As Russia launched its invasion, the U.S. gave Ukrainian forces detailed intelligence about exactly when and where Russian missiles and bombs were intended to strike, prompting Ukraine to move air defenses and aircraft out of harm’s way, current and former U.S. officials said.
That near real-time intelligence-sharing also paved the way for Ukraine to shoot down a Russian transport plane carrying hundreds of troops in the early days of the war, the officials say, helping repel a Russian assault on a key airport near Kyiv.
It was part of what American officials call a massive and unprecedented intelligence-sharing operation with a non-NATO partner that they say has played a crucial role in Ukraine’s success to date against the larger and better-equipped Russian military.
The details about the air defenses and the transport plane, which have not previously been reported, underscore why, two months into the war, officials assess that intelligence from U.S. spy agencies and the Pentagon has been an important factor in helping Ukraine thwart Russia’s effort to seize most of the country.
“From the get-go, we leaned pretty heavily forward in sharing both strategic and actionable intelligence with Ukraine,” a U.S. official briefed on the matter said. “It’s been impactful both at a tactical and strategic level. There are examples where you could tell a pretty clear story that this made a major difference.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said, “We are regularly providing detailed, timely intelligence to the Ukrainians on the battlefield to help them defend their country against Russian aggression and will continue to do so.”
“There has been a lot of real-time intelligence shared in terms of things that could be used for specific targeting of Russian forces,” said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the situation. The information includes commercial satellite images “but also a lot of other intelligence about, for example, where certain types of Russian units are active.”
Ukraine continues to move air defenses and aircraft nearly every day with the help of American intelligence, which is one reason Russia has not been able to establish air dominance. In some cases, Ukraine moved the targeted air defense systems or planes just in time, the officials said.
“The Russian military has literally been cratering empty fields where air defenses were once set up,” one U.S. official said. “It has had an enormous impact on the Russian military’s ability on the ground.”
While U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation had been building since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the Biden administration shifted into high gear in the weeks before the Russian invasion, when a U.S. military team visited to assess the state of Ukraine’s air defenses. The Americans provided Ukraine with detailed advice about how to disperse their air defense systems, a move that U.S. officials say helped Ukraine prevent Russia from seizing control of the skies.
Once the invasion got underway, lawyers in the U.S. defense and intelligence bureaucracy imposed guidance that in some cases limited the sharing of targeting information that could enable lethal Ukrainian strikes against Russians. But as Russia’s aggression has deepened, and under pressure from Congress, all of those impediments have been removed, officials say.
Earlier this month, for example, the director of National Intelligence withdrew and replaced a memo that prohibited intelligence sharing for the purposes of regaining captured territory or aiding Ukrainian strikes in Crimea or the Donbas, officials said.