Russia Pounds Ukraine Despite Claims of De-escalation

Russia, despite its claims of de-escalation, carried out more bombing and artillery strikes in Ukraine on Wednesday and sent conflicting signals about the prospects for peace, suggesting new tensions in the Kremlin hierarchy over the course of the war.

The conflicting reports came when a recently released US intelligence assessment suggested that Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin had been misinformed about the course of the war by subordinates, who feared his response to the Russian military’s struggles and setbacks.

According to multiple US officials, intelligence showed Mr Putin’s isolation and what appeared to be growing tensions between him and the Department of Defense, including with his Defense Secretary, Sergei K. Shoigu, who was once one of the Kremlin’s most trusted members. circle and it was rumored to one day be a possible successor to Mr Putin.

It was not clear whether the release of the declassified intelligence was intended to sow fear within Mr Putin’s circle as part of a wider information battle between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, the source of the worst tensions between the two nuclear powers since the Cold War. Nor was it clear whether the information was correct.

But US intelligence officials have so far been proved right in their assessment of Mr Putin’s intentions towards Ukraine, starting with Russia’s troop build-up along its borders last year, culminating in the February 24 invasion.

White House officials said they released the intelligence to share what they believed was a “complete understanding” of how Mr. Putin had miscalculated.

“We believe he is being misinformed by his advisers about how poorly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters.

Asked about the declassified assessment during a trip to Algiers, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said it was not surprising that Mr Putin was misinformed.

“One of the Achilles heels of autocracies,” he said, “is that there are no people in those systems who speak the truth to power or have the ability to speak the truth to power. And I think that’s something we’re seeing in Russia.”

The latest assessment also seemed to align with the Kremlin’s mixed reports of Wednesday’s peace talks with Ukraine in Istanbul this week. The Russian chief negotiator described them as promising, but was essentially contradicted by the Kremlin’s top spokesman.

New Russian attacks in Ukraine, on the northern city of Chernihiv and the outskirts of Kiev, also appeared to reflect disorder in Kremlin reports, a day after the Russian military said it was de-escalating in those areas. They suggested that Mr Putin might delay some time, deploy his invasion forces elsewhere in the country, and gear up for a protracted conflict.

Mr Putin’s ultimate goal, however, remains obscure.

As the war enters its sixth week, the disastrous economic and humanitarian consequences have intensified. Germany has taken first steps towards rationing natural gas, ahead of Russia potentially halting supplies; the total number of Ukrainian refugees has exceeded four million, half of whom are children; and the United Nations predicts the most severe hunger crisis in the world since World War II. Ukraine and Russia are generally the main suppliers of wheat and other grains in the world.

The Chernihiv region, which stretches to the border with Belarus, appeared to be the target of intense Russian attacks early Wednesday, hours after Russia vowed to sharply reduce fighting in that area and near Kiev. Both were early targets of the Russian invaders, who were thwarted by intense and unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance.

“Yesterday, the Russians publicly stated that they were reducing their offensive actions and activities in the Chernihiv and Kiev areas,” Chernihiv governor Vyacheslav Chaus said in a statement on Telegram’s social media app. “Do we believe that? Of course not.”

Mr Chaus said that “civil infrastructure has been destroyed again” by Russian strikes. “Libraries, shopping centers and other facilities have been destroyed and many houses have been destroyed,” he said. “Because, in fact, the enemy has been roaming around Chernihiv all night.”

In Kiev, the regional military administration said in a report on its Telegram channel on Wednesday that “more than 30 shelling by Russian troops on residential areas and social infrastructure” had been registered in the Kiev region in the past 24 hours.

Wednesday’s mixed reports from Russia raised questions about whether real progress had been made in the peace talks.

The lead Russian negotiator in the talks, Vladimir Medinsky, said on Russian state television that they appeared to be on the brink of a breakthrough. Mr Medinsky said Ukraine’s proposal to declare neutrality, in addition to what he called other concessions, represented a willingness to “build normal and, I hope, good neighborly relations with Russia”.

That language clashed strikingly with harsh rhetoric from Moscow, where supporters of the war, who do not consider Ukraine a legitimate country, denounced Mr. Medinsky’s diplomacy as treacherous.

“Any conversation with Nazis before you put their feet up is considered weakness,” said Vladimir Solovyov, a popular state television host. said on his YouTube show, in which he repeats the Kremlin’s false characterization of the Ukrainian government. “You can’t meet them or talk to them.”

And the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, was much more cautious in his own comments than Mr. Medinsky. He said Ukraine’s willingness to put some proposals in writing was a “positive factor”, but that “we don’t see anything promising or breakthroughs”.

Russia last week announced for the first time that it is reassessing the objectives of what Mr Putin has described as a “special military operation” in Ukraine, no longer aimed at capturing Kiev and other key cities in the north and west of the country. country, but on securing the eastern region, known as the Donbas. Russian-backed separatists have been fighting there since 2014.

Russia’s defense ministry has presented its decision to call off military operations around Kiev as a good-faith gesture of de-escalation, but it appeared to be an attempt to explain away a defeat on the battlefield.

On Wednesday, the ministry said Russian troops around Kiev were “regrouping,” although that claim could not be independently confirmed. And it claimed that the purpose of rallying troops near Kiev had not been to capture the city, but to tie up and weaken Ukrainian troops in the area.

“All these goals have been achieved,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that it would now focus on “the final phase of the operation to liberate the Donbas area”.

The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on Wednesday that at least some of the Russian military’s claims appeared to be correct. Some Russian units moved to eastern Ukraine and “the enemy is intensifying its formations there,” he said.

But mr. Danilov warned that it would be premature to conclude that Russia had given up on its advance towards the capital, even though it was moving some troops.

In the Donetsk part of Donbas, fighting escalated on Wednesday, the Ukrainian army said in a statement, as Russian forces “intensified fire and assault operations” with air and missile strikes. The Ukrainian army also reported Russian shelling and bombings in the eastern city of Kharkov, one of the first targets of the invasion.

Casualties in the war are difficult to confirm. The United Nations, which keeps the daily census, said Wednesday that at least 1,189 people have been killed so far, although that’s almost certainly an undercount.

The potential legal ramifications for Russia for attacking civilian structures in Ukraine — a potential war crime — continued on Wednesday with the formation of a United Nations investigative panel. The three-member panel, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, will “establish the facts, circumstances and root causes” of all crimes arising from the invasion, the council said.

Amid the litany of negative news, there was one potential bright spot: A NASA astronaut returned to Earth on Wednesday with two Russian colleagues, suggesting that despite their antipathy over the crisis in Ukraine, the United States and Russia could still work together. in space.

Anton Trojanovskic message from Istanbul, Megan Special from Krakow, Poland and Julian E. Barnes from Washington. Reporting contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv; Valerie Hopkins from Lviv, Ukraine; Melissa Eddie from Berlin; Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul; Shashank Bengali from London; Kenneth Chang from Montclair, NJ; Lara Jakes from Algiers and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.


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