The White House agreed last year to Ukraine’s request to provide the photos and other intelligence.
But before delivering them, U.S. officials black out military staging areas on Russian territory and reduce the resolution so that enemy formations can’t be clearly made out, making them less useful to Ukrainian military commanders.
Those steps, which delay the delivery of the images by at least 24 hours, are designed to keep the U.S. out of the so-called kill chain—military jargon for the stages of lethal operations—because of concerns that furnishing actionable intelligence to the Ukrainians could trigger a more aggressive Russian military response.
The images also are being obscured to reduce the risk that, if the Russians were to obtain them, they could glean important intelligence about U.S. satellite capabilities.
The U.S. effort to keep its distance goes beyond intelligence sharing.
Last fall, the U.S. delivered short-range radars to Ukraine to help its forces pinpoint incoming mortar and artillery fire, but withheld key components needed to make the system more effective.
Ukrainian officials say the limitations have hampered the ability of their forces to counter separatists who receive advanced training and equipment from Moscow.
Russia has consistently denied aiding the rebels.
The separatists gained significant ground in a new offensive early this year, narrowing the options for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as he headed into European-brokered peace talks in early February.
Even after a cease-fire was signed Feb. 12, days of heavy bombardment forced Ukrainian troops to abandon the strategic hub of Debaltseve.
While the fighting has subsided in recent days, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional committee Thursday that the separatists were likely to continue to advance toward the city of Mariupol, which because of its port and industrial assets would improve the economic viability of the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
To fill in the intelligence gaps, the government in Kiev has approached other countries, including Canada, for more timely intelligence, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
A spokeswoman for Canada’s Department of National Defense said it is in the final stages of getting satellite imagery that will track military movements in Ukraine to Kiev.
She declined to comment further.
U.S. officials said its limitations on intelligence sharing are a precaution against an unintended military escalation.
“You don’t want to do anything that incites more instability or invites more aggression by Russia, and therefore makes it worse in the end for Ukraine,” a senior U.S. military official said.
Officials said the U.S. military and spy agencies are providing more sensitive intelligence to some Ukrainian officials who have been vetted by the U.S. and are deemed to be trustworthy.
That information is for their eyes only and isn’t for use on the battlefront.
Within the Obama administration, deep divisions have emerged over whether the U.S. should start providing the Ukrainians with actionable intelligence to help with targeting.
The divisions mirror the White House debate over providing defensive weaponry — a prospect that was revived early this year but has yet to be decided.
So far, the White House has stopped short of allowing the U.S. to provide Ukrainian forces with actionable intelligence such as “target sets,” location data on separatist positions for strikes.
U.S. military and intelligence officials have proposed lifting at least some of the restrictions.
Ukrainian officials said the U.S. has already moved in that direction by supplying the radars, which can pinpoint targets in real time.
Currently, before satellite images are given to the Ukrainians, they are doctored to black out Russian territory, including areas along the Ukrainian border where separatists and Russian forces have set up staging areas for their operations, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. officials said the images they provide to the Ukrainians are meant to give them greater awareness of what’s taking place on Ukrainian territory, not Russian soil.
U.S. officials are also concerned Ukrainian forces could use U.S. imagery to target troops on Russian territory, triggering a major escalation.
The image resolution provided is similar to what commercial satellites produce, according to both U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian commanders say they often can’t use the imagery because it is so out of date by the time they get it.
U.S. officials attribute the delay—a day or more—to the time it takes to analyze and degrade the imagery.
They say it is standard practice to “sanitize” images from spy satellites before providing them to many U.S. allies.
In Ukraine’s case, U.S. spy agencies are particularly concerned the shared images could be misused on the battlefield or fall into Russian hands.
Ukraine’s officer ranks and communications networks are deeply penetrated by Russian intelligence services, U.S. officials said.
“This assistance is not sufficient,” Andriy Parubiy, the first deputy chairman of Ukraine’s parliament, said of the satellite imagery.
“We don’t have a day to wait for satellite images. The information should be real time.”
Mr. Parubiy, who previously served as a top national-security adviser to the Ukrainian president, said the deal Ukraine reached with Canada would provide satellite imagery on a more timely basis and at higher resolutions.
Congressional critics of the Obama administration argue the White House should lift the restrictions on intelligence sharing to make Ukrainian forces more effective.
“Dated information does very little good,” said Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.).
“When you are talking about national defense, hours matter a great deal.”
Sen. John McCain , the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the current limits “immoral and unacceptable,” and said the delays have contributed to rising Ukrainian death tolls.
Pro-Russia separatists have received drones and other real-time intelligence assets from Moscow, according to Sen. McCain and Ukrainian officials.
Ukraine has asked the U.S. for high-flying surveillance drones that could provide real-time battlefield intelligence, according to U.S. and Ukrainian officials.
U.S. officials said they are discussing the possibility of sending low-altitude drones but have been noncommittal because the U.S. believes Russia will jam their video feeds or shoot them down.
The U.S. has provided the Ukrainians with a short-range counter-mortar radar system, known as the TPQ-48, which can identify the source of incoming mortar and artillery fire within an effective range of about 4 miles.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials credit the system with providing front-line forces with as much as 20 seconds of early warning of incoming mortar rounds—enough time to take cover.
But the U.S. withheld software, components and other parts that would have enabled the Ukrainians to use the system to automatically return fire against salvos fired by the separatists.
The Ukrainians make do by manually entering location data from the U.S. radar into their own weapons systems.
The delay reduces their effectiveness because the separatists can change positions between salvos.
The Ukrainians have specifically asked the U.S. for the next generation of the short-range radar, the TPQ-49, as well as for two longer-ranged counter-battery radar systems, the TPQ-36 and the TPQ-37, which identify the source of artillery and rocket fire from distances of up to 31 miles.
U.S. defense officials said they were wary of those requests.
For one thing, the U.S. doesn’t have enough of the longer-range radars to give some to Ukraine, an administration official said.
The Ukrainians continue to press for Javelin missiles, which can destroy heavily armored Russian tanks.
U.S. officials have told their Ukrainian counterparts that they can look elsewhere for weapons.
Estonia, Lithuania and Poland—all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—have Javelins, a U.S. military official said.
But NATO countries have agreed to seek a consensus before individual member-states supply lethal arms to Ukraine, which isn’t a member.
“It really is hard to get everyone to agree on lethal aid,” the military official said.
Source: The Wall Street Journal