The US continued to express doubt that Russia was curtailing its military ambitions in Ukraine despite new Kremlin claims that it was wrapping up operations around Kyiv and had made progress in peace talks with Ukrainian negotiators.
Russia’s defence ministry on Wednesday insisted it was withdrawing from population centres in Ukraine’s north and west, including Kyiv. Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesperson, said Russia was conducting a “planned rotation” out of Kyiv and Chernihiv, a city further to the north, after “achieving all the main tasks” in that part of the country.
Russia’s latest claims come as US officials say there is mounting evidence that Russian president Vladimir Putin feels “misled” by his military commanders about how the war in Ukraine is playing out.
Declassified intelligence showed Putin had been unaware the Russian military was using conscripts in Ukraine, a sign there was a “clear breakdown” in the flow of accurate information to the Kremlin, one US official said.
“We would concur with the conclusion that Mr Putin has not been fully informed by his ministry of defence at every turn over the last month,” said John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, on Wednesday.
Putin initially denied conscripts were fighting in Ukraine — only for his own defence ministry to admit a day later they were there. Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson, then told reporters the president ordered Russia’s military prosecutors to find and punish officials responsible for conscripts being deployed, supposedly in contravention of his orders.
“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,” the US official said.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said: “One of the Achilles heels of autocracies is that you don’t have people in those systems who speak truth to power or who have the ability to speak truth to power. And I think that is something that we’re seeing in Russia.”
Konashenkov also said the Russian military was moving into the “final phase” of its operations in eastern Ukraine, a move intended to “complete the operation to fully liberate the Donbas”, the mostly Russian-speaking border region in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s military TV channel Zvezda also reported a Russian ceasefire in the heavily bombarded southern city of Mariupol starting at 10am local time on Thursday. Humanitarian corridors would be opened allowing residents to evacuate into Ukrainian territory, the report claimed.
But Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the US believes Russia is repositioning just a “small percentage”, about 20 per cent, of the forces it had positioned around Kyiv.
He added that while those troops are moving away from Kyiv, and some have entered neighbouring Belarus, none are heading back to their home bases — a signal that Russia may not be committed to a sustained withdrawal.
“If the Russians are serious about de-escalating . . . then they should