Fighters of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company operating in Syria (File)

A top-secret US intelligence document, among hundreds leaked on social media from November 2022 to February 2023, says Ukraine military intelligence proposed covert attacks on Russian forces in Syria.

The memorandum is based on intelligence, in part from human sources, collected up to January 23. It says Kyiv was seeking assistance from the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces who control much of northeast Syria.

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The Ukraine Defense Ministry’s military intelligence service planned attacks that avoid implicating the Zelenskiy Government. The strikes would target Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries, possibly forcing Moscow to redeploy military resources from its invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky halted the planning in December.

In September 2015, Russia carried out a massive military intervention to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It has carried out a protracted campaign of airstrikes, sieges, and ground assaults — killing thousands of civilians — to erode territory held by anti-Assad groups.

Moscow now has permanent air and naval bases in Syria with the stationing of thousands of troops. Some soldiers, mercenaries, and equipment were moved from Syria to Ukraine last autumn.

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A Plan Beginning With Drone Strikes

A December proposal suggested a “small” start with drone strikes on Russian forces, possibly limited to the Wagner mercenaries. Operatives of the Syrian Democratic Forces would be trained to attack Russian targets and to conduct “unspecified ‘direct action’ activities” alongside the drone operations.

The SDF sought a guarantee that its role would be kept secret and that there would be no strikes on Russian positions in Kurdish areas.

Although Turkey portrays the SDF as an enemy — and has attacked and seized Kurdish territory in northern Syria — Ankara suggested that Ukraine launch its attacks from the Kurdish areas rather than from positions held by anti-Assad groups, some of whom are backed by the Turks.

By December 29, the Ukrainian military knew that Zelenskiy had ordered a halt to planning. The reason is unclear, but US intelligence speculates that it could be because of American pressure, a limited supply of drones, or doubts about success.

Kyiv may also have concluded that it should pursue the “comparative success” of covert operations inside Russia and in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. Strikes, sabotage, and assassination have degraded Russian military positions, oil and ammunition depots, logistics, and supply points.