The Justice Department has launched an investigation into a possible leak of secret Pentagon documents that seem to detail U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine, as well as front-line troop and armament positions, that were shared widely on social media.
The documents, dated between Feb. 23 and March 1 and shared on platforms like Twitter and Telegram, appear to show maps and details about deliveries of weapons.
Some of the documents had markings classifying them as “Secret” and “Top Secret,” with some showing what looks like locations for front-line Russian and Ukrainian military units and artillery guns.
Bellingcat analyst Aric Toler posted on Twitter images suggesting that the documents may have been altered.
In at least one case, the documents appear to have been altered to show much lower Russian troop fatality numbers than the 200,000 killed and wounded that U.S. officials have publicly estimated.
That alteration, in particular, has led to speculation that Russia could be behind the leak.
“As many of these were pictures of documents, it appears that it was a deliberate leak done by someone that wished to damage the Ukraine, U.S., and NATO efforts,” Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, told ABC.
“Russia’s obvious manipulation of some facts has made it more difficult to determine what is real and what is not,” said Mulroy. “Something that may help somewhat limit the damage overall ironically.”
Mulroy addressed the matter of the investigation into the leak, saying he expects the probe to be “very thorough in finding out how this happened and who was responsible.”
Ukraine has claimed that the documents are fake and part of a Russian disinformation campaign, while the Pentagon said the matter is being looked into.
Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said in a statement Friday that the Department of Defense had made a “formal referral” to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to probe the apparent leak.
The DOJ said in a statement Friday that “We have been in communication with the Department of Defense related to this matter and have begun an investigation.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the chief of Ukraine’s presidential office, said in a statement that the posts looked like a Russian disinformation operation to sow doubts about Ukraine’s predicted counter-offensive.
“The aim of secret data ‘leaks’ is obvious: divert attention, cast doubts & mutual suspicions, sow discord,” he said in a post on Twitter. “It’s an ordinary game of [Russian] secret services. To take open briefings, add fake info or certain parts of interceptions & publish them on social networks legalizing the ‘leak.’”
In an earlier post on Telegram, Podolyak said Russia was “looking for any way to intercept the information initiative, to try to influence the scenario plans of Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
“This has nothing to do with Ukraine’s real plans,” he continued, adding that “as for the real counteroffensive plans, the Russian troops will certainly be the first to get acquainted with them.”
“I would assume that will happen very soon,” he added.
Ukraine managed to beat back Russian forces from Kyiv last year before liberating parts of the country’s northeast and south, but Moscow’s forces still occupy swathes of Ukrainian territory in the east and south, as well as Crimea.
Russian forces have managed to make slow but decisive gains in recent weeks, especially in the eastern Donetsk region.
At the same time, there have been growing indications that a Ukrainian counter-offensive is imminent.
Speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 5, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on allies to remain “focused intensely on the weeks and months ahead … as Ukraine prepares for a counter-offensive, again, to try to retake more of its territory.”
One of the documents appears to describe a timeline for a Ukrainian “spring offensive,” although the documents don’t seem to indicate how or where Ukrainian forces might launch their attack.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Friday that Russian military planners would take into account Blinken’s remarks about a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the coming weeks.
“They [the Russian military] thoroughly track down all relevant information and take it into account when planning the progress of the special military operation,” Peskov said, according to Russian state media Tass.
The Kremlin calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation” aimed at degrading Ukraine’s military potential and removing from power Kyiv’s political leadership, which Moscow calls “Nazis.”