The Department of Defense (DOD) wants to restart special operations programs in Ukraine aimed at countering disinformation and spying on the Russian military, The Washington Post reported, citing 15 current and former officials mostly speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon suspended the two highly classified programs, which involve allowing U.S. Special Operations personnel to “employ” Ukrainian operatives, as Russia appeared poised to invade in late 2021 and early 2022, the Post reported. While the so-called “surrogate” programs, often used in counterterrorism missions, typically require American personnel to advise partner forces from within the host country, Special Operations forces have at times directed operations from a distance.
“What started as a reconnaissance mission can quickly turn into combat when the surrogates start getting shot at,” one official familiar with the Pentagon’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill told the Post. “I think that’s a real possibility in Ukraine, and I’m not sure how the department is going to change people in Congress’s minds about that.”
The Pentagon characterizes the programs as forms of “irregular warfare,” or a way to counter the militarism and aggression of an adversary while avoiding open conflict, according to the Post.
One program involved “people taking apart Russian propaganda” and posting blog content, while the other employed Ukrainian troops to conduct surveillance on Russian military assets, one official told the Post.
“When you suspend these things because the scale of the conflict changes, you lose access,” Retired Gen. Mark Schwartz, who commanded U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe when the program began in 2018, told the Post. “It means you lose information and intelligence about what’s actually going on in the conflict.”
However, Section 1202 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which created the programs, says that they cannot run during “traditional armed conflict.”
DOD declined to comment to the Post, citing the programs’ classification status.
The Biden administration may not allow U.S. special operators to reenter Ukraine if the war is still going on, given a precedent of expressing unwillingness to do anything that could appear to show the U.S. as an aggressor. The only known military personnel to have entered Ukraine exist under a non-combatant status and returned to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv by November.
Critics in Congress say reactivating the programs risks implicating the U.S. active participant in military operations against Russia, the Post reported. The Pentagon maintains that the program does not represent an escalation because the individuals involved — both American and Ukrainian — would be restricted to nonviolent activities.
DOD plans to include a funding proposal in the yearly budget request for 2024, although it remains unclear how much risk Congress will be willing to take in authorizing the funding, the Post reported. In any case, Congress will not have to make a final decision until the fall of 2023 at the earliest, and the programs would not be reactivated until sometime in 2024.
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