Zelensky, in private, plots bold attacks inside Russia, leak shows

13 MAY 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the U.S. Capitol in December. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has won the trust of Western governments by refusing to use the weapons they provide for attacks inside Russia and prioritizing the targeting of Russian forces inside Ukraine’s borders.

But behind closed doors, Ukraine’s leader has proposed going in a more audacious direction — occupying Russian villages to gain leverage over Moscow, bombing a pipeline that transfers Russian oil to Hungary, a NATO member, and privately pining for long-range missiles to hit targets inside Russia’s borders, according to classified U.S. intelligence documents detailing his internal communications with top aides and military leaders.

The documents, which have not been previously disclosed, are part of a broader leak of U.S. secrets circulated on the Discord messaging platform and obtained by The Washington Post. They reveal a leader with aggressive instincts that sharply contrast with his public-facing image as the calm and stoic statesman weathering Russia’s brutal onslaught. The insights were gleaned through intercepted digital communications, providing a rare look at Zelensky’s deliberations amid Russian missile barrages, infrastructure attacks and war crimes.

The Pentagon, where senior U.S. military leaders were briefed on the matters outlined in the leaked documents, did not dispute the authenticity of the materials.

In some cases, Zelensky is seen restraining the ambitions of his subordinates; in several others, he is the one proposing risky military actions.

In a meeting in late January, Zelensky suggested Ukraine “conduct strikes in Russia” while moving Ukrainian ground troops into enemy territory to “occupy unspecified Russian border cities,” according to one document labeled “top secret.” The goal would be “to give Kyiv leverage in talks with Moscow,” the document said.

In a separate meeting in late February with Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander, Zelensky “expressed concern” that “Ukraine does not have long-range missiles capable of reaching Russian troop deployments in Russia nor anything with which to attack them.” Zelensky then “suggested that Ukraine attack unspecified deployment locations in Rostov,” a region in western Russia, using drones instead, according to another classified document.

In a meeting in mid-February with Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Svrydenko, Zelensky suggested Ukraine “blow up” the Soviet-built Druzhba pipeline that provides oil to Hungary. “Zelenskyy highlighted that … Ukraine should just blow up the pipeline and destroy likely Hungarian [Prime Minister] Viktor Orban’s industry, which is based heavily on Russian oil,” the document says.

In detailing the conversation, intelligence officials concede that Zelensky was “expressing rage toward Hungary and therefore could be making hyperbolic, meaningless threats,” a qualification that does not accompany the other accounts of Zelensky suggesting bold military action. Though Hungary is nominally part of the Western alliance, Orban is widely considered Europe’s most Kremlin-friendly leader.

When asked if he had suggested occupying parts of Russia, Zelensky, during an interview with The Post in Kyiv, dismissed the U.S. intelligence claims as “fantasies” but defended his right to use unconventional tactics in the defense of his country.

“Ukraine has every right to protect itself, and we are doing it. Ukraine did not occupy anyone, but vice versa,” Zelensky said. “When so many people have died and there have been mass graves and our people have been tortured, I am sure that we have to use any tricks.”

The use of long-range missiles to hit inside Russia is a particularly sensitive topic for the White House, which has long worried that the Ukraine conflict could escalate out of control and force a catastrophic standoff between the United States and Russia, the world’s largest nuclear powers.

Though Washington has given Zelensky billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry, President Biden has steadily rebuffed the Ukrainian leader’s request for long-range ATACMS, shorthand for the Army Tactical Missile System, capable of striking targets up to 185 miles away. Since the start of the war, Biden has said the United States is “not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

When asked about the intelligence indicating he had weighed the use of long-range missiles to hit Russia, Zelensky said it is not something Ukraine is entertaining. “No one in our country has given orders for offensives or strikes on Russian territory,” he said.

President Biden escorts Volodymyr Zelensky to the Oval Office during the Ukrainian president’s high-stakes visit to Washington late last year. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

It is unclear whether the United States has shared accounts of Zelensky’s plotting with allied nations, but the Ukrainian president continues to enjoy the strong support of Western governments, which have provided him with an increasingly sophisticated array of weaponry.

