The Biden administration sought Friday to downplay the role of American intelligence in the high-profile sinking of the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, distancing itself from any direct role in one of the greatest embarrassments for Russia since it attacked Ukraine.
A day after an American official confirmed that the U.S. provided Ukraine with information on the location of the ship, the White House and Pentagon described a limited role in last month’s attack and said the Ukrainians make their own decisions.
The effort reflected the fine line President Joe Biden walks as he touts increasing support for Ukraine while fighting off criticism he isn’t doing enough and simultaneously trying to avoid dragging the U.S. into a direct conflict with Russia.
“We had no prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intent to target the ship,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “The Ukrainians have their own intelligence capabilities to track and target Russian naval vessels, as they did in this case. “
Amid strong, bipartisan support for Ukraine, the administration has provided more than $3.4 billion in military assistance, and U.S. forces are actively training Ukrainian troops in the use of howitzers, drones and other hardware in a war now focused on the eastern Donbas region of the country.
The White House announced an addition $150 million in military support Friday that included artillery rounds, radar systems capable of detecting artillery projectiles, and other equipment.
Asked about reports that the U.S. provided intelligence on the Moskva, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Ukraine receives “relevant and timely” intelligence from the U.S., but also gets assistance from other nations and makes its own decisions about how to use it.
“And if they do decide to do something with that intelligence, then they make the decisions about acting on it,” Kirby said.
American officials insist this is a fight launched by President Vladimir Putin against Ukraine, not a proxy war with the U.S., and the intelligence assistance stays within these limits.
The Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. had no advanced knowledge of the attack on the ship, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
“We provide them what we believe to be relevant and timely information about Russian units that will allow them to adjust and execute their self-defense to the best of their ability,” Kirby said. “The kind of intelligence that we provide them, it’s legitimate, it’s lawful, and it’s limited.”
An American official said Thursday that Ukraine alone decided to target and sink the Moskva using its own anti-ship missiles. But given Russia’s attacks on the Ukrainian coastline from the sea, the U.S. has provided “a range of intelligence” that includes locations of those ships, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Biden administration has ramped up intelligence sharing with Ukraine alongside the shipment of arms and missiles to help it repel Russia’s invasion. The disclosure of U.S. support in the Moskva strike comes as the White House is under pressure from Republicans to do more to support Ukraine’s resistance and as polls suggest some Americans question whether Biden is being tough enough on Russia.
Since Putin ordered the invasion in February, the White House has tried to balance supporting Ukraine, a democratic ally, against not doing anything that would seem to provoke a direct war between Putin and the U.S. and NATO allies. As the war has gone on, the White House has ramped up its military and intelligence support, removing some time and geographic limits on what it will tell Ukraine about potential Russian targets.
The official who spoke Thursday said the U.S. was not aware that Ukraine planned to strike the Moskva until after they conducted the operation.
Speaking earlier Thursday after a New York Times report about the U.S. role in supporting Ukraine’s killing of Russian generals, Kirby said American agencies “do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield or participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military.”
“Ukraine combines information that we and other partners provide with the intel that they themselves are gathering and then they make their own decisions and they take their own actions,” Kirby said.