Vladimir Putin “massively misjudged the situation” when he ordered the invasion of Ukraine and certainly knows how badly the Russian armed forces are doing, although his closest advisers are hiding the truth from him, according to the head of Britain’s spy services.
Speaking at the Australian National University in Canberra on Thursday morning, GCHQ Director Sir Jeremy Fleming said the Russian leader’s “unprovoked and premeditated attack on Ukraine” was “shocking in every sense of the word”. He also said Putin, a former KGB officer, was completely caught off guard by what he found.
“It is clear that he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people,” Fleming said. “He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would shake up. He downplayed the economic consequences of the sanctions regime. He overestimated his military’s ability to win a quick victory. We have seen Russian soldiers – without weapons or morals – refusing to obey orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own planes.”
For the past 36 days, senior Russian military and intelligence officials have consistently misled Putin about the army’s advances in Ukraine, declassified US intelligence agencies have reportedly shown. During a stopover in Algiers on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Putin’s inner circle is not telling him the truth about the war and the real bite of economic sanctions on Russia’s economy. An unnamed senior US intelligence official told the Associated Press that Putin’s advisers are “afraid” to give him an accurate version of events and that those who deceive him include Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
However, Fleming said Thursday, “What is going on and the extent of these miscalculations must be perfectly clear to the regime.”
“The great irony, of course, is that by acting, Putin has brought upon himself exactly what he was trying to avoid – a Ukraine with a renewed sense of nationality, a NATO more united than ever, and a global coalition of nations who condemn his actions,” Fleming told the audience.
With the invasion only about a month old, it’s “far too early to confidently outline the full implications of this crisis,” Fleming said. But he did address some notable aspects of Putin’s war that have caught his eye so far.
First of all, Russia’s disinformation game is strong.
“Their goal is to spread disinformation,” Fleming continued. “To sow distrust in the evidence and reinforce false narratives. It is also to ensure that the true picture of what is going on does not come to light inside Russia… We know that problems have plagued Putin’s election campaign – low morale, logistical flaws and high Russian casualty counts. Your command and control are in chaos. We have seen Putin lie to his own people to hide military incompetence. And all of that means he seeks brutal control of the media and access to the internet, he seeks to stifle the voices of the opposition, and he invests heavily in their propaganda and covert agencies.”
Once again, Putin misjudged Ukraine’s fierce resistance, Fleming said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become a global beacon of democracy, with support from governments and Bono alike. Businesses around the world have pulled out of business due to the invasion from Russia, and tech firms have rushed to help Ukraine stay connected to the outside world.
At the same time, Russia is filling its ranks with foreign fighters and mercenaries from private contractors like the Wagner Group, which has close ties to Putin confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin.
“They are trying to move forces from other conflicts and recruit new fighters to increase the numbers,” Fleming said in his speech. “These soldiers are likely to be used as cannon fodder to try to limit Russian military casualties.”
Russia has long been hostile to NATO and views the allied coalition as an existential threat. And yet the invasion of Ukraine “certainly stirred up” members of NATO, as well as non-members like Japan and Australia, who, in Fleming’s words, “leaned in.”
“It also shows with great relief those countries that either choose to support Putin or abstain from voting,” he said. “And those decisions will shape the global order and our national security for decades to come.”
For the time being, Putin is sticking to his plan, willy-nilly, according to Fleming, who described it as predominantly worse. Now there are fears that Russia is moving to Putin’s “Plan B,” which Fleming says will be “more barbarism against civilians and cities.”
“He’s clearly playing by different moral and legal rules,” he said. “Far too many Ukrainians and Russians have already lost their lives. And beyond that tribute, the lives of many, many more have been shattered. The UN estimates that in just over a month more than 10 million people have fled their homes. It’s a humanitarian crisis that should never have happened. And it’s not over yet.”