The Russian war effort in Ukraine is in trouble. Vladimir Putin has misjudged the situation and his advisors are too afraid to tell him the truth. Those are the striking claims made by the United States and UK intelligence agencies.
What are the spies saying? The head of the UK’s cyber and security agency, GCHQ, said Russian soldiers are short of weapons and are refusing to carry out orders. Sir Jeremy Fleming emerged briefly from the shadows to give a speech in Australia. He said Russian soldiers were sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft. Hours earlier officials in Washington – in what looked a lot like a coordinated move – said Putin didn’t know his military was using conscripts. They said there was tension between the Russian president and the country’s Ministry of Defence.
And just in case you hadn’t got the message yet, the UK’s Defence Chief, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, was on hand to say, in a speech in London, that Putin had already.
What are the Russians saying? Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov said Washington doesn’t have any “real information” about his boss. “They don’t understand the decision-making mechanism, and they don’t understand our style of work”, he said.
What to make of this? As ever when dealing with declassified intelligence it probably pays to think about who the intended audience was. In this case it’s not entirely clear. Was it Putin himself? His inner circle or his advisors? Western allies? Jeremy Fleming pointed out that a lot of intelligence has been declassified to get ahead of Putin’s actions, as he put it. But he didn’t provide concrete evidence to support any of his new claims.
The danger If the Western intelligence agencies are right, how might Putin react? It’s safe to say he probably wouldn’t like being lied to by his advisors. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned it might make it harder to get him to sign up to a peace deal. “You don’t know how a leader like that is going to react to getting bad news…it’s disconcerting”, he said.
The cost of getting it wrong There was a reminder on Thursday that Western intelligence agencies aren’t always on the money. The head of French military intelligence, General Eric Vidaud, resigned after just seven months in the job. He was blamed for “inadequate briefing” and concluding that it was unlikely that Russia would invade Ukraine.
Where does this leave Putin? Authoritarian regimes have a habit of imploding, often quite quickly. As a former Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, puts it Putin “miscalculated everything” and that means there is “always a chance” of a revolution. The West had hoped tough economic sanctions would send the economy into freefall. While Russia’s economic prospects aren’t good – forecasters expect the economy to shrink by 10 per cent this year, it’s not all bad.
- The rouble has bounced back to near where it was at the start of the war.
- Stocks have recovered much of their losses in late February.
- A run on the banks has ended with many Russians returning their money.
- Sales of oil and gas are, for the time being, providing the Kremlin with billions of dollars a month in foreign currency.
To consider. A poll published on Thursday suggested Putin is enjoying his highest approval ratings among Russians for five years. According to the Levada Centre – the closest Russia has to an independent polling organisation – eighty-three per cent of Russians approve of his actions. That’s up 14 points from January.
Photographs Fadel Senna/AFP, Alexei Nikolsky/AP/Shutterstock, Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency, Akos Stiller/Bloomberg, Karwai Tang/Getty Images, Warren Little/Getty Images