WASHINGTON — The United States released intelligence last month that helped Ukrainian forces locate and attack the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, another sign that the government is easing its self-imposed restrictions on how far it will go in helping Ukraine fight Russia, US officials said.
The targeting aid, which contributed to the eventual sinking of the flagship, the Moskva, is part of an ongoing covert effort by the Biden government to provide real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine. That information also includes sharing expected Russian troop movements, derived from a recent US assessment of Moscow’s battle plan for the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, officials said.
The government has sought to keep much of the battlefield and naval intelligence it shares with the Ukrainians secret for fear it will be seen as an escalation and provoke Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin into a wider war. But in recent weeks, the United States has been sending heavier weapons to Ukraine and asking Congress for an extraordinary $33 billion in additional military, economic and humanitarian aid, demonstrating how quickly US restrictions on aid to Ukraine are shifting.
Two senior US officials said Ukraine had already obtained the target data from the Moskva itself and that the United States was only providing confirmation. But other officials said US intelligence was crucial to Ukraine’s sinking of the ship.
US intelligence assistance in hitting the Moskva was previously reported by NBC News.
On April 13, Ukrainian forces on the ground fired two Neptune missiles, hitting the Moskva and igniting a fire that eventually sank the warship. Attention was also paid to whether the radar systems of the aging ship were working properly. Ukrainian and US officials said the Moskva may have been distracted by Ukraine’s deployment of a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone nearby.
Immediately after the strike, officials of the Biden government remained scrupulous, refusing to even confirm that the Moskva had been beaten. But in recent days, US officials have confirmed that US intelligence targeting data was provided to Ukraine in the hours before the Neptune missiles were launched.
The officials declined to comment on what specific information was passed on, but an official said the information went beyond just a report on the ship’s location in the Black Sea, 65 nautical miles south of Odessa.
The sinking of the ship was a major blow to Russia and the biggest loss to a navy in 40 years.
Russia has denied that Ukrainian missiles played any role in the Moskva’s demise, claiming instead that a fire on board caused an ammunition explosion that destroyed the ship. Independent Russian news outlets outside the country have reported that about 40 people were killed and another 100 injured when the warship was damaged and sank.
Biden administration officials have refused to publicly confirm that US intelligence has provided the information that would allow Ukraine to attack the Moskva.
Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby asked about a report in The Times of London that a Navy P-8 spy plane from Sigonella Air Force Base in Italy tracked the Moskva before it was hit by Ukraine, spoke of air police missions in the Black Sea as part of a carefully worded response: “There was no information about the purpose of the US Navy P-8 flying in these air police missions,” he said.
A US official said the Ukrainians have asked the Americans about a ship sailing in the Black Sea south of Odessa. The United States identified it as the Moskva and confirmed its location. The Ukrainians then targeted the ship. The Ukrainians carried out the attack without prior knowledge of the United States. The official said the United States confirmed the Ukrainian military, but other officials said it was not certain that Ukraine could have hit the ship without US assistance.
After this article was published, Mr Kirby added in a statement: “The Ukrainians have their own intelligence capabilities to track and target Russian naval vessels, as in this case.”
US officials have publicly acknowledged that useful intelligence was provided to Ukrainians in the run-up to the Russian invasion on February 24, and that this practice continued in the weeks since. But these officials have balked at confirming US involvement in Ukrainian operations that led to the deaths of Russian soldiers.
Thanks to the US assessment of Russia’s war plan for the Donbas region, a senior Pentagon official last week was able to say that Russia appeared “several days behind” in its offensive there due to strong Ukrainian resistance and ongoing problems with supply lines. .
Russian forces can always deviate from their plans, but US officials said the intelligence allows Ukrainian troops to avoid attacks in some locations and position themselves to attack Russians in others.
While the administration remains wary of provoking Mr Putin into further escalating his attacks — President Biden has said he will not send US troops to Ukraine or establish a “no-fly zone” there — current and former officials said that the government thought it valuable to warn Russia that Ukraine had the weight of the United States and NATO behind it.
Officials said Moscow had its own calculations to weigh, including whether it could handle a bigger war, especially one that would allow NATO to invoke its Mutual Defense Charter or enter the war more directly.
bohobarmadrid reported Wednesday that US intelligence on Russian moves provided to Ukraine allowed Kiev to attack and kill a number of Russian generals. On Thursday, Mr. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said he had shared information with the Ukrainians, but gave few details.
But Kirby said the Ukrainians have their own sources of information, which they combine with others and choose which targets to attack. “They make their own decisions,” said Mr. Kirby. “And they’re taking their own actions.”
In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Representative Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat who heads the House Intelligence Committee, said the Biden administration was reluctant to talk about intelligence sharing for fear of saying something “that will escalate the conflict.” “.
“We are providing real-time information to Ukraine to help it defend itself,” said Mr Schiff. “I don’t think the government wants to go into details about what kind of conditions, but we want to make sure Ukraine is successful.”
For decades, the Moskva, a potent embodiment of Russian naval power in the Black Sea, was littered with missiles and loomed ominously on the horizon, inspiring awe among those who saw it.
But US Navy officials who toured Russian cruisers in the late 1990s and early 2000s when US-Russia military cooperation existed said the Moskva was having problems. There was little visible damage control equipment on board the warship to quickly extinguish fires on board.
The officials said they could not see any fire extinguishers or fire hoses in passageways through the ships. On US ships, such equipment is stored close to hand so that crews can quickly extinguish fires, which is critical at sea.
According to Russian media reports, a fire on board set fire to an ammunition warehouse and severely damaged the Moskva. US officials say the Neptune missiles most likely started the fire, which the crew was unable to contain before the aging ship eventually sank as it was towed to port.
“The Russian military had long debated withdrawing the Moskva,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington County, Virginia. “It was an aging Soviet cruiser in urgent need of modernization.”
But with a shortage of cruisers and destroyers, Moscow finally decided to expand its service. It was actually the guns of the Moskva that fired on the Ukrainian Snake Island in the early days of the war.