This past week, Britain became the first Western country to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles. The Storm Shadow, a cruise missile system with stealth capabilities, has a range of 155 miles, far exceeding the 50-mile range of the U.S.-provided HIMARS launchers.

British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Friday that the missile would give Ukraine “the best chance” to defend itself and would be for use only “within Ukrainian sovereign territory.” A spokesman with the British Embassy in Washington declined to comment on whether Zelensky’s leaked remarks might give London pause about its decision.

The Biden administration says Zelensky’s intercepted comments are not the cause for withholding ATACMS.

“Ukraine has repeatedly committed to employ U.S.-provided weapons responsibly and strategically when needed to counter Russian aggression, and we are confident that will continue to be the case,” said a U.S. defense official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.

Since last year, Zelensky has promised that Ukraine would never use U.S. weapons to strike inside Russia, a pledge the White House says he has fulfilled.

“President Zelensky has kept the promises he has made to President Biden, and we do not believe that that will change,” said a senior administration official.

One reason for not providing the long-range missiles is the “relatively few ATACMS” the United States has for its own defense needs, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Defense One in March.

Zelensky, however, said he believes the United States isn’t sending the weapons because it doesn’t trust Kyiv.

“I think they are afraid that we might use them on the territory of Russia,” Zelensky told The Post. “But I would always tell our partners … ‘We have a priority target for which we are spending the ammunition packages we receive, and we spend it on the deoccupation of purely Ukrainian territories,’” he said.

While there is no indication that Ukraine has used Western missiles to strike into Russian territory, the same cannot be said for Kyiv’s use of armed drones.

Explosions caused by unmanned aerial vehicles have become a regular occurrence in Russia, including in Rostov, where a drone crashed into an oil refinery this month. Ukrainian officials are often coy about the incidents, hinting that they’re responsible without directly taking credit.

Two drone attacks in December on Russia’s Engels air base in Saratov, more than 370 miles from the Ukrainian border, showed “that we have the ability to reach many kilometers farther than they could expect,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said in an interview earlier this year.

Russia this month accused Ukraine of staging a drone attack intended to kill President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin. Videos circulating on social media and verified by The Post show two drones streaking toward the Kremlin at about 2:30 a.m. local time. The allegation was forcefully denied by Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky.

Not all of the classified documents show Zelensky pushing for more aggressive action.

One document describes a plan developed by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency last year to conduct covert attacks on Russian forces in Syria using secret Kurdish help. The detailed plot would have opened a new battlefield thousands of miles from Ukraine, but in December, Zelensky directed his aides to “cease planning for operations against Russian forces in Syria,” the document says, without explaining why the plan was aborted.

Zelensky, in the recent interview, said he reserved the right to explore a range of military options.

“I have a lot of generals with whom I work,” Zelensky said. “And these are my personal conversations.”

“The war is about the occupation of Ukraine,” he added. “Ukraine must win.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv. Siobhán O’Grady in Kyiv contributed to this report.


  1. Zelensky is absolutely right, wanting to bring the fight to mafia land. It is not only morally right, it is also legal, and it makes military sense.

    What the Biden administration is doing, is tying one arm behind Ukraine’s back. This is a dishonorable, cowardly, and weak decision by an administration that stands out in its deficiency of foresight and courage. It even failed to punish Moscow for its brash downing of one of our own drones in international airspace. This administration will have to live with a more or less negative legacy in future history books, which might even label it as I described above.

  2. The info contained in this article, whether true is not, is helpful only to the putler murder gang.
    When you are attacked by a monolithic, savage, sepulchrally evil, genocidal power, there is NOTHING that can be ruled out to ensure your survival.
    In Zel’s place, many leaders would have been far more extreme. For example, a legitimate response to terror is to kidnap the children of the terrorists, bomb and occupy enemy cities and if necessary, kill civilians; as Churchill did.

    • This would be righteous, every bit of what you say.
      But, we’re talking about Biden and his clowns. They are busier at the moment renaming US Army forts and flooding our country with illegal aliens than doing useful things.

      • Part of why I’m starting to wonder if living in Ukraine would be better for me. I doubt I’d be fit for military service, since the only languages I know are English and bad English, and I’m also 42 years old. But I’d be willing.

        • I have never been in the U.S., but I can’t imagine it being worse than a country at war.

