In the months leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s administration pulled covert Central Intelligence Agency personnel out of the country, including war-zone-hardened agency paramilitaries. The CIA operatives had been there since 2014, training Ukrainian forces in modern warfare tactics, a report from Yahoo News revealed.
Although Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine 36 days ago, the Kremlin’s forces have so far been unable to capture the capital of Kyiv or crush the Ukrainian military. The most conservative U.S. estimates believe that more than 7,000 Russian troops have been killed in less than three weeks of fighting, and Ukraine’s military claims to have killed at least three Russian generals.
According to half a dozen former intelligence officials who spoke to Yahoo News, the CIA’s training is what has helped Ukrainian forces stymie the Russian advance.
After Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the U.S. military operated a publicly acknowledged training program for Ukrainian troops in the western part of the country, far from the front lines of a civil war with pro-Russian separatists in the east. But at the same time, the CIA reportedly developed a covert training program on the eastern front in the Donbas region, where Ukrainian forces were directly fighting Russia-backed troops and possibly even Russian soldiers.
The covert CIA training program operated under existing authorities for the CIA and did not require new authorization, according to Yahoo News. CIA paramilitaries trained Ukrainian troops in sniper techniques; taught them how to operate Javelin anti-tank missiles and other equipment; showed them how to evade Russian surveillance; and gave them training to draw out Russian and insurgent forces from their positions, Yahoo News reported.
Former U.S. officials involved with the program believe the training was effective. “I think we’re seeing a big impact from snipers. Especially as Russian forces get bogged down from lack of supplies,” one former senior official said. “I think the training really paid off.”
Yahoo News previously reported in January that the CIA had conducted a secret U.S.-based training program for Ukrainian special operations. The outlet also said that CIA paramilitaries had traveled to eastern Ukraine to assist Kyiv’s forces there, but the CIA had denied their programs were offensively oriented.
“The purpose of the training, and the training that was delivered, was to assist in the collection of intelligence,” a senior intelligence official said in January.
That statement now appears to be false.
According to Yahoo News, the CIA paramilitaries sent to Ukraine were given a twofold mission. First, they were ordered to determine how best to train Ukrainian special operations forces to fight the Russian military and separatist forces in the Donbas region. Second, the CIA operatives were told to determine the “backbone” of the Ukrainians and assess their willingness and ability to fight.
Former officials acknowledged to Yahoo News that the program carried serious risks. “Everything we did in Ukraine had a chance to be misinterpreted, and escalate the tensions,” one former official said. The CIA reportedly wanted to avoid a direct conflict with the Russians that could result in a war. Accordingly, the number of personnel initially sent to Ukraine was limited to the “low single digits,” Yahoo News reported. They were directed to advise and train, but were instructed not to take part in combat.
However, after President Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, the new administration raised concerns that the CIA’s Ukraine mission “might be too far-ranging,” according to a former national security official.
“How far can you go with existing covert action authorities?” the official recalled asking. “If, God forbid, they’ve shot some Russians, is that a problem? Do you need special authorities for that?”
Though the Trump White House was mindful of the risks, the program continued through his presidency and into the Biden administration. It wasn’t until it became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin intended to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that President Biden pulled all CIA personnel out of the country, Yahoo News reported.
Biden’s administration was “terrified of even clandestine folks being on the frontline” of Ukraine’s war with Russia, a former official said.