Loose Lips About Sinking Ships

The Biden Administration is constantly bragging about its actions against Russia. Is that wise?

Quite a few of us in the national security space have questioned the wisdom of the Biden Administration’s so openly bragging about the degree to which it has helped the Ukrainian military kill Russians. Dan Drezner joins in after rightly praising the successes:

The Biden administration has responded admirably to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through both word and deed. Before the war, U.S. intelligence officials were quite vocal about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans, in an effort to wrong-foot his orchestrated invasion. During the war, U.S. officials have conducted real-time statecraft to help shore up the alliance supporting Ukraine. U.S. intelligence has also clearly provided assistance to Ukrainians, helping in their defense of their country.

All of this merits praise. It is worth remembering that in February the widespread expectation was that Russia would be in Kyiv quickly and Putin would have proved Russia’s military might on the global stage. The opposite has occurred, mostly because of Ukraine’s ability and willingness to resist but also the U.S. ability to bolster that resistance. More than two months into the conflict, Russia’s ability to sustain any offensive seems doubtful. If a lesson learned from this war is that great powers can no longer expect to fight and win easy wars, that makes great-power war less likely in the medium term.

There are some on the Realist camp who argue that these policies have been wrongheaded, in that they have prolonged the conflict, led to a lot of dead Ukrainians, and risk further escalation. Neither Dan nor I agree with those criticisms. While I continue to wonder what the ultimate end state will be, assisting the Ukrainians against Russian aggression is the right thing to do both morally and because weakening Putin’s forces and global standing is a strategic win.

As the war has proceeded, U.S. officials have continued to be chatty. The thing is, they have started to say things that threaten to undermine U.S. foreign policy, particularly with respect to U.S. goals in assisting Ukraine. As noted previously, President Biden said in March, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Ramping up war aims like this — especially when the United States is not, repeat not, fighting the war — is rash. There is a reason the White House had to walk Biden’s words back.

This past week, anonymous U.S. officials again got chatty with the press. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that senior American officials said, “The United States has provided intelligence about Russian units that has allowed Ukrainians to target and kill many of the Russian generals who have died in action in the Ukraine war … The targeting help is part of a classified effort by the Biden administration to provide real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine.” This raises the philosophical question of whether something is really classified if U.S. officials are telling reporters all about it.

I’ve discussed these before and concur fully. Of course we’ve been supplying intelligence. Of course we want to see Russia weakened. Putin knows these things. But actually saying them out loud serves no obvious purpose.

A day later, U.S. officials were even more loquacious. The Washington PostNew York Times and NBC News all reported that U.S. officials said the United States played a critical supporting role in helping Ukrainian forces sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva. As NBC’s reporters put it, U.S. officials were “confirming an American role in perhaps the most embarrassing blow to Vladimir Putin’s troubled invasion of Ukraine.”

It should not take an expert in international affairs to realize that there is little upside in bragging about these kinds of activities to the press. Sure, it might play well in domestic circles. The diplomatic effects, however, are counterproductive. The Russian military is already aware of U.S. activities, so broadcasting them does not intimidate the enemy. Instead, it exaggerates the U.S. role in an interstate war with one declared nuclear power and invites retaliation in the future. When it comes to aiding a belligerent during a war without not crossing any tacitly understood red lines, doing is much better than talking.

This is exactly right. Where Dan and I disagree, at least at the margins, is here:

Some argued that these news stories were part of a planned information campaign, but the U.S. government’s response suggests otherwise. Pentagon officials disputed both the New York Times story on targeting Russian generals as well as the raft of stories regarding the Moskva. On Saturday, Politico’s National Security Daily quoted a U.S. official as saying, “Someone is eager to take credit, but it’s not helpful.” Politico’s reporters added: “Others we spoke to revealed there’s an internal freakout over the stream of stories, though it’s unclear exactly who is feeding reporters the juicy nuggets. Instead of boasting, a parade of administration officials have denied the direct link between the shared intelligence and targets.”