          • Mainly, my considerations of moving to Ukraine are threefold. 1. The country takes its patriotism VERY seriously, though it doesn’t viciously condemn mild disagreement, of which I’ve seen plenty of examples recently in the United States, where people who steadfastly support American values of free speech and self-defense, are getting arrested on hearsay or ostracized by mob sentiment. Some even demand that the church accept behavior previously considered to be generally sinful, or that churches should submit to the will of government first and God should be second.
            2. I’m finding myself taxed very heavily with over a third of my income being taken automatically from my salary, this all while facing increasingly higher and higher prices for everything.
            3. I’d been unable to find a good local lady who’s interested in marrying, so I’d looked at a mail order bride type website for which I seriously checked the reputation of. The lady I started chatting with is a lawyer still in Kyiv, but this was before the invasion. I already visited Kyiv to try meeting her after the russians failed to seize the capital and were retreating. Though the city was blessedly free of airstrikes, she said it was too dangerous for her to meet me. Her recent letters suggest now, that she would meet me if she could.

            • Will you return to Kyiv and give her a second chance?
              Pardon my nosiness. Of course, this is a private matter, and you do not have to answer, I just asked in case you wish to answer such a question.

              • When I tried before, after I had gotten back to the USA, I told her I’d wait for a year, and that if we hadn’t met by then, I’d have to assume we’d never meet. I told her how I got in by taking a train from Poland, so that she would know what to do if she were coming to see me here. She still has around 7 months, and I’m trying myself as well.

                • I see… Thanks, Mac. I hope things will work out for you. In case you’re wondering, my offer is still valid.

    • Absolutely breathless comments here.

      Have you all gone mad? Kidnapping children, bombing, killing civilians? If we demand not to put the aggressor on the same level as the attacked, then our actions must respect that. I’m sure no Ukrainian soldier would agree to do what you’re suggesting. Can you imagine the damage in terms of military strategy, image? Any global support would crumble. Not a single person would support Ukraine. And for what military result? Give to the orcs the big excuse to destroy Ukraine with nuclear strike. You can be sure in these circonstances it’s done in a minute.

      We agree, there are no discussions about the possibility of Ukraine attacking military targets in Russia. It is his right and I feel like saying his duty. But the rest stop with this nonsense! You are helping Orcland with these comments by making Ukrainians look like terrorists. Ukraine is the light, Orcland the darkness, don’t fall in it!!!

      I completely understand a kind of rage that is expressed in these columns with these months of horror, especially if you are Ukrainian, but this is nonsense.

      • I fully agree with you on this. Ukraine must not allow russia any excuse to claim they are the “victims.”

      • A highly offensive comment. I only stated what other leaders might do, not Zel.
        You are a sanctimonious prig. If a terror gang took your kids, you would do anything to get them back. If a sex pervert took your kids for his own heinous purposes, you would do anything, including taking his kids, in order to get them back.
        In WW2, London was attacked. 90% of the housing stock in central London was damaged or destroyed. This was planned, systematic terror. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were murdered. In an attempt to shorten the war, Churchill did the same to the nazis. As any leader would under such circumstances.

      • I merely said to bring the fight to mafia land. I doubt it very, very much that the Ukrainians will do anything to civilians purposefully. I am especially against harming women, children, and animals, and so are they. What is said in this regard was perhaps a reaction to the horrors brought upon Ukrainian civilians. We’re all only human, after all. Saying something evil is far removed from doing the said evil. So far, Ukraine has behaved exceptionally well in the face of so much evil.

  3. Whatever strategy Zelensky uses for defense and offense, it must NOT be the planning exposed in that irresponsible intelligence leak. I know that since the invasion from russia has proven their country’s corruption and criminal behavior, the free world has largely turned against putin’s regime. But if he knows what the to expect, then he can plan accordingly, leaving in place those troops he doesn’t mind sacrificing, and striking back with more skilled spetsnaz at critical Ukrainian positions. A successful military campaign must remain secret until the missions have finished, because even if the enemy dies as he attacks, the orcs will use every means available to kill as many Ukrainians as possible. Whether with suicide strikes, or deadly trickery exposed military intelligence will cost lives if leaked before implementation. Imagine Bucha, or the massacre at Kramatorsk, but planned out according to an exposed strategy.

    If Zelensky is misleading putin, then I suggest he use a more credible “leak.” The British used one with the story below, in Operation Mincemeat. There was also Operation Fortitude, which I’ll share with another comment.


    • I understand your desire to keep things under cover. This report, however, should be taken with the usual grain of salt. To me, the aspect about attacking mafia land was the important one to draw attention to, which the Biden administration still has an unfounded and peculiarly inexplicable fear of. In effect, nobody knows how much truth and how much subterfuge is contained in this article. I bet it makes the ruskies nervous and if so, it fulfilled its purpose. There is no crucial information involved which could help the cockroaches in any way.

  4. The US has no business providing weapons that will be used to attack Russia. I am glad for the conservative approach.

    Of course, Ukraine has every right to do so, but the US has been avoiding a nuclear conflict with Russia since the times Ukraine was aiding the dark lord in Mordor to forge weapons to destroy us. We neither need Ukrainian advice on how to avoid a nuclear war, nor are we obligated to help strike Russia.

    Russia can not win, and having US weapons strike the bases where Russian nukes are stored is not worth the risk for us. Ukraine has already struck such places.

    In our darkest hour of need, facing a foe 4x our size, I saw no Ukrainian help in sight. We survived and so shall Ukraine.

    We all know that if US weapons are used to attack Russia, that it will be claimed loudly in Russia that America is attacking it. Who knows the reaction if a base housing nukes is hit. Russians tend to panic it seems.

    America should and must avoid a nuclear confrontation. I make no apologies and say that any friend who asks us to do something that might end the world, isn’t really a friend.

    Ukraine is free to strike with its own weapons of course and state-of-the-art air defense systems continue to be provided.

    • As an American myself, I get what you’re saying, and I agree that attacking russia within its borders would be too dangerous a move for Ukraine. Especially with American made weapons. Russia’s already been claiming that America has “declared war” by assisting Ukraine with defensive weapons.

      I believe that biden’s support has been far too insufficient, while trying to take credit for “helping” when Ukraine has been victorious, so I think that overwhelming military aid is the best way to throw out the russians once and for all. But ONLY with defensive military aid. Ukraine invading russia, really would lead to a full-scale World War 3, with escalation happening similarly to the way it did in the first one, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

    • Honestly, we already understand your desire to let Ukraine fight with one arm tied behind its back. As we wage war with everything available to us, sans WMDs, Ukraine has no such right. It must fight one of the world’s largest armies with means that are less than enough.
      Mafia land, China, Iran, North Korea and so on love people like you in the West. It makes their lives much easier.

      • I think we all have a responsibility to return the Ukrainian children to their home and to make sure there is a home to return to.

        I guess we have difference about how to go about accomplishing that and who should bear what responsibility, but it’s really both our goal.

        • IMO military targets are always targets during a war. In today’s world we use long range missiles which can be fired in country. That means a response in the country should be expected. But, there is never a reason to target a mall or apartment block.

          • “But, there is never a reason to target a mall or apartment block.”
            Like the cockroaches do nonstop!

  5. Even a slingshot could attack mafi-land if close enough. Even though it has been a ridiculous demand that Ukraine not use weapons it has been given to hit legitimate targets in Mafia-land.
    Ukraine has kept it’s word unlike most of the allies whom have rallied behind Ukraine. In conjunction with what has been provided it is absolutely required that Ukraine receive modern western aircraft for air to air and air to ground support. Ukraine must have long range missiles to take out supply, logistics, air defense, camps, barracks, and command centers not only to the rightful borders but also in the areas that are feeding support to the rashist horde. Western helicopters should also be provided such as the Apache, and many buddies for the one Blackhawk AFU managed to procure via private owner and crowdfunding.
    Ukraine is making a ton of domestic goodies now, so I’m sure Ukraine won’t have to use western supplies to achieve it’s goals. Ukraine has been our friend and ally and has bent over backwards to earn trust even though west should have already made that decision to fully trust Ukraine to wield these capabilities in restoring complete territorial integrity selectivity and surgically.

    • Indeed, sir Bill, if Ukraine could make its own weapons, at least the long-range variety, it would be the best case scenario.

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