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Putin’s advisers are misleading him about Ukraine war, US intel says

American official says there are persistent tensions between the Russian leader and his military top brass over invasion’s failures, as the conflict becomes a bloody stalemate

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov, the head of the Republic of Ingushetia during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 30, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Mahmud-Ali Kalimatov, the head of the Republic of Ingushetia during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 30, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US intelligence officials have determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about his nation’s forces’ poor performance in Ukraine, according to a US official.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a 55-minute call on Wednesday that an additional $500 million in direct aid for Ukraine was on its way. It’s the latest burst in American assistance as the Russian invasion grinds on.

A US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss recently declassified intelligence, said the intel finding indicates that Putin is aware of the situation on information coming to him and there is now persistent tension between him and senior Russian military officials.

The Biden administration is hopeful that divulging the finding could help prod Putin to reconsider his options in Ukraine. The war has ground to a bloody stalemate in much of the country, with heavy casualties and Russian troop morale sinking as Ukrainian forces and volunteers put up an unexpectedly stout defense.

But the publicity could also risk further isolating Putin, who US officials have said seems at least in part driven by a desire to win back Russian prestige lost by the fall of the Soviet Union.

Asked about the latest intelligence, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not confirm the findings, but suggested that a dynamic within the Kremlin exists where advisers are unwilling to speak to Putin with candor.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the US Embassy staff, on March 30, 2022, in the Algerian capital Algiers. (Jacquelyn Martin/Pool/AFP)

“One of the Achilles’ heels of autocracies is that you don’t have people in those systems that speak truth to power or have the ability to speak truth to power, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in Russia,” Blinken told reporters during a stop in Algeria on Wednesday.

The unidentified official did not detail underlying evidence for how US intelligence made its determination.

The intelligence community has concluded that Putin was unaware that his military had been using and losing conscripts in Ukraine. They also have determined he is not fully aware of the extent to which the Russian economy is being damaged by economic sanctions imposed by the US and allies.

The findings demonstrate a “clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information” to Putin, and show that Putin’s senior advisers are “afraid to tell him the truth,” the official said.

Biden notified Zelensky about the latest tranche of assistance during a call in which the leaders also reviewed security aid already delivered to Ukraine and the effects that weaponry has had on the war, according to the White House.

Zelensky has pressed the Biden administration and other Western allies to provide Ukraine with military jets, something that the US and other NATO countries have thus far been unwilling to accommodate out of concern it could lead to Russia broadening the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement of $500 million in aid, the Biden administration had sent Ukraine about $2 billion in humanitarian and security assistance since the start of the war last month.

In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, March 28, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

That’s all part of the $13.6 billion that Congress approved earlier this month for Ukraine as part of a broader spending bill.

The new intelligence came after the White House on Tuesday expressed skepticism about Russia’s public announcement that it would dial back operations near Kyiv in an effort to increase trust in ongoing talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials in Turkey.

“We’ll see,” Biden said about that announcement. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.”

Russian forces pounded areas around Ukraine’s capital and another city overnight, regional leaders said Wednesday.

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said the administration views any movement of Russian forces as a “redeployment and not a withdrawal” and “no one should be fooled by Russia’s announcement.”

Putin has long been seen outside Russia as insular and surrounded by officials who don’t always tell him the truth. US officials have said publicly they believe that limited flow of information — possibly exacerbated by Putin’s heightened isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic — may have given the Russian president unrealistic views of how quickly he could overrun Ukraine.

The Biden administration before the war launched an unprecedented effort to publicize what it believed were Putin’s invasion plans, drawing on intelligence findings. While Russia still invaded, the White House was widely credited with drawing attention to Ukraine and pushing initially reluctant allies to back tough sanctions that have hammered the Russian economy.

But underscoring the limits of intelligence, the US also underestimated Ukraine’s will to fight before the invasion, said Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in recent testimony before Congress.

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