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US, UK say fearful advisors mislead Putin on Ukraine war
President Vladimir Putin is being misled by fearful advisors as his Ukraine invasion goes awry, with mutinous Russian troops sabotaging equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft, US and British intelligence agencies say.
The close allies, whose spies have played up Russia's failures and highlighted Kremlin divisions, said Putin's advisors were "too afraid" to tell him the full truth about battlefield reverses and the real impact of sanctions.
Hours after the White House released its withering intelligence assessment, Britain's GCHQ spy agency chief Jeremy Fleming said Thursday that the Russian leader had overestimated his military's ability to secure a rapid victory.
"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," Fleming said in a prepared speech to the Australian National University in Canberra.
"And even though Putin's advisors are afraid to tell him the truth, what's going on and the extent of these misjudgements must be crystal clear to the regime."
Fleming said Putin had underestimated the Ukraine resistance, the strength of the international coalition against him, and the impact of economic sanctions.
- Putin 'felt misled' -
His remarks echoed a White House briefing on declassified US intelligence on Wednesday, which said Putin's relations with his own staff had deteriorated.
"We obviously have information which we have now made public that he felt misled by the Russian military," White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said.
Ukrainian forces have been recapturing territory in recent days -- including the strategic Kyiv suburb of Irpin -- as the Russian offensive appears to stall five weeks after the invasion began on February 24.
The US and British spy reports come as questions mount about Putin's relationship with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who disappeared from public view for weeks before reappearing March 26 in a television broadcast.
Television images showed Shoigu chairing a meeting on Russia's defence procurement. It carried no date, but the minister referred to a finance ministry meeting the previous day.
There is "persistent tension" between Putin and Moscow's defence ministry, stemming from the Russian leader's mistrust in its leadership, a senior US official said in Washington.
Several reports in March suggested a shadowy section of Russia's FSB security agency had come under scrutiny, with its leader interrogated and reportedly even under house arrest.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
- 'Implausible deniability' -
In a report first carried by Latvia-based Russian news site Meduza, Russian intelligence experts said the head of the so-called Fifth Service of the FSB, Sergei Beseda, and his deputy, Anatoly Bolukh, had both been placed under house arrest in an investigation.
FSB Dosye, an investigative site that specialises in the work of the FSB, said reports of a full scale purge were exaggerated.
Beseda had indeed been interrogated by investigators but was still in his job and not under arrest, the site said.
Bolukh had also been interrogated but had for some years no longer been the number two of the Fifth Service, it added.
Online, Britain's Fleming said intelligence services had detected a "sustained intent" from Russia to disrupt Ukrainian government and military systems.
And "we've certainly seen indicators which suggest Russia's cyber actors are looking for targets in the countries that oppose their actions," he warned.
On the battlefield in Ukraine, Moscow was using mercenaries and foreign fighters to support its own forces, the spy chief said.
They included the Wagner Group, which was "taking it up a gear" after being active in the country since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
"The group works as a shadow branch of the Russian military, providing implausible deniability for riskier operations," he said.