraine’s “ability to provide medium range air defense to protect the [front lines] will be completely reduced by May 23. UKR assessed to withstand 2-3 more wave strikes” from attacking Russian missiles and drones.

“As 1st Layer Defense munitions run out, 2nd and 3rd Layer expenditure rates will increase, reducing the ability to defend against Russian aerial attacks from all altitudes,” the classified document says.

This assessment is among the dozens of images leaked online, and later obtained by The Washington Post and other news outlets, appearing to show battlefield updates and assessments of Ukraine’s defense capabilities, worldwide intelligence briefings on a host of other countries, and far more. Information within the documents, dating to late February and early March, appears to have been prepared for senior Pentagon leaders and made available to hundreds of other personnel and contract employees with appropriate security clearances. The Justice Department said it has opened an investigation.

Following that bleak appraisal, and faced still with the peril in which Ukraine finds itself, the United States and NATO allies have rushed the government in Kyiv myriad air defense systems, creating a patchwork of capabilities to augment its mostly Soviet and Russian-built systems.

Col. Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian air force, downplayed the value of the information to Moscow, describing air defense as an asset that constantly shifts with battlefield conditions and Russian reconnaissance, making month-old information obsolete by now. “We are constantly changing positions. Therefore let it be published today in one place; tomorrow we will be in another ….we are forced to work like this because otherwise the enemy will exhaust and destroy us.”

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A senior Ukrainian official on Saturday said the leaks had angered Kyiv’s military and political leaders, who have sought to conceal vulnerabilities related to ammunition shortages and other battlefield data from the Kremlin over the course of the war — some of which have also been expressed to journalists by Ukrainian troops on the ground. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the media, also expressed concern that more leaks of classified military intelligence would be forthcoming.

The U.S. military and other allies have described the upcoming effort to regain territory occupied by Russia this spring as a make-or-break effort. Although pressure is building among some in Congress to cut back on the tens of billions of dollars in aid Washington continues to supply, Ukraine still maintains strong support from both Republicans and Democrats. President Biden has said U.S. aid will continue “as long as it takes” for Russian capitulation or an agreed negotiation.

The Pentagon has said it is providing to Ukraine what it needs when it needs it, and the supply problems have been publicly documented in broad terms. But the purported classified assessments are far more specific and paint a much more dire picture of Ukraine’s ability to defend its skies. They conclude that systems sent by the West are limited in number, sometimes a mismatch for Russian capabilities and often struggle to keep up with the high volume of Russian salvos.

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One chart contained in the leak shows the burn rate of Ukrainian air defense projectiles and specifies the time frames for depletion, predicting that SA-11 systems will be out of commission by April 13, U.S.-made NASAMs by April 15, and SA-8s by May. On another chart, the prediction that particular types of ammunition will run dry suggests that Ukrainian defenders should prioritize their efforts by targeting Russian jets and helicopters but hold fire on smaller threats such as drones.

While the U.S. and the West have scoured for limited stockpiles of Soviet-era munitions, Ihnat acknowledged the peril of the dwindling inventory described in the documents, saying the munitions are made by Russia, which complicates resupply. “There is nowhere else to get it, so sooner or later it will run out,” he said.

The United States in recent days has announced the transfer of systems such as gun trucks that use cannons to shoot down drones, which can help lessen the pressure on bigger systems that are better-suited to take down missiles and aircraft. Last month, the Pentagon said it would accelerate delivery of the advanced Patriot air defense system, following the graduation of Ukrainian troops who had received compressed training on the system at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

While robust air defense on both sides has limited the use of air power in the war, the documents lay bare the consequences of what could happen if Ukraine’s ability is eroded. Russian aircraft could move more freely to conduct strikes or move troops, their missiles could fly on more expedient and direct routes and aircraft can play a more central role in attacking troops during counteroffensives, according to the documents.

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Conversely, a less protected Ukrainian force will face challenges in massing troops for such missions and could see diminished use of vital assets like close air support and aerial surveillance, and ultimately suffer an “inability to prevent Russian air superiority.”

Details within the documents also underscore vulnerabilities that are the reality of limited air defense in a conventional war: targets that must be defended at the cost of others. One map shows yellow dots where air defense systems are near critical infrastructure. Red dots show where such sites are unprotected. A projection for May shows red dots populating more of the map, presumably to show where destroyed or depleted systems are anticipated.

Ihnat and the Pentagon have said one of Russia’s strategies is to overwhelm and exhaust air defense systems with persistent strikes.

The documents illustrate both the urgency of air defense and its inherent scarcity, said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who reviewed some of them for The Post.

“This is what it looks like,” he said. “It’s always limited. It’s always finite. And in some respects, it’s amazing that [the Ukrainians] had sufficient capacity to hang out as long” as they have. “Air defense can’t win this conflict,” Karako said. “But its absence could lose it.”

The disclosures also provide deeper insight into the grinding artillery war playing out along the front lines in the east, where Ukraine is firing roughly 7,700 shells per day, or roughly one every six seconds, according to officials, although some estimates put the Russian output at triple that number.

While Russia may also may be feeling a supply pinch, Ukraine appears to be constantly approaching dangerous levels of low inventory, according to the documents. One slide indicates that nearly a million rounds of Western-provided 155 mm artillery rounds have been fired, and shows how fast they are consumed per day and expected timelines for resupply.

Without consistent resupply, the stockpile would dwindle within days, the document says. The chart shows a more steady use of rocket artillery but a similar dynamic of an always-near exhaustion date. Ukrainian use of the precision rockets is reliant on U.S. intelligence to sort out targets from installations in Europe.

Ukrainian troops recently interviewed on the battlefield have repeatedly said they have gone through periods of having to limit their targets while waiting for ammunition replenishment, both for their Soviet-era equipment and new artillery provided by the West. Some report having a howitzer with no ammunition, or vice versa.

The Pentagon has also cautioned them to be more discerning, while expressing hope that new training in combined arms maneuvers and the provision of armored assault vehicles and tanks will allow the Ukrainians to move more aggressively on the ground into occupied parts of the country.

Several of the leaked documents describe the fighting in and around Bakhmut, the small northeastern city that has been the symbolic centerpiece of the war for months as Russian troops have made incremental gains but the Ukrainians have held on. As the ongoing battle stood early last month, the Russians were close to surrounding the city on three sides, with heavy defenses behind them.

One document also briefly mentions the need to expedite a program called “FrankenSAM.” While Ukrainian officials said they were not familiar with the program, the term could refer to an improvised system of different components to fire surface-to-air missiles. Such weapons have already been described, like U.S.-made Sea Sparrow missiles that have been adapted to use with the Soviet-era Buk air defense system.

Morgunov reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. David L. Stern in Kyiv, and John Hudson, Dalton Bennett, Evan Hill and Samuel Oakford in Washington contributed to this report.

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