Contradicting its claims of de-escalation, Russia stepped up bomb and artillery attacks in Ukraine on Wednesday and sent mixed signals about the prospects for peace, suggesting new tensions in the Kremlin hierarchy over the course of the war. .
The mixed message came as a recently declassified US intelligence assessment suggested that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had been misinformed of the trajectory of the war by subordinates, who feared his reaction to the struggles and setbacks of the Russian army.
Intelligence, according to several US officials, showed Mr. Putin’s isolation and what appeared to be growing tension between him and the Defense Ministry, including with his Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, who was once one of the most trusted members of the Kremlin’s inner circle and rumored to one day be a possible successor to Mr Putin.
It was unclear whether the release of the declassified intelligence was intended to sow anxiety in Mr. Putin’s circle as part of a wider information battle between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine, source of the worst tensions between the two nuclear powers since the Cold War. It was also unclear if the information was accurate.
But US intelligence officials have so far been correct in their assessments of Mr Putin’s intentions towards Ukraine, beginning with the buildup of Russian troops along its borders last year that culminated in the February 24 invasion.
White House officials said they released the intelligence to share what they said was a “full understanding” of how Mr Putin had miscalculated.
“We believe he is misinformed by his advisers about the poor performance of the Russian military and how the Russian economy is crippled by sanctions,” Kate Bedingfield, the House’s communications director, told reporters. White.
Asked about the declassified assessment during a trip to Algiers, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said it was no surprise that Mr Putin was misinformed.
“One of the Achilles heels of autocracies,” he said, “is that there are no people in these systems who speak truth to power or have the ability to speak truth in power. And I think that’s something we see in Russia.
The latest assessment also appears to follow mixed messages from the Kremlin on Wednesday on peace talks with Ukraine this week in Istanbul. Russia’s chief negotiator described them as promising, but was fundamentally contradicted by the main Kremlin spokesman.
Fresh Russian attacks in Ukraine, on the northern city of Chernihiv and the suburbs of Kyiv, also appeared to reflect the disarray in messages from the Kremlin, coming a day after the Russian military said it was winding down in those areas. They suggested Mr Putin could buy time, redeploying his invading forces elsewhere in the country and preparing for a protracted conflict.
Mr. Putin’s ultimate goal, however, remains unclear.
As the war is about to enter its sixth week, its calamitous economic and humanitarian impact has grown. Germany has taken the first steps towards the rationing of natural gas, in anticipation of a possible interruption of deliveries by Russia; the total number of Ukrainian refugees has exceeded four million, half of whom are children; and the United Nations predicts the world’s worst hunger crisis since World War II. Ukraine and Russia are usually the world’s main suppliers of wheat and other cereals.
The Chernihiv region, which stretches to the border with Belarus, appeared to have been the target of intense Russian strikes early Wednesday, hours after Russia pledged to drastically reduce fighting in the area and near Kyiv. Both were the first targets of the Russian invaders, who were blocked by intense and unexpected Ukrainian resistance.
“Yesterday the Russians publicly stated that they are reducing their offensive actions and activities in the Chernihiv and Kyiv regions,” Chernihiv Governor Vyacheslav Chaus said in a statement posted on the social media app Telegram. “Do we believe it? Of course not.”
Mr Chaus said “civilian infrastructure has been destroyed again” by the Russian strikes. “Libraries, malls and other facilities were destroyed, and many homes were destroyed,” he said. “Because, in fact, the enemy roamed Chernihiv all night.”
In Kyiv, the regional military administration said in a message on its Telegram channel on Wednesday that “more than 30 shellings by Russian troops of housing estates and social infrastructure” in the Kyiv region had been recorded in the past 24 hours. .
Mixed messages from Russia on Wednesday raised questions about whether progress in the peace talks was real.
The talks’ chief Russian negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, told Russian state television that they appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Medinsky said Ukraine’s offer to declare neutrality, among what he called other concessions, represented its desire to “build normal and, I hope, good neighborly relations with the Russia”.
This language clashed sharply with the harsh rhetoric emanating from Moscow, where proponents of the war, who do not see Ukraine as a legitimate country, denounced Medinsky’s diplomacy as bordering on treachery.
“Any talk with Nazis before your boot is on their throat is perceived as weakness,” said Vladimir Solovyov, a popular TV host. noted on his YouTube show, echoing the Kremlin’s false characterization of the Ukrainian government. “You can’t meet them or talk to them.”
And the main Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry 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 “we don’t see anything very promising or breakthrough”.
Russia first signaled last week that it was recalibrating the aims of what Mr Putin described as a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, no longer focusing on taking kyiv and other major cities from the north and west of the country, but rather on securing the eastern region, known as Donbass. Russian-backed separatists have been fighting there since 2014.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
The Russian Defense Ministry presented its decision to end military operations around kyiv 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 forces around kyiv were “regrouping”, although that claim could not be independently confirmed. And he claimed that from the start, the purpose of gathering forces near kyiv had not been to take the city but to pin down and weaken Ukrainian troops in the area.
“All of these goals have been achieved,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that it would now focus on “the final phase of the liberation operation” of the Donbass region.
Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said Wednesday that at least some of the Russian military’s claims appear to be accurate. Some Russian units were moving into eastern Ukraine and “the enemy is stepping up its formations there”, he said.
But Mr Danilov warned that it would be premature to conclude that Russia had abandoned a push towards the capital, even if it relocated some troops.
In the Donetsk part of Donbass, fighting intensified on Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said in a statement, as Russian forces “intensified firing and assault operations” with airstrikes and missiles. The Ukrainian military also reported Russian shelling and bombings in the eastern city of Kharkiv, one of the first targets of the invasion.
War casualties are difficult to confirm. The United Nations, which keeps a daily count, said on Wednesday that at least 1,189 people had been killed so far, although that was almost certainly an undercount.
The possible legal consequences for Russia of its targeting of civilian structures in Ukraine – a potential war crime – advanced on Wednesday with the formation of a United Nations commission of inquiry. The three-person panel, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, “will establish the facts, circumstances and root causes” of any crimes arising from the invasion, the council said.
Amid the litany of negative news, there was a potential bright spot: A NASA astronaut returned to Earth on Wednesday with two Russian colleagues, suggesting that despite their antipathy to the Ukraine crisis, the United States and the Russia could still collaborate in space.
Anton Troyanovsky reported from Istanbul, Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland, and Julian E. Barnes from Washington. The report was provided by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv; Valerie Hopkins from Lviv, Ukraine; Melissa Eddy from Berlin; Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul; Bengali Shashank from London; Kenneth Chang of Montclair, NJ; Lara Jacques from Algiers and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.