Were it just Biden—whose propensity for saying things he shouldn’t has been both charming and exasperating for decades—I would chalk it up to a lack of discipline. Ditto if it was Biden and some anonymous leaks. But it’s happening constantly, including in public appearances by top national security players. It seems to me to be part of the same strategy as the highly unusual but effective release of a stream of intelligence on Russian activities leading up to the invasion, publicly bragging about each escalation of US aid, and the like. The administration is clearly signaling that, while we will not directly fight Russia militarily, we’ll do everything short of that.

Dan and I agree that this is more likely to backfire than do good. But it sure seems like Biden, Austin, and others disagree and are doing this consciously rather than because they can’t help themselves. Maybe they think humiliating Putin will hasten his demise. Maybe they think being so brazen in their declarations will deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Alas, they have not seen fit to read me in on their thinking.

Regardless, Dan is right here:

I have been pretty skeptical of claims that U.S. assistance will lead to an escalation of the conflict beyond Ukraine. That does not mean it is a good idea to needlessly poke a wounded bear. Saying things like the United States is “fundamentally at war” with Russia is the kind of overheated, hyperbolic rhetoric that executive and legislative branch officials should avoid.

Now, it happens that the United States is fundamentally at war with Russia—we would certainly think any country supplying weapons to forces fighting American soldiers was a belligerent—but saying the quiet part out loud is unhelpful.

The Biden administration has executed a sound foreign policy to resist Russian aggression in Ukraine. It would improve on that policy if it started adhering to greater message discipline, and right quick.

We agree that the overall policy has been sound and that doing it more quietly would be even better. But, again, it sure seems like rubbing Putin’s face in it is a deliberate policy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. alkali says:

    FWIW, Thomas Friedman reported Friday that the leaks were not approved by Biden:

    As a journalist, I love a good leak story, and the reporters who broke those stories did powerful digging. At the same time, from everything I have been able to glean from senior U.S. officials, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, the leaks were not part of any thought-out strategy, and President Biden was livid about them. I’m told that he called the director of national intelligence, the director of the C.I.A. and the secretary of defense to make clear in the strongest and most colorful language that this kind of loose talk is reckless and has got to stop immediately — before we end up in an unintended war with Russia.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @alkali: That’s interesting. Biden himself has done it, as has SECDEF. Who knows?

  3. Kathy says:

    What does China know about what US intelligence has on Russia, and what Russia knows about it?

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    One wonders what a member of the Realist Camp would view as being in American security interest if not containing Russian aggression? It is as if the Realist world view is being employed as a fig leaf for isolationism and ascribing to a Great Power world view.

    As far as where this ends, none of us know, probably even Zelensky and Putin. For the US and NATO, choosing to not become actively involved in the combat operations and limiting ourselves to support for Ukraine, also leaves us on the outside in shaping and choosing how this ends.

    Regarding the leaks, undoubtedly some are planned, other inadvertent and too many, particularly those noting specific US and allied intelligence sharing are reputation buffing. That last category is the most damaging and needs to be shut down.

    Another consideration for some leaking is for the domestic political situation. Unlike other US military involvement foreign conflicts, from the beginning Ukraine has not had the extensive initial support of DC’s political actors. Predictably the far left Dems raised questions, but they always do and no one pays much attention to them. But in this instance, a third to nearly half of official R DC has expressed disapproval and even among R’s that have expressed support, it is often cloaked and tentative.

    We’re in a weird time, we are facing, what could result in a world war and a not insignificant portion of the population is sympathetic to the enemy. At one of TFG’s rallies last week, he attempted to claim false credit for support for Ukraine and his words were greeted by silence from the attendees.

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  5. Scott says:

    Sure, it might play well in domestic circles.

    I fully agree that everyone should shut up. However, let me suggest this: this is a natural fallout of the breakdown in bipartisan foreign policy which has been occurring for decades. One side cannot be silent if the other is constantly criticizing even obliquely through their media supporters. If success of your policy depends partially on domestic support, how can you not talk about your successes?

    I don’t know what the answer is but I do think this is a factor.

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  6. JohnSF says:

    On the whole, I think just shutting up would be for the best.
    Especially in regard to any real-time intelligence provision that may be in place.

