A major international story took an unexpected turn as Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira was taken into custody for allegedly leaking dozens of classified intelligence documents, many related to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The leak had had a global impact, irritated American allies and, according to USA Today, left “[t]he Department of Defense […] in full damage-control mode.” But what does this fiasco mean for the war?
Public reactions to the leak were mixed, with Ukraine’s government and intellectuals, as usual, far more optimistic than most Western media. In National Review, for instance, Jim Geraghty was unusually dour: “Biden’s rhetoric regarding Ukrainian resistance […] appears to be wildly overoptimistic happy talk,” he remarked, citing the intelligence documents’ depiction of a Ukrainian military facing numerous challenges; the Washington Post described Ukraine’s “challenges in massing troops, ammunition and equipment.” According to the secret papers, Geraghty commented, “Ukraine’s abilities in the spring offensive [were] modest or grim.” This typical Western gloominess could scarcely have been farther from the unperturbed Ukrainian responses. Kyrylo Budanov, the beleaguered nation’s intelligence chief, claimed to “know” that his country would win the war in the “very nearest future” and that the leak would “not be able to affect the real results of the [spring counteroffensive].” Oleksiy Arestovych, the celebrity former presidential advisor, struck a similar tone.
Whether the pessimists or the optimists are more right is hard to say, but there are a few points that tilt the scale in the latter’s favor. Firstly, it seems likely that the intelligence assessments concerning the prospects of Ukraine’s planned spring offensive were biased toward visions of doom and gloom. For one thing, as noted in VOA News, the documents estimate “Russian fatalities” at “35,500 to 43,500,” whereas there exist “plausible estimates of up to 200,000 [Russians] killed, wounded or missing by numerous analysts.” In February, the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported “approximately 60,000 to 70,000 Russian combat fatalities.” Ergo, the exposed analyses seem to be based on highly conservative figures.
Such caution is hardly surprising given intelligence agencies’ perennial penchant for pessimism. In commentary published on the Rand Corporation’s blog, James Dobbins called this “the natural tendency of intelligence analysts to accentuate the downside of any risk.” This propensity, in his view, arises because the repercussions from underestimating a threat are generally greater than those from overestimating one. A similar statement of the intelligence community’s built-in biases occurs in a recently popular exposé by Jacob Siegel.
Moreover, according to Dobbins, “[t]he intelligence community’s natural tendency to stress the downside of any risk is in most instances offset by the policy maker’s penchant for emphasizing the upside.” Such context provides a helpful corrective to Geraghty’s belief that Joe Biden’s positive spins on the situation around Ukraine are grave distortions of the more accurate picture revealed by the leak. Incidentally, retired Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis went even further, asking in Fox News whether Joe Biden was “lying to the American people” and, more fancifully: “Are American troops fighting Russians? Is the Biden administration purposely draining our weapons arsenals to favor the Chinese?”
The history of this Russo-Ukrainian war clearly shows a tendency on the secret services’ part to err on the side of caution. Consider the start of the full invasion last year. As the Associated Press reported soon after, senior “intelligence officials [had] admitted [to having] underestimated Ukraine’s ability to defend itself,” although they had also “accurately predict[ed] Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention to launch a war.” This looks consistent with a bias towards negatives: the danger of an invasion was accurately detected, whereas the danger that the defenders would fail was exaggerated. Likewise, neither the United States nor Ukraine anticipated the stunning reconquests the latter would achieve in its offensive around Kharkiv.
All this is to say that the trope of the unwinnable war against Russia, reflected in Maginnis’ query whether Ukraine can “really win the war against giant Russia,” remains a myth. It must not, however, be concluded that Ukraine’s backers should not provide more weapons. Even if they have been blown out of proportion, the concerns raised in those classified communications ought to be taken seriously. This is especially true given that Western countries are restrained by unreasonable timidity in their opposition to Russian aggression – “self-deterring,” as an article from the Atlantic Council puts it.
Some observers have worried that the release of classified information itself plays into the Kremlin’s hand, allowing the Russians to anticipate Ukrainian moves. Thus, CNN heard from one “Five Eyes nation official [who] expressed concern about the leaked Ukraine war information handicapping the country on the battlefield.” “The disclosure complicates Ukraine’s spring offensive,” a piece in the Wall Street Journal maintains.
As mentioned, Budanov and Arestovych have both denied the possibility of the leak having any substantial influence on the course of the counteroffensive. Again, there are some reassuring details. For instance, another takeaway from the classified materials is that the United States can monitor Russian actions very closely. As the explainer in CNN notes, “US penetration of Russia’s Defense Ministry and the mercenary organization Wagner Group goes deeper than previously understood,” giving the United States knowledge of “which exact thermoelectric power plants, electric substations and railroad and vehicle bridges Russian forces planned to attack inside Ukraine and when.” If the United States possesses this level of insight into the Russian side’s decisions, it seems likely that any actions the Russians take to account for information exposed by the leak will themselves become known to Ukraine and can be taken into consideration in its planning. After all, the Ukrainians do not have a binding deadline for their offensive and can delay it if need be. Furthermore, as explained in Fox News, “Putin’s defensive fortifications, much like the French Maginot Line of World War II, are static, vulnerable to interdiction of supply lines, and can be bypassed.” If the way in which the Russians prepare for Ukrainian attacks is inherently deficient, having greater knowledge of what Ukraine may do next may provide only a superficial advantage.
Meanwhile, possibly the worst take on the whole affair came from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Misspelling Jack Teixeira’s name, the lawmaker implied the government was persecuting him for being “white, male, christian, and antiwar.” Needless to say, Teixeira’s actions, if the allegations are true, had been unchristian from start to finish. Aside from being fundamentally dishonest, such a betrayal of the United States by a serviceman is a clear failure to “render unto Caesar.” It showed no trace of the patriotism that the Christian religion teaches. It even resulted from the sin of pride, not from idealistic motives: as the Associated Press has affirmed, the breach of security seems to have been “motivated more by bravado than ideology.” Indeed, the leak violated an even older dictum, delivered at the dawn of Western Civilization by Heraclitus of Ephesus: “The people should fight for their law as for their city wall.”