Long stories short
- A North Korean missile test triggered evacuation orders for millions of Japanese on Hokkaido.
- Officials in Kyiv said the Ukrainian economy shrank by 29 per cent last year.
- Prince Harry said he would attend his father’s coronation, but without Meghan or their children.
A largely genuine dump of secret US intelligence documents was put online by a young gamer and gun enthusiast who worked on a military base and went by the initials “OG”, the Washington Post reported last night.
There may be more than 300 leaked documents in all. Tortoise has reviewed an initial batch of 56, which show America has been spying with extraordinary success on Russia as well as its own allies. They also confirm the presence of western special forces in Ukraine and point for the first time to Russian mercenaries inside Burkina Faso (see nibs below).
So what? In the immediate term the leak is
- an embarrassment for Washington that could expose valuable sources in Russia’s security apparatus;
- a serious annoyance for Ukraine, which has already had to alter plans for its spring offensive; and
- useful for Russia as a window on US intelligence-gathering in the fog of war.
The bigger picture is of American eavesdropping capabilities that leave rivals in the dust but reveal delicate alliances the US can no longer rely on. In particular the documents appear to show Egypt and the UAE as well as Turkey uninhibited about working both sides of Russia’s war in Ukraine despite longstanding security relationships with Washington.
Cui bono? Russia is the most obvious beneficiary of the leak given its abundant data on the fighting in Ukraine. The documents describe
- Western forces’ presence in Ukraine, including at least 50 specialists from the UK, 17 from Latvia, 15 from France, 14 from the US and one from Netherlands;
- Losses as a share of deployed forces on both sides, including ground, air and air defence forces (see graphic);
- Disposition of forces in detailed maps of the battlefields, including those of Kharkiv region, Bakhmut and the Black Sea coast;
- Ukrainian brigades’ number and training status, as well as a “mud-frozen ground timeline” showing the advance of the spring thaw;
- Western military aid to Ukraine, including tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces;
- Military casualties (reportedly 131,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed or wounded vs 223,000 Russian) and civilian deaths in Ukraine (up to 41,000);
- Ukraine’s critical shortage of air defence missiles; and
- “Wild card” scenarios including the deaths of Presidents Putin and Zelensky, the removal of leadership within the Russian armed forces and a Ukrainian strike on the Kremlin. The last of these seems to be the reason for America’s reluctance to provide longer-range missiles to Kyiv.
Game changer. This is the largest US intelligence leak since Wikileaks and the most detailed insight into America’s thinking in the 14 months since Russia’s invasion.
The documents were initially published via Discord, a gaming-focused messaging platform, and some versions have been doctored to diminish Russian casualty estimates. But regardless of their authenticity – which the Pentagon hasn’t seriously challenged – the leak’s impact has been huge:
- Ukraine’s expected spring offensive has been delayed not only by weather, slow weapons deliveries and ammunition shortages, but also because of data in the leak on Ukraine’s readiness to attack.
- Putin’s spokesman has claimed the documents prove the involvement of the US and Nato in Ukraine, bolstering the spurious Kremlin narrative that this constitutes a threat to Russia.
- The Pentagon has called the leak “a very serious risk to national security” – and is unlikely to change that assessment just because it seems to have originated from a disgruntled Minecraft player.
- Russia may have strengthened its defences in the Zaporizhzhia region in anticipation of a Ukrainian attack towards Melitopol.
Cart before horse. The leak is not just a data dump. It also reveals US doubts about Ukraine’s chances of success in its counteroffensive because of what one analyst calls “enduring… deficiencies in training and munitions supplies”. This in turn could strengthen calls for a negotiated end to the conflict, especially among isolationist Republicans. But the solution is not to admire the problem and buckle. It is to fix the deficiencies and win.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
A West African welcome
The Wagner group has already set up camp in Burkina Faso in a significant blow for the West and its African allies, according to a leaked document reviewed by Tortoise. The document says that a security official from Ivory Coast “assessed” that the Russian mercenary outfit “could use its presence in Burkina Faso and Mali” to destabilise their country. The information is based on signals intelligence (phone or computer hacking). Many have speculated that Burkina Faso would be a perfect place for Wagner to expand its arc of influence across Africa from Sudan through the Central African Republic to Mali. The landlocked gold-rich nation faces a major jihadist insurgency and has been hit by waves of Russian disinformation. The West has lobbied hard to stop the guns-for-hire from gaining another foothold in the region (the leak says there are already 1,645 mercenaries in neighbouring Mali). But the leak shows that Prigozhin’s men may have already strolled through the gates.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
With friends like these
The Discord leaks show how US influence in the Middle East is crumbling. Washington has sent $80 billion of military and economic assistance to Egypt over the past 45 years. But President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi recently ordered his subordinates to produce 40,000 rockets and secretly ship them to Russia, according to a document reviewed by the Washington Post. One shows that the Wagner group flew to Turkey, a Nato member protected by America’s security umbrella, to buy weapons from “Turkish contacts”. Another says that Russian officials were recorded boasting that the United Arab Emirates (which normally marches in lockstep with Saudi Arabia) agreed to cooperate with them “against US and UK intelligence”.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
One leak suggests that the US National Security Agency uncovered attempts by Mossad, Israel’s fearsome spy agency, to promote anti-government protests in the country. The document alleges that senior members of Mossad advocated for the agency’s staff and citizens to protest against plans to overhaul the judiciary, “including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli government”. Another document seen by Tortoise discusses how the US could pressure Jerusalem to give Ukraine cutting-edge Israeli-made anti-ship and tank-busting missiles. Washington has since reassured Israel that it values their security relationship, while the prime minister’s office released a statement on behalf of Mossad denying any involvement in the protests.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGs
The documents first emerged from an invite-only chat group of less than two dozen gamers and gun enthusiasts on Discord, an online platform popular with gamers. According to the Washington Post, the source was a young man identified as “OG” who had clearance to work with classified material. He was the “leader” of the group and wanted his small online tribe of right-wing Minecraft players to become “super-soldiers”. A member of the group described OG as “a young, charismatic man, who loved nature, [and] God. Who loved shooting guns and racing cars.” Reporters say they have seen a video of the man at a shooting range with a rifle yelling a series of racial and antisemitic slurs. Such details will be troubling to the Pentagon. More than 1.25 million Americans have the same top-secret security clearance.
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Graphics by Katie Riley
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The Battle for Bakhmut
Why a small city in eastern Ukraine has become the scene of the fiercest fighting in Europe since World War Two.