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The U.S. really wants Russia to know it’s helping Ukraine with intelligence. But is that a good idea?

May 5, 2022, 12:37 PM UTC

A dozen Russian generals are now thought to have perished in the country’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian side, with “many” of them reportedly dead because of U.S. military intelligence.

In a remarkable move, senior U.S. officials this week spoke to the New York Times about the intelligence the country has been supplying to Kyiv—mainly in the form of location and other information about Russia’s mobile military headquarters—which has helped Ukrainian forces kill Russian generals on the front line.

The U.S. also says it has been providing details of anticipated Russian troop movements.

The Times article does not directly quote any named intelligence officials regarding the information being shared, though Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the paper that the U.S. does give Ukraine “information and intelligence that they can use to defend themselves.”

U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson also claimed the intelligence sharing was not intended as a means of killing Russian generals.

Indeed, this appears to be the latest episode in the West’s recent drive to make sure Russia knows how much it is increasing support for Ukraine—but without tipping into a direct confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s army.

Last week, British ministers openly said they were fine with Ukraine using British weapons to attack targets on Russian soil. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said to do so was “completely legitimate.”

It is not surprising that U.S. intelligence is being used to target Russian generals and that British weapons may be used to strike targets within Russia, but vocalizing these things “is not necessarily the greatest PR move,” said William Alberque, director of strategy, technology, and arms control at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

“I’m not sure what message they’re sending and why,” he told Fortune Thursday. “Maybe there is a big plan behind this and I just don’t see it.”

Alberque pointed out that Russia already clearly believes the West is getting increasingly involved in its conflict with Ukraine. He also said the U.S., the EU, and Sweden have since the start of the war signaled that they are sharing real-time intelligence with Ukraine.

“I doubt they’re saying, ‘This general is right here; here are his coordinates,’” he added.

“It is absolutely unsurprising that from time to time some of this information is going to include details of when generals are moving forward and where [military meetings] are happening,” Alberque said. “The fact that [the U.S. officials have] linked it directly to the killing of generals is rather extraordinary.

“Personally, I think that’s better left unsaid because I don’t see what you get by that. I would rather the Russians not know exactly what’s happening.”

Meanwhile, the rhetoric from the Russian side has not been quite as escalatory this week as it was last—at least if we discount nationalistic Russian TV pundit Dmitry Kiselyov broadcasting a fanciful simulation of a Russian nuclear weapon causing a tidal wave that destroys the British Isles.

The Russian defense ministry did announce Wednesday that it had undertaken a simulated missile strike exercise involving its nuclear-capable Iskander missiles hitting targets near EU borders.

However, Russia has already regularly used non-nuclear-equipped Iskanders in its Ukraine invasion, and the only nuclear reference in the announcement was when the ministry said the exercise had also seen “combat crews of the fleet’s missile unit [practice] operating in conditions of radiation and chemical contamination.”

“It’s a reminder” of Russia’s nuclear capability, said Alberque, who suggested the target audience was Western officials and experts such as himself, rather than the general public.

“Russia has been using signals to induce restraint on our part. [Putin] wants us to argue against ourselves. That’s part of his strategy,” Alberque said. “I don’t think this is a substantial change in posture…[Russia is] trying to make experts amplify Russian deterrence messaging, and as such, very well done.”

“It is not an escalation or a prelude to nuclear use,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, of Russia’s Iskander exercise. “It fits within a wider pattern of signaling that Russia has used for years to try to make its nuclear threats more credible.”

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