    However, the main “poking of the bear” is necessarily public: the allocation of vast sums of money, and massive quantities of equipment.
    This is unavoidable; and probably net beneficial.
    Public material assistance to Ukraine helps to sustain morale, and also helps to prevent Russia having any delusions that it can easily pivot to a “ceasefire and hold” policy at a time of it’s choosing.
    This is very important; a “ceasefire in place” ploy at a point when Russia was in danger of collapse in Donbas, or alternatively if it thought it had achieved sufficient gains in south/east for “victory” could present serious risks of political fractures in the coalition of support. Known public commitment in advance reduces the chances of this tactic working.

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  7. Tony W says:

    Biden has been doing this a VERY long time, and I trust his judgment.

    Frankly, it’s very plausible that he’s actually playing 3-D chess here. We don’t know the behind-the-scenes conversations happening between him and Putin or other world leaders, and it may well be that this sort of poking is very strategic.

    On a side note, it’s nice to have a president I trust.

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  8. drj says:

    @JohnSF:

    On the whole, I think just shutting up would be for the best.

    Maybe these statements were intended to signal the extent of the US’s intelligence sharing: locations, yes; targeting/sensor data, no.

    If so, these statements could have been intended to be de-escalatory, strange as it may sound.

    Admittedly, my basic assumption (based on their info ops over the last few months) is that the Biden administration is pretty competent and disciplined. So that colors my perception.

    Obviously, I don’t (can’t) know whether this was smart or not. But I wouldn’t immediately exclude the possibility.

    One thing I do know: Thomas Friedman is not to be taken seriously.

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  9. Jen says:

    I think it’s entirely possible that the audience for this poking might not be who we think/assume it is.

    Putin seems to have Parkinson’s (the death grip on the table edge, leg shaking, hands shaking, etc.). This could well be strategic, and I trust Biden.

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  10. Kathy says:

    @Jen:

    The lack of transparency necessarily inherent in intelligence work, menas conspiratorial-style thinking is too easy to engage in. I mean, maybe the leaks are on purpose, but then Biden has to complain about them so they don’t seem to be on purpose, right?

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    I don’t know how much exposure of intelligence is wise. I don’t know how this will end, although I have trouble seeing an end game that isn’t horrible. I do, I think, know two things. The alternative to supporting Ukraine is letting Putin have it, which is geopolitically bad and morally repellant. And we are six months from an election that may turn control of either or both Houses back to Republicans at which point it will become much harder to support Ukraine. GOPs are so far bowing to public opinion and somewhat reluctantly supporting Ukraine. Given control, they’ll stop. Cleek was right. They see it only through the lens of strengthening or weakening Biden. So I’m OK with Biden doing a little politicking around Ukraine. It’s good for him, and it’s good for Ukraine.

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  12. Slugger says:

    The message goes to the world and the American people. There will not be an open debate in the UN about this war, but the US can debate in the agora of world opinion. This is an old US method, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” I bet Putin remembers that quote and the aftermath.

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  13. DK says:

    Prof. Joyner is right.

    Biden’s “this man cannot remain in power” did not strike me as out of bounds, if it had just been a standalone expression of outrage and dismany. But coupled with Sec. Austin’s overzealous “we want to see Russia weakened” and then the jaw-dropping braggadicio about helping kill Russian generals and sink Russian ships, it all seems unseemly and counterproductive. Out of step with the rest of the administration’s Ukraine policy, which has been clever, cautiously bold, and strategic. That New York Times article last week actually made my jaw drop. Literally.

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  14. DK says:

    @Kathy: Wouldn’t it be better 3D chess to vigorously deny we are seeking regime change, deny we are at war with Russia, demure that we are only helping our allies defend their neighbor Ukraine against war crimes and an illegal invasion, and assert the right of Russians (and Ukrainians) to choose their own leaders and set their own policy?

    We would publicly state we want a Russia that is strong, free, secure, gets along with its neighbors, and is a responsible player on the world stage. We would claim Putin could have a shining legacy if he would end the war, stop assaulting the liberty of Russians and Ukrainians, and respect freedom and autonomy inside and outside of Russia.

    I don’t see the diplomatic strategy, if there is one, behind the escalatory statements and leaks coming from Defense, intel, and some over-excited politicians. Biden seems to know Austin, Sullivan, and Burns have to get their people under control with these leaks.

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  15. Jen says:

    @Slugger:

    I bet Putin remembers that quote and the aftermath.

    That’s an extremely safe bet, as Putin was stationed in East Berlin as a KGB officer when the wall came down.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    Russians aren’t the only ones having trouble with arms supply. LockMartin is reportedly working to double Javelin production from 2600 per year to 4000, and say it could take a year or two to do so. (I’m assuming this is missiles and there would also be some ramp up of launchers.) One may suspect they’ll do better after the price increase they’re presumably angling for. And WIKI says they’re about a quarter million a pop. The Ukrainians are using them up a lot faster than that. Gonna have to be told to stop shooting them at trucks.

  17. Kathy says:

    @DK:

    I don’t know. I’m not putting forward a theory or advocating a strategy.

    Intelligence strategy winds up feeling like time travel: it invites infinite regression.

    Or like Data put it once on Star Trek: knowing that we know that he knows that we know that he knows…

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  18. Drew says:

    @Tony W:

    “Never underestimate Joe’s ability to eff things up.”

    Barack Obama

  19. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:

    Gonna have to be told to stop shooting them at trucks.

    Trucks are arguably a more critical target than tanks.

    I’d expect the Ukrainians would use RPG’s or such on “soft” targets, if in range; but the Javelin or the Ukrainian Stugna/Skif have much greater range.

  20. Jay L Gischer says:

    I have two, somewhat conflicting hypotheses for these leaks, and for statements of former NATO leaders (which James has posted about) that are highly aggressive. (“Let’s build a forward base inside western Ukraine”).

    First, this is for domestic consumption. The enemy (Putin and authoratarian oligarchs) is exposed now, and we can tee off on them and rally support. The support of American people cannot be assumed, since we know the Kremlin has been working full time to disrupt this exact thing. We know that. We know they’ve had success, even. We may know far more than that, with material that isn’t publicly available or actionable.

    Second, this could be posturing for the sake of any negotiated settlement.

    It matters as to who is doing it, but I’m more interested in the motives of the people doing it.

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  21. JohnSF says:

    @Drew:
    Viewed from here, I’d say President Biden is certainly not “effin things up”.
    Personally I think he is handling this crisis better than most recent holders of the office handled comparable situations.
    Including, I have to say, President Obama regarding Syria.
    And the less said about the last incumbent, the better.

    This is a pretty general view, and one shared across most of the political spectrum: the number of British Conservatives I’ve heard yearning for the leadership of Trump = nil.
    Zero.
    Zilch.
    (Unless you count Farage, which you really shouldn’t; what with him not being a Conservative, but definitely being a pillock)

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  22. Mister Bluster says:

    pillock |ˈpilək|
    noun British informal
    a stupid person.

    ORIGIN
    mid 16th century: variant of archaic pillicock ‘penis,’ the early sense of pillock in dialects of northern England.

    I like it.

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  23. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    On general principle, anyone is capable of effing things up.

    Except Benito, who is guaranteed to do so.

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  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JohnSF:
    @Drew is a big consumer of Russian disinfo. His sources are Zero Hedge and Fox News.

    Interesting that he’s re-surfaced here sans pseudonym and after a long absence. As soon as I mention that I’m on vacay and won’t be around much. Probably coincidence.

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  25. Just nutha says:

    @JohnSF: Once again, you show to be the better man! I was going to respond with

    What a fucking moron.
    Rex Tillerson

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  26. Tony W says:

    @Drew: “Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet”

    — Abraham Lincoln

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  27. JohnMcC says:

    @Jen: My B-in-L (rest in peace, Bill) was a very clever neurologist and years ago he pronounced that Mr Putin has Parkinson’s. Never found out what the specific signs were that made him suspect that.

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