UK spy chief: Russian soldiers disobeying orders, shot down own planes by mistake

Head of GCHQ electronic spying agency says demoralized troops in Ukraine also sabotaging equipment, and Putin’s advisers fear reporting truth of ‘massively misjudged’ invasion

Jeremy Fleming, head of the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in London, Feb. 14, 2019. (Frank Augstein/AP)
Jeremy Fleming, head of the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in London, Feb. 14, 2019. (Frank Augstein/AP)

Demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment, and have accidentally shot down their own aircraft, a UK intelligence chief said on Thursday.

Jeremy Fleming, who heads the Government Communication Headquarters, or GCHQ electronic spy agency, made the remarks at a speech in the Australian capital, Canberra.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion, he said.

“It’s clear he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people. He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would galvanize. He underplayed the economic consequences of the sanctions regime, and he overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory,” Fleming said.

“We’ve 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,” he added.

Although Putin’s advisers were believed to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” he said.

His remarks, released in advance, echoed US intelligence issued by the White House the previous day indicating Putin was being “misinformed” by his advisers about the progress of the Russian operation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, March 29, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Western intelligence sources have been quick to play up Russia’s failures in the war and highlight divisions within Putin’s inner circle.

Russia’s public statement this week that it would “radically” reduce combat operations around the capital Kyiv and the northern city of Chernigiv “perhaps shows they have been forced to significantly rethink,” Fleming said.

Fleming warned that cyberattacks from Russia remained a threat.

Though some people were surprised that Moscow had not launched a catastrophic cyberattack, Fleming said it was “never our understanding” that such an offensive was central to the Russian invasion.

Britain’s intelligence services had, however, detected a “sustained intent from Russia to disrupt Ukrainian government and military systems,” he said.

“We’ve certainly seen indicators which suggests Russia’s cyber actors are looking for targets in the countries that oppose their actions,” Fleming said.

Residents walk past a damaged Russian tank in the northeastern city of Trostyanets, on March 29, 2022. (FADEL SENNA / AFP)

He praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “information operation” for being highly effective at countering Russia’s massive disinformation drive spreading propaganda about the war.

On the battlefields in Ukraine, Moscow was using mercenaries and foreign fighters to support its own forces, Fleming said.

Fleming noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping had refused to condemn the invasion, providing a level of diplomatic and economic support for Russia.

“With an eye on re-taking Taiwan, China does not want to do anything which may constrain its ability to move in the future,” he said, predicting however that the China-Russia relationship may deteriorate as China’s military and economy grow in power.

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