Washington — Classified U.S. and NATO planning documents related to the war in Ukraine have appeared on social media, prompting officials in Washington to scramble to have them removed from Twitter and other online platforms.
Officials in Kyiv, meanwhile, cautioned that the documents were altered by the Russians, in part to cover up the true extent of casualties suffered by Moscow’s forces and inflate the number of Ukrainians they killed.
Photographs of documents labeled “top secret” and “secret,” including some containing folds and creases, were posted on Twitter and Telegram in recent days, according to officials and media reports. The files include charts and maps indicating locations of military forces and weaponry in Ukraine as of March 1 and appear to have been disseminated online as soon as that day.
“The Department of Defense is actively reviewing the matter and has made a formal referral to the Department of Justice for investigation,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said in a terse statement Friday night.
The disclosure was the first public intelligence breakthrough for Russia since it invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, according to The New York Times, which initially reported the leak Thursday.
The Times on Friday evening reported that a second batch of documents had surfaced on social media that “appear to detail American national security secrets from Ukraine to the Middle East to China.”
The first batch of documents also contain specific information about training schedules for Ukrainian combat brigades and expenditure rates for the HIMARS rocket launcher system the United States has provided ahead of Kyiv’s expected spring counteroffensive, according to media reports.
“I do not see any risks from the publication of this information, including the distorted information about the plans the General Staff of Ukraine is developing,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, told VOA’s Ukrainian Service. “They are irrelevant to what will work in a month or at a certain time when these scenarios will be implemented on the battlefield.”
Podolyak added that if the intercepted documents were wholly authentic, the Russians “would certainly not release them. You would pretend that you don’t know the plans.”
An altered chart lists Russian fatalities at 16,000 to 17,500, far below the plausible estimates of up to 200,000 killed, wounded or missing by numerous analysts and lowered from the 35,500 to 43,500 listed on an earlier leaked version. The doctored chart also lists the estimate of Ukrainian soldiers killed at 61,000 to 71,500, up from 16,000 to 17,500 in an earlier photograph of the document posted online.
“The altered numbers expose them [the Russian intelligence services] completely. And it shows that the main reason of this was to convince the Russian public that only 17,000 [Russian] soldiers died,” said Andrey Piontkovsky, senior fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia, headquartered in New York.
“This is a propaganda operation designed primarily for Russian public opinion,” Piontkovsky told VOA’s Russian Service on Friday, adding that what has been released does not contain “any detailed harmful military information.”
Some Russian military bloggers are pointing fingers in the other direction, asserting the documents were leaked by Western intelligence to mislead Russian commanders ahead of the upcoming counteroffensive by the Ukrainians.
Such a warning was posted to Telegram by the Grey Zone account, which is associated with the Russian private paramilitary force known as the Wagner Group.
More than 30 of the documents initially appeared on a Discord server on March 1 and 2, according to Aric Toler, a researcher at Bellingcat, a fact-checking and open source intelligence group based in the Netherlands. Discord is a popular voice, video and text communication service based in San Francisco.
“They were all photographed from hard copies,” as the hand of a person can be seen in the pictures, Toler told VOA on Friday.
By March 5, after they propagated to other Discord servers and the anonymous 4chan online bulletin board, a doctored document and others apparently unaltered were posted on Russian Telegram channels, according to Toler.
U.S. government officials have been requesting that social media companies delete the postings, although it is unknown when they first became aware of the leak. It is also not known how successful they have been in getting the documents deleted or how Twitter responded to the requests.
An e-mailed query from VOA on Friday to the social media platform generated an automated reply with a “poop” emoji, Twitter’s standard response recently to all media inquiries.
A number of the documents were still visible on Twitter as of Friday afternoon, with some racking up hundreds of thousands of views. (Steve Herman/VOA)
Tatiana Vorozhko and Rafael Saakyan contributed to this report.
Steve Herman, formerly White House Bureau Chief, is now VOA’s Chief National Correspondent.