Russian President Vladimir Putin has been misled by his advisers about the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine and the effect of Western sanctions on Russia’s economy, the White House said.
“We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military, which has resulted in persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership,” Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, told reporters during a news briefing on Wednesday.
“We believe 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,” she said.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity earlier on Wednesday, said Washington’s assessment was based on newly declassified intelligence information.
The Biden administration has been publicising US intelligence findings since before Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine was launched on February 24, using the information to rally European allies and counter Russian misinformation.
The US was putting forward this information now to show “this has been a strategic error for Russia”, Bedingfield said.
US officials told Congress earlier this month that Russian forces had been dealt substantial setbacks in Ukraine. The Kremlin denied those reports, with Putin himself saying in early March that everything was “going to plan”.
The weeks-long Russian offensive has forced more than four million people to flee Ukraine, according to the United Nations, while continuing negotiations to put an end to the bloodshed have not yet achieved results.
Now, the US intelligence community has concluded that “Putin didn’t even know his military was using and losing conscripts in Ukraine,” the American official said, “showing a clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information to the Russian president.”
One senior European diplomat said the US assessment was in line with European thinking.
“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,” the diplomat said.
Russian conscripts were told they were taking part in military exercises, but had to sign a document before the invasion that extended their duties, two European diplomats said.
“They were misled, badly trained and then arrived to find old Ukrainian women who looked like their grandmothers yelling at them to go home,” one of the diplomats added.
US officials are hopeful that divulging the findings that Putin is being misled could help prod the Russian leader to reconsider his options in Ukraine.
The Kremlin made no immediate comment after the end of the working day in Moscow, and the Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Reuters.
The war in Ukraine has ground to a bloody impasse in much of the country, with heavy casualties and Russian troop morale sinking as Ukrainian forces and volunteers put up an unexpectedly stout defence.
Russian forces have repositioned around Kyiv and escalated shelling on other cities.
Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden spoke by phone on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for about an hour, the White House said in a statement.
The two men discussed “around the clock” US efforts to fulfil Ukraine’s security requests, the “critical effects” US-supplied weapons are having in the conflict, and the “additional capabilities” that Washington and its allies are preparing to provide Ukraine’s military.
Zelenskyy gave Biden an update on the status of Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia, which are taking place in Turkey this week.
Russia pledged on Tuesday to reduce military activity near Kyiv and in the northern city of Chernihiv, while Ukrainian negotiators said they were willing to agree to a neutral status – one of Moscow’s key demands – if an international agreement under which other countries would serve as guarantors of Ukraine’s security would come into place.
Biden told reporters that same day that it remains to be seen whether Russia follows through with any actions to scale down its military operations in Ukraine. “We’ll see if they follow through with what they’re suggesting,” he said.
In an exchange with reporters on Wednesday, Biden said he could not comment on the US intelligence findings.
The US has provided about $1bn in direct military aid to Ukraine, including Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft systems.
Biden informed Zelenskyy on Wednesday the US would also give the Ukrainian government $500m in direct financial support.
The US Congress has approved $13.6bn in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbours that are welcoming the more than four million refugees who have fled the country.