Russian president Vladimir Putin was misled by advisers who were too scared to tell him how poorly the war in Ukraine is going and how damaging Western sanctions have been, White House and European officials said on Wednesday.
Russia’s February 24th invasion of its southern neighbour has been halted on many fronts by stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces who have recaptured territory even as civilians are trapped in besieged cities.
“We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military, which has resulted in persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership,” Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, told reporters during a press briefing.
“We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth,” she said.
The US was putting forward this information now to show "this has been a strategic error for Russia, " she said.
The Kremlin made no immediate comment about the assertions after the end of the working day in Moscow, and the Russian embassy in Washington did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
On Wednesday Russian forces bombarded the outskirts of Kyiv and a besieged city in northern Ukraine, a day after promising to scale down operations there.
Nearly five weeks into an invasion in which Russia has failed to capture any major city, the top UN human rights official said Moscow had bombed 50 hospitals as well as homes and schools across Ukraine in what may amount to war crimes.
Ukrainian officials called Russia out for having said on Tuesday it would curtail operations near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv “to increase mutual trust” for peace talks.
"It's not true," Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a video address to European Union regional officials. "The whole night we listened to sirens, to rocket attacks and we listened to huge explosions east of Kyiv and north of Kyiv. There are immense battles there, people died, still die."
Intensified bombardment could be heard in Kyiv on Wednesday morning from suburbs where Ukrainian forces have regained territory in recent days. The capital itself was not hit, but windows rattled from the relentless artillery on its outskirts.
Southeast of Irpin, a Kyiv suburb which has seen intense fighting for weeks, frequent shelling and ordnance exploding on the ground and in the air could be heard. Ukrainians evacuating spoke of heavy shelling north of Irpin and shells landing in Irpin itself. Emergency workers retrieved bodies from the ruins.
Ukraine and Western leaders had cautioned that Moscow’s apparent peace gesture at Tuesday’s talks in Istanbul was a cover for reorganising forces that had failed to take Kyiv.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday its forces had achieved their objectives near Kyiv and Chernihiv and were regrouping to focus on the “liberation” of the breakaway eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said Ukraine’s armed forces had observed some movements of Russian forces away from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions but did not consider this to be a mass withdrawal by Moscow.
“It is preparing to resume offensive operations,” he said.
‘Russia always lies’
Chernihiv’s mayor Vladyslav Astroshenko said Russian bombardment of that city had intensified over the past 24 hours, with more than 100,000 people trapped inside with just enough food and medical supplies to last about another week.
“This is yet another confirmation that Russia always lies,” he told CNN, adding that 25 civilians had been injured in a “colossal mortar attack” in the city centre.
Reuters could not verify the situation in Chernihiv. Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Irpin itself was recaptured by Ukrainian forces this week. Reuters journalists who entered on Tuesday saw Ukrainian troops patrolling an abandoned ghost town of ruined buildings, with the body of an old man and a woman lying on the streets.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy made clear he took nothing Moscow said at face value.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said in an overnight address. “The only thing they can trust is a concrete result.”
Mr Zelenskiy discussed with US president Joe Biden on Wednesday more aid for Ukraine and further sanctions against Russia, the two sides said.
Joe Biden has announced that the US will dispatch another 500 million dollars in direct aid to Ukraine.
The White House said in a statement that Mr Biden told Mr Zelenskiy during a 55-minute call on the latest developments in the war that the aid was on its way.
The US Congress earlier this month approved spending up to 13.6 billion dollars in humanitarian and military assistance for Ukraine. The Biden administration had already dispatched 2 billion dollars of that total before Wednesday’s announcement.
About a quarter of Ukrainians have been driven from their homes and the United Nations said on Wednesday that the number who have fled the country had risen above 4 million. More than half of those refugees are children and the rest mostly women.
Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have recaptured towns and villages on the outskirts of Kyiv, broken the siege of the eastern city of Sumy and pushed back Russian forces in the southwest.
In the village of Mala Rohan in the eastern Kharkiv region, two burned-out tanks with their turrets ripped off stood near damaged houses. Maksym, a Ukrainian soldier, said the Russians were being pushed back "slowly but steadily".
“Most of them already understood that they made a huge mistake when they came here. Therefore, I think they have no chance here, we will win.”
Russia says it is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour. Western countries say Moscow’s invasion was entirely unprovoked.
The Donbas region, where Russia says it will now focus its efforts, includes Mariupol, where heavy fighting was again reported on Wednesday. The port city, which had a pre-war population of more than 400,000 people, has been laid waste after a month of Russian siege and the UN says thousands of people may have died there.
Russian forces were shelling nearly all cities along the region's frontline on Wednesday, said the governor of Donetsk, which is part of the Donbas.
Britain’s defence ministry said Moscow’s pledge to focus on the Donbas was likely “a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance”.
Western sanctions have largely isolated Russia from world trade but Moscow is still the biggest supplier of oil and gas to Europe and its new demand for payment in roubles, rejected by the West, has raised fears of energy shortages in Europe. Russian sources told Reuters it might keep the contract currency as is, with final payment in roubles.
Two sources told Reuters the EU could have new sanctions against Russia ready as early as next week, with the magnitude of the measures dependent on Moscow’s stance.
Germany, Russia’s biggest gas customer, declared an “early warning” on Wednesday of a possible emergency if Russia were to cut off supplies.
Economy minister Robert Habeck urged consumers and companies to reduce consumption, saying “every kilowatt-hour counts”. – Reuters