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US giving intel to Ukraine for operations in Donbas, Defense Secretary says

CNN 4/7/2022 By Oren Liebermann, Barbara Starr, Jeremy Herb and Katie Bo Lillis, CNN
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / POOL / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) © Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP/Getty Images US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / POOL / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said publicly for the first time Thursday that the US is providing intelligence to Ukrainian forces to conduct operations in the Donbas region.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin was asked whether the US was providing intelligence to help Ukraine carry out attacks against Russian forces in the separatist-controlled Donbas region or Crimea.

"We are providing them intelligence to conduct operations in the Donbas, that's correct," Austin said in response to the question from Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Austin did not mention Crimea in his response. He also stated the US is not discouraging Ukraine from launching attacks against Russian forces in these areas.

Austin's comments were the first time a US official has publicly acknowledged the US role in Ukraine's operations in the contested region as the fighting shifts away from the capital of Kyiv and toward southeast Ukraine.

A senior defense official told CNN that some of the intelligence provided to Ukraine is "near real time."

"We continue to provide useful information and intelligence to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in their fight," the defense official said after Austin's remarks. "As that fight migrates more to the Donbas region, we will adjust our information content and flow as required."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, who testified earlier this week that the risk of "significant international conflict" was increasing, said Thursday that Russia's war with Ukraine was likely to become a "long slog" as Ukraine defends its territory.

"They've managed to defeat the Russian onslaught on to Kyiv, but there is a significant battle yet ahead down in the southeast, down around the Donbas Donetsk region where the Russians intend to get mass forces and continue their assault," Milley said.

In the meantime, both Austin and Milley told the senators the Pentagon was taking whatever steps it could to help Ukraine's fight against Russia. US security assistance is flowing into Ukraine "faster than most people would have ever believed conceivable," Austin told the committee on Thursday -- at times arriving in Ukraine within days of receiving authorization, he said.

"From the time authorization is provided, four or five days later we see real capability begin to show up," Austin said during the hearing on the Defense Department budget request.

Keeping weapons flowing into Ukraine

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, pressed Austin on why all of $3 billion in congressional authorization for US arms to Ukraine has yet to be provided.

"We've only used $900 million of this -- less than a third of the amount authorized. Why hasn't the administration provided the full $3 billion?"

Austin told Wicker that the US has provided Ukraine with "those capabilities that are relevant and effective in this fight."

"You've seen us provide a tremendous amount of anti-armor, anti-aircraft capability and also communications capabilities, as well as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). And we're also looking to help them in a number of other ways," he said.

Milley testified that US and NATO countries have provided roughly 60,000 anti-tank weapons and 25,000 anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine. He said that the US is looking at how it can provide Ukraine with additional armor and artillery as the war drags on, but said that it was key to find systems that Ukrainian forces would not need to be trained on, noting many US weapons systems would require months of training.

"The Russian air force has not even today established air superiority let alone air supremacy, which is one of the reasons why they are having great difficulty on the ground," Milley said.

"So the air superiority mission has not been achieved, why is that? It's because of the survival of the air defense systems, both the MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) that we have been providing -- stingers and the like from other NATO countries -- plus the longer range SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) that have been provided and that they already had."

Updated guidance on intel sharing

Under questioning from Cotton, Austin told the committee that the Pentagon would be sending "updated guidance" on Thursday regarding intelligence sharing, but he did not explicitly say what the guidance would entail.

Cotton asked if the current guidance is not to provide such intelligence to Ukraine.

"Certainly, the current guidance was not clear in that regard, so we'll make sure it's clear," answered Austin.

The defense official said that the updates for commanders and personnel involved with Department of Defense-controlled intelligence gathering was to ensure proper guidance for the "amount, content and type of information" being provided about adversary operations in the Donbas region.

Last month, the White House acknowledged that the US has sent "a significant amount of detailed, timely intelligence" to Ukraine regarding Russia's plans and movements.

"We've been doing that for months," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the time. "This includes information that should help them inform and develop their military response to Russia's invasion, that's what's happening -- or has been happening."

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