‘Personal war’: does Vladimir Putin know what is happening in Ukraine?

Russian president being ‘misled’ about botched invasion by fearful advisers, White House says

Vladimir Putin pictured during a meeting at the Kremlin
(Image credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin is increasingly isolated within the Kremlin and is being fed misleading updates on the progress of his invasion of Ukraine by advisers who fear delivering bad news, US intelligence suggests.

White House spokesperson Kate Bedingfield yesterday told reporters the US had information that suggests the Russian president feels “misled by the Russian military” and that this had led to “persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership”.

“Putin’s war has been a strategic blunder,” she said, “that has left Russia weaker over the long term and increasingly isolated on the world stage.”

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Communication breakdown

Asked about the intelligence that suggests Putin’s understanding of the conflict is being hindered, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said the evidence is “discomforting” as it could lead to a “less than faithful” effort to end the war through peace talks.

His intervention came as Jeremy Fleming, the director of Britain’s spy agency GCHQ, warned that Putin had “massively misjudged” the capacity of his armed forces, the resolve of the Ukrainian resistance and the strength of the West’s response to his unprovoked attack.

Addressing an audience at the Australian National University in Canberra in a rare public speech, Fleming said that the UK’s intelligence services have “seen Russian soldiers – short of weapons and morale – refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft.

“Their command and control is in chaos,” he added. “Even though we believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth, the extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime. It’s become his personal war.”

A US official also told CNN that the assessment in Washington is that Putin is being “misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth”.

They added that it appears from US intelligence findings that Putin was not even aware that his invading forces were “using and losing conscripts in Ukraine, showing a clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information to the Russian president”.

Friendly fire

Russian troops have in recent days “been regrouping in Belarus” after the Kremlin announced on Friday that it would shift its main offensive towards consolidating the “liberation” of Donbas in Ukraine’s east, The Times reported.

Best estimates suggest that “about 15,000 Russian troops are now thought to have been killed in the month-long war”, the paper’s defence editor Larisa Brown said, while “defectors” have also joined the Ukrainian army in a “legion” of volunteers.

Images shared on the encrypted messaging app Telegram show “Russian soldiers learning how to use anti-tank weapons” that were provided to Ukraine, she added.

While the flow of information out of the Kremlin remains under tight control, suggestions are mounting that Putin “is turning on his own spy chiefs and military advisers as his invasion falters”, The Telegraph reported.

“In a move that underlined the Kremlin’s deep disappointment in its intelligence agencies”, the head of the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB, Colonel General Sergei Beseda, was “reportedly sacked and arrested during the second week of the war”.

Beseda and his deputy, who were “reportedly in charge of intelligence operations in Ukraine”, were “placed under house arrest on suspicion of corruption and providing false information about Ukraine”, the paper added. The FSB has not confirmed the arrests.

Days later, General Roman Gavrilov, deputy head of the National Guard, was also reported by Russian media to have been arrested.

The i news site’s chief foreign commentator Michael Day said this sudden detention was linked to accusations of “squandering fuel, presiding over the loss of too many Rosgvardia troops, and leaking intelligence”.

The arrests of three senior figures in Russia’s intelligence and military establishment raises the possibility that “the blame game for Russia’s brutal but inept war effort may have already begun”, Day added.

Lone wolf

Putin’s tendency to talk to his most senior advisers from one end of a 20-foot table has illustrated the extent to which the Russian president is becoming increasingly isolated in the Kremlin amid the ongoing conflict.

Speaking to CNN last week, ​​Ben Judah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, described him as “the most isolated Russian leader since Stalin”, adding that he may be “more isolated in his daily routine than Stalin was”.

Given that Putin is already infamously difficult to read, suggestions by the White House that he is being “misled” by the very advisers on whom he will rely during an active war could push the president further into self-imposed isolation.

Asked why the US has decided to share its intelligence publicly, one official told Reuters: “It’s potentially useful. Does it sow dissension in the ranks? It could make Putin reconsider whom he can trust.”

A senior European diplomat said that Putin being fed false information about the invasion squares with European intelligence, adding: “Putin thought things were going better than they were. That’s the problem with surrounding yourself with ‘yes men’ or only sitting with them at the end of a very long table.”

One major concern, however, is that the actions of an isolated Putin will become even more difficult to predict. Judah warned about this possibility on CNN, saying: “The danger for a dictator when they go to war is showing any sign of weakness on the battlefield or in negotiations.

“A dictator is always thinking ‘what does this war mean for my personal security’. Dictators cannot retire, they can only be removed. We can see that Putin is worried.”

Fleming’s address in Australia hinted at the fact that Putin faces “a growing military insurrection” over the invasion in which his forces on the ground face a raft of issues including “low morale, logistical failures and high casualties”, Brown said in The Times.

His forces “were misled, badly trained and then arrived to find old Ukrainian women who looked like their grandmothers yelling at them to go home”, a senior European diplomat told Reuters.

There is no indication yet of a major revolt against the Russian president over his botched invasion, they said.

But the situation in the Kremlin and on the battlefield is becoming increasingly “unpredictable”, and Western powers “would hope that unhappy people would speak up”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.