The U.S. State Department has issued warnings to Russia that there will be repercussions if Moscow pays bounties to the Taliban for successfully killing American soldiers, according to two senior American officials and another individual with knowledge of the matter.
The warnings were issued through the department’s diplomatic channels after public news reports in June that the U.S. had gathered intelligence about the Russian bounties, those officials said. One official described the communications as “serious.” Another said that Moscow responded by denying the reports it had set up or funded a bounty program to kill U.S. troops.
These secret warnings stand in contrast to what President Trump has said about the intelligence in question. In an interview earlier this week, Trump said he did not believe the bounties were worth raising in a recent conversation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said in a recent interview.
The New York Times reported June 26 that Russia had covertly offered the Taliban cash in exchange for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan and that the intelligence had been included in a presidential daily briefing packet in February. White House officials have consistently said that the bounty intelligence has not been “verified.” Officials previously told The Daily Beast that there was disagreement in the intelligence and national security communities over the intelligence and the methods used to gather it.
Multiple U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, have publicly disputed the reports. In a July 9 congressional hearing, Esper said the U.S. did not have any evidence that suggested there were direct linkages between the Russian bounties and Americans getting killed in the field.
The warnings to the Russians highlight the seriousness with which officials in the Trump administration have responded to reports of the bounties. They also raise questions about the extent to which officials’ understanding of the validity of the bounty intelligence diverges from that of President Donald Trump.
It is unclear to what extent, if at all, the president has been briefed on these warnings. The White House and National Security Council did not immediately provide comment to The Daily Beast. The State Department did not respond on the record to a request for comment. Pompeo recently said during a Fox News interview that the U.S. would “respond to any threat, whether that’s Iranians using the Taliban or the Russians,” he said. “We’ll make sure they know.”
In his interview with Axios this week, Trump insisted that the intelligence “never reached my desk,” though it has been widely reported that the intel had been included in the President's Daily Brief.
During that interview, when Trump was asked about Russia’s years-long efforts to provide weapons to Taliban forces, the president responded, “Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too. The Taliban, in Afghanistan…I’m just saying, we did that, too.”
U.S. representatives are currently in Vienna, Austria meeting with the Russians on arms control—an area national security officials say could be a path toward cooperation, though Russia recently launched an anti-satellite weapon into space. According to interviews with three former officials, past efforts at cooperating with Russia have failed, including the sharing of counterterrorism intelligence, and engaging in talks on space could be beneficial for safeguarding American interests there.
But multiple current and former senior officials say they are unsure if there’s any issue on which the U.S. can cooperate with Russia given recent attempts by a Moscow-linked group to hack U.S. coronavirus vaccine research and the country disseminating disinformation on the coronaivurs.
In a hearing last week in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, State Department Deputy Secretary Biegun said years of malign actions by the Russians “have made it virtually impossible to make progress … in any way, shape or form.”