Vladimir Putin has made a strategic miscalculation in launching the invasion of Ukraine and his advisers are “afraid to tell him the truth” about the extent of his error, the boss of British spy agency GCHQ said in a speech on Thursday.
Sir Jeremy Fleming, in a speech given in Australia, said the Russian leader had misjudged the strength of Ukrainian resistance, the western response and the ability of his forces to deliver a rapid victory.
“It all adds up to the strategic miscalculation that western leaders warned Putin it would be. It’s become his personal war, with the cost being paid by innocent people in Ukraine and, increasingly, by ordinary Russians too,” Fleming said.
Western security officials want to lay the responsibility for February’s unprovoked invasion on Putin, who they characterize as a dominant, isolated leader who is making poor decisions partly because he no longer gets accurate information or honest opinions from his subordinates.
As a result, Fleming said he believed that the failure to achieve a quick victory must be causing discord in the Kremlin. “Even though we believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth, what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime.”
Earlier, US officials made a similar point, arguing that Putin was being misled by advisers who were too scared to tell him how poorly the war in Ukraine is going and how damaging western sanctions have been.
“We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military which has resulted in persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership,” said Kate Bedingfield, director of communications at the White House.
“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 added: “So, it is increasingly clear that Putin’s war has been a strategic blunder that has left Russia weaker over the long term and increasingly isolated on the world stage.”
Ahead of the invasion, Putin held a bizarre meeting with his key advisers over whether to recognize the self-proclaimed republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. Some senior figures were clearly in fear of the president, who has led the country for 22 years, as he demanded each endorse the breakaway territories.
There were also growing signs, Fleming said, that Russian soldiers “short of weapons and morale” were “refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft”.
No evidence was given to back up the air accident claim, although Whitehall sources said they were confident enough to allow Fleming to refer to it in the speech, partly to demonstrate to Russian insiders their knowledge of the military situation.
The spy chief also warned China not to become “too closely aligned” with Russia as the war continues, the latest in a string of remarks by western leaders and officials aimed at trying to persuade Beijing not to supply Moscow with money and arms.
Fleming said that Putin has made a clear “strategic choice” to align with China before the fighting broke out, but that there remained underlying tensions between the two countries – and risks for both in trying to work together.
“Russia understands that, long term, China will become increasingly strong militarily and economically. Some of their interests conflict; Russia could be squeezed out of the equation,” Fleming is expected to say.
“And it is equally clear that a China that wants to set the rules of the road – the norms for a new global governance – is not well served by close alliance with a regime that wilfully and illegally ignores them all.”