While President Biden has made clear that U.S. troops won’t deploy to Ukraine to help defend the country from an unfolding Russian attack, the U.S. has provided other types of overt – as well as secret – security and intelligence support to Ukraine.
The support has included billions of dollars in military aid; enhanced intelligence sharing between the CIA, the National Security Agency and Ukrainian spy agencies; anti-corruption assistance; and enhanced cybersecurity coordination.
The CIA has also conducted paramilitary training for Ukrainian special operations forces at a facility in the Southern U.S. as part of a secret program that began in 2015, and has sent agency paramilitaries to the front in eastern Ukraine to advise their counterparts there.
Recently, as the threat of a Russian invasion became more acute, U.S. officials quietly stepped up coordination with Ukraine on shared cybersecurity threats, according to current and former officials.
“There is continued work with Ukraine and neighboring states to shore up cyber defenses, [and] we have been seeing warnings, both publicly and privately, that cyberattacks could be part of a broad Russian effort to destabilize and further invade Ukraine,” a DHS cyber official told government and law enforcement officials on an internal call last week on escalating Ukraine-Russia tensions that was exclusively reported by Yahoo News. “And so there have been U.S. government efforts to work closely with Ukraine, and we continue to do so and will do so in the days ahead.”
The U.S. bolstered its support of Ukraine in late January, sending cyber experts and resources there, according to current U.S. government officials.
“For the last 10 years, [Ukraine has] been a testing ground for Russian cyber weapons,” Jaak Tarien, a senior NATO cybersecurity official, said at a conference in Munich last week.
Ukraine has come under increasing waves of disruptive cyber operations in the run-up to Russia’s assault, with another group of “wiper” attacks on Thursday hitting institutions in Ukraine as well as NATO allies Lithuania and Latvia. The attacks on Ukraine’s financial and government networks were reported by Ukrainian government officials and are expected to continue.
“The Ukrainians are very capable folks, but at the same time you have the force of three [intelligence] services laying everything they have to bear on you,” a current NATO official said of the Russian cyberattacks. “And I’m not sure how many countries in the world, if any, could handle that kind of pressure.”
But with a shooting war having begun, some of the enhanced cooperation with the Ukrainians on cybersecurity has taken a back seat to more acute worries.
“Incident response during a shooting war is going to be all but impossible,” said a former U.S. national security official still closely involved in Ukraine issues. “No one’s going to be focused on computer forensics when they are being shot at or bombed and their lives and that of their families are at stake.”
In addition to cybersecurity help, the U.S. has provided advanced military training to elite Ukrainian military and special operations units. A small contingent of U.S. special operations and other military personnel were based in Ukraine to train their counterparts there, though they were were recently evacuated by the Pentagon because of the looming threat of a Russian invasion.
The CIA has also provided secret training to Ukrainian security officials. In 2015, the agency began sending a small cohort of paramilitary officers to the eastern front to help advise Ukrainian forces there, former U.S. intelligence officials told Yahoo News.