Since the day Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 14 months ago, President Biden has cited the strength of the widespread international commitment to the mission of defending an independent democracy against a brutal aggressor.
But newly leaked secret U.S. government documents provide details of how some close non-European allies have been reluctant to provide arms to Ukraine, and in the case of Egypt, even considered supplying rockets to Russia, because of competing interests and concerns.
In particular, three U.S. allies who are among the largest recipients of U.S. financial or other aid and assistance — Israel, Egypt and South Korea — had to be aggressively lobbied by U.S. officials to join efforts to help Ukraine, with spotty results.
The documents, most of which appear to have originated at the Pentagon and were allegedly leaked by an information specialist with the Massachusetts Air National Guard, have shown up on social media over the last several weeks, roiling Washington and potentially doing significant damage to U.S. intelligence-gathering networks abroad.
The leaks represented an embarrassing revelation of this country’s secrets and inability to safeguard them.
Following an investigation by officials from the Pentagon, Justice Department and other agencies, who always seemed to be several steps behind reporters, Jack Teixeira, 21, was arrested Thursday at his home in Massachusetts.
President Biden sought to downplay the damage unleashed by the information spill.
“I’m concerned that it happened,” Biden said while traveling in Ireland. “But there’s nothing contemporaneous that I’m aware of that’s of great consequence.”
How true that is remains unclear. Some of the documents, for example, describe very recent movements on the Ukraine battlefield, a shortage of weaponry for Kyiv and the current — albeit well-known — extent of Russian casualties.
However, U.S. and Ukraine officials have dismissed the significance of the information. And some documents have been altered, U.S. officials said. So not all can be taken at face value.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, traveling in Asia, said Saturday that allies have not indicated to him that the leaks will harm bilateral cooperation.
“We have engaged with our allies and partners since these leaks came out, and we have done so at high levels, and we have made clear our commitment to safeguarding intelligence and our commitment to our security partnerships,” Blinken said in a news conference in Hanoi.
Still, the documents shed light on the Biden administration’s difficulties in getting material help from Israel, Egypt and South Korea, for whom loyalty to the U.S. is balanced by a perceived need to refrain from offending Russia.
In the case of Israel, long referred to as America’s closest ally in the Middle East, a reluctance to cross Russian President Vladimir Putin has been publicly known since the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.
Ukraine — whose president is Jewish and whose people historically also suffered anti-Jewish pogroms — desperately asked for help from Israel in the form of sharing the technology to create an Iron Dome, an anti-rocket system that has successfully shielded Israel from missiles fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza and Lebanon.
This came at a time entire apartment blocks and other infrastructure in Ukrainian cities were being pulverized by deadly Russian airstrikes.
But Israel, which receives $3 billion annually in aid from the U.S., needed Russia’s support in fighting Iranian-backed militants in parts of neighboring Syria, where Russia holds sway, and in Moscow’s willingness to allow Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel. And several of the infamous oligarchs who help to keep Putin in power are dual Russian Israeli citizens.
One document headed “Pathways to Providing Lethal Aid to Ukraine” says Israel is likely to consider providing lethal aid “under increased U.S. pressure or a perceived degradation in its ties to Russia.” The U.S. would look for it to provide surface-to-air and antitank missiles to Ukraine.
The document suggests Israel could adopt the model followed by Turkey, in which the government maintains ties with Moscow even as its private companies have sold drones and other weapons to Ukraine. One incentive, the document surmises, could be increased cooperation with the U.S. against Iran.
After Israel, Egypt is the single largest recipient of U.S. aid at roughly $1 billion a year. The leaked documents reveal that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi was considering supplying Russia with thousands of rockets that in theory could be used to attack Ukraine.
Like many countries in the so-called global south, Egypt has publicly sought to maintain neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine war, preferring not to take sides and to urge peace. Despite its relationship with Washington, Egypt also has sustained close ties with Russia through the years and clearly has not wanted to jeopardize them.
For Egypt, where bread is a staple of the local diet, prices of grain — and its effect on the cost of loaves — is a matter of national security. Disruptions to global wheat supply because of the invasion — Russia is the world’s largest exporter and Ukraine the fifth — forced Egypt to lean even more than before on its relationship with Moscow. It now stands as the top importer of Russian grain, and plans to import 600,000 tons of wheat from Russia in May, according to a Reuters report.
However, for Egypt to more assist Russia by supplying firepower would be seen in Washington as a betrayal. The leaked contents involving Egypt were first reported by the Washington Post.
South Korea, which houses American military facilities, is arguably the closest ally that the U.S. has in Asia.
South Korea maintains a policy of not providing weapons to countries at war. The U.S. has been pressuring Seoul to make an exception in the case of Ukraine; South Korea, meanwhile, wants to enhance its own military prowess in the face of belligerence from nuclear-armed North Korea.
According to the documents, South Korea considered selling munitions to Poland, with the implicit idea they would be transferred to neighboring Ukraine.
The documents also appear to indicate that U.S. officials, frustrated over Seoul’s resistance to supplying weapons to Ukraine, spied on their South Korean counterparts. They contain purported private conversations about Ukraine among senior South Korean officials.
U.S. and South Korean officials neither confirmed nor denied the leaked reports but insisted relations between the two countries remained solid. The leak came at an especially embarrassing time: South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is scheduled to visit Washington this month for the first state visit by a South Korean leader in more than a decade.
“There’s no indication that the U.S., which is our ally, [eavesdropped] on us with malicious intent,” Kim Tae-hyo, Seoul’s deputy national security director, said last week as he arrived in Washington to prepare for the presidential summit.
“Our commitment to the Republic of Korea remains ironclad,” the White House National Security Council said in a statement.
Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and special envoy for Ukraine, noted that much of what has been revealed in the documents was already known: Allies spy on one another, Russia’s war effort in Ukraine is floundering, and Ukraine needs more armament.
But the leaks could do long-term damage to U.S. intelligence efforts and potentially present life-threatening dangers to sources, by exposing, for example, how deeply U.S. spies have penetrated Russian circles of decision-making power.
“What is more interesting for foreign powers looking at these documents is what it reveals about sources and methods,” Volker said at the Center for European Policy Analysis, where he is a senior fellow. “The United States clearly has very good electronic and human intelligence — perhaps better than others realized — and so in the wake of this document leak, they [foreign powers] may investigate and try to plug their own vulnerabilities.”
Wilkinson reported from Washington, Castleman from Los Angeles and Bulos from Odesa, Ukraine.