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The Discord Leaks: No, Ukraine Is Not ‘Doomed’

Most of the leaked “revelations” were no surprise—but the casualty estimates have left one group reeling: Russian propagandists.
April 18, 2023
The Discord Leaks: No, Ukraine Is Not ‘Doomed’
Ukrainian flag displayed on a laptop screen and binary code code displayed on a screen are seen in this multiple exposure illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on February 16, 2022. (Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Whatever else may be gleaned from the U.S. intelligence leaks now traced to 21-year-old National Guardsman and gamer Jack Teixeira, there’s a widespread view that these leaks paint an unfavorable picture of Ukraine’s war effort. This conviction is especially popular in the de facto pro-Kremlin sectors of the American right wing.

U.S. Intel Leak Suggests Ukraine Ship is Sinking,” announced a headline in the American Conservative, a publication in which Ukraine is always sinking, leaks or no leaks. (The Russian daily Izvestia, now back to its Soviet-era status as a reliable mouthpiece for the state, gave the TAC piece its own spin with a headline that read, “Ukraine compared to a sinking ship in the USA.”)

The Federalist blared that “For $80 Billion (And Counting) U.S. Taxpayers Have Bought A Bloody Stalemate In Ukraine.” And Fox News’s Tucker Carlson outdid them all, claiming that the intel leaks show that “Ukraine is, in fact, losing the war” and specifically that “seven Ukrainians are being killed for every Russian.” One is almost tempted to see a self-sabotaging wink in the chyron that came on the screen when he made these claims: “WE ARE BEING LIED TO ABOUT THE UKRAINE WAR.” Why, yes, dear viewer, you are.

But mainstream media sources, too—among them the New York Timesechoed the theme of the leaked intel portraying a Ukrainian military in “dire straits” and facing a bleaker outlook than has been generally acknowledged.

Yet, remarkably, most of the pro-Ukraine Russian-language commentariat—whether Ukrainian or Russian émigré—received the revelations with a shrug. Such was the case with Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian pundit and former adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an April 15 YouTube show:

Arestovych Feygin leaks

Meanwhile, Russian expat journalist Michael Nacke noted that the event of the leaks was being treated as far more important than any of the disclosed facts, which suggests that those facts aren’t particularly shattering. Indeed, Nacke pointed out that many of them—for instance, the extent of Ukraine’s ammunition shortage—were openly discussed on his own show a number of times in conversations between him and his principal analyst, Ruslan Leviev (founder of the open-source investigative group Conflict Intelligence Team).

This point—that the leaks contains essentially nothing new, at least as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned—has been a particular focus in recent days for leading Russian émigré commentator Yulia Latynina, who has made this observation on her own show, in interviews on other programs, and in a column for the European edition of Novaya Gazeta. Latynina points out, for instance, that one of the leaked documents reported, based on a February 25 briefing by Ukrainian intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov, that Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut were in a “catastrophic” situation at that point and that a unit of special elite troops had to be brought in to stabilize the situation. But Latynina herself had written that “it’s over in Bakhmut” in a March 4 Novaya Gazeta article and noted the arrival of the elite troops (though she had wrongly assumed that they were being brought in to protect regular Ukrainian forces during their retreat and had focused mainly on the Pyrrhic nature of Putin’s expected victory). Around this time, Western media sources were also openly discussing the question of whether Ukrainian troops would—and should—surrender Bakhmut and redirect their efforts elsewhere. CNN reported at the end of January, a month before the Budanov briefing discussed in the leaked documents, that U.S. officials were advising the Ukrainians to “cut their losses” and surrender the town in order to focus on the anticipated spring offensive. So far, contrary to many predictions, Latynina’s included, Bakhmut still holds.

Likewise, for months, Ukraine’s ammunition shortages have been the subject of reports in not-exactly-top-secret places like the Washington Post—and, for that matter, of urgent and very public appeals from Ukrainian authorities. Google the phrase “Ukraine needs more ammunition” and you’ll get more than 15,000 results. It’s hard to disagree with Latynina’s observation that classified documents, especially ones marked “Top Secret,” have an almost sacramental mystique that make their contents look sensational even when the “secrets” they contain couldn’t be more open.

Other seemingly grim findings from the leaked documents on the state of the Ukrainian military—for instance, that Ukraine’s air defenses may run out of missiles and collapse sometime in May—actually amount to practical assessments of Ukraine’s needs, not predictions of doom, and have been treated as such. The air-defense shortfall was eagerly seized upon by the usual suspects, but the assessment of Ukraine’s anti-air capabilities goes back to late February; a New York Times report on this subject notes that “Pentagon procurement officials have been scouring allied stockpiles” for more missiles and that Western countries have already started shipments of more sophisticated air defense system to Ukraine. The Times elsewhere notes that “several dozen Ukrainian soldiers are wrapping up their training on the Patriot missile system” and will soon be deployed to the front lines. In other words: The leaked warnings were already being acted on well before they were made public—and the purpose of those warnings was to prevent the exact hypothetical outcomes that some are now treating as dark prophecies courtesy of the “leaks.”

On that note, it’s also worth pointing out that intelligence assessments often include forecasts of possible scenarios (including worst-case scenarios) based on data in which the analysts themselves have limited confidence. Let’s not forget that before the Russian invasion commenced in February 2022, U.S. intelligence predicted that if Russia did invade Ukraine, Kyiv would probably fall in a matter of days—a pessimistic assessment that worked to Ukraine’s detriment by delaying critical weapons shipments, since backing Ukraine’s defense against a presumably far superior Russian invading force was seen as a hopeless cause.

It is likewise worth noting that in some ways, the leaked intel includes—or at least confirms—pretty bad news for Russia. For instance, some of the documents show that Russia’s elite commando units, the spetsnaz or “special purpose” troops, have been “gutted” by the war in Ukraine, to the point where it may take years to rebuild them. (Again, this is not exactly new information: Some of it was openly reported in late February.) Perhaps the most damning detail is that someone on the Russian side had to doctor a leaked document assessing Russian and Ukrainian casualties before they posted it to a pro-Russia Telegram channel. The reason is obvious: The original document estimated Russian fatalities at 35,500 to 43,500 and Ukrainian ones at 16,000 to 17,500. The altered version substituted the estimated Ukrainian losses for the Russian ones while offering an entirely fake figure of 61,000 to 71,500 Ukrainian combat troops killed.

These shenanigans led to a remarkable exchange on a federal Russian television channel, NTV. (The network’s name, an acronym for “independent television,” has been a misnomer since 2001, when it was forcibly expropriated by a state-owned gas giant.) Russian viewers who get their all news from the state-run media may have finally gotten a glimpse of what the rest of the world already knows: that Russia has been suffering much heavier losses in this war than Ukraine. This happened during the April 10 edition of the political talk show Mesto vstrechi (“Meeting Place”), which was devoted to the U.S. intelligence leak.

One of the guests, political scientist Alexei Naumov—who has unusually liberal credentials for present-day Russian television, given that he is an alumnus of Ekho Moskvy radio and of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment, which were both banned in Russia shortly after the start of the “special military operation” in Ukraine—had suggested on an earlier show that the leaked documents were probably fake, but had since changed his mind. When asked about this reversal, Naumov explained that his earlier skepticism was partly rooted in the figures for Russian and Ukrainian combat losses being skewed in Russia’s favor in the version of the documents he saw; he came around after seeing the originals, which contained figures Naumov considers “closer to the truth.” The reaction of other guests—particularly fellow “political scientist” Anton Khashchenko—to Naumov’s matter-of-fact assertion that Russian losses were likely much higher than Ukrainian ones deserves to be seen. Their shock seems sincere; one is almost forced to conclude that Russian propagandists really are sniffing their own glue. (In particular, do not miss the wordless exchange at the end of the clip between Khashchenko and Financial University dean Gevorg Mirzayan.)

Mesto vstrechi 4 10 23 subtitled

Host Andrei Norkin tried to soothe the feathers Naumov had ruffled by explaining that the troublesome guest had based his heretical view on “military science,” which holds that the attacking army nearly always suffers heavier casualties than the defending one. Nonetheless, later in the program, a rattled Khashchenko came back to the subject, obviously feeling that heresy had not been sufficiently chastised:

I don’t know, to sit in this studio in April and claim that Russian losses are greater than Ukrainian ones, referencing some sort of military history. . . . You know, when you have so many sources, including Western ones, which give extremely different figures for the losses—one needs to understand that most of this time, except for specific cases like Bakhmut, we were on the defensive and sliced and diced the [Ukrainian Armed Forces] by the ton, with artillery and not just artillery.

With an ironic flourish, he concluded: “To make such statements is simply to repeat propaganda.”

One can only hope that Naumov, who for whatever reason has chosen the unenviable role of the relatively sane person in the madhouse, was not arrested on his way out of the studio on charges of discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation.

The rest of the discussion, too, suggested that the Russians are far more rattled by the leaks than the Ukrainians. Everyone except Naumov insisted that the leaks were a deliberate strategic ploy by the United States—but for what purpose? One guest optimistically suggested they were meant to prepare public opinion for throwing Ukraine under the bus. Another, political analyst Viktor Olevich, was certain that the leaks were deza (“disinformation”) intended not only to whip up a damaging “spy mania” in Russia by making the Kremlin believe there were spies everywhere, but to lure Russia into underestimating Ukraine on the eve of big Ukrainian counteroffensive—just as the Americans had supposedly done on purpose before the start of the “special operation.” At this point, Khashchenko and Olevich almost came to blows on the question of whether the first phase of the “special operation” had been a failure while Naumov all but openly rolled his eyes.

It is too early at this point to make any major conclusions about the leaks and how bad they are for American security interests. Nor do we know whether Teixeira had political motives or really wanted simply to impress his gamer buddies.

Do we know much more about the situation in Ukraine than we did before the leaks? Based on what’s been reported so far, it’s doubtful. The panicky responses in reputable national publications seem especially unwarranted. It’s easy to understand why Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the crews at the American Conservative and the Federalist have picked up the “sky is falling” narrative, often blatantly distorting the evidence in the process. (It was amusing to hear an unsuspecting Latynina express surprise at how badly the piece in the Federalist mispresented what the documents said: She is obviously not up on the doings of the American right-wing press.) But pro-Ukraine pundits like the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who declared the leaks on the war in Ukraine to be “chilling,” may be falling for what Latynina has characterized as the mystique of “top secret” revelations.

Meanwhile, the fact that this scandal appears to have broken some Russian propagandists’ brains—and inadvertently resulted in possibly the first-ever admission on a Russian propaganda channel that invading Russian forces are suffering great losses than Ukraine’s defenders—must be regarded as a meaningful silver lining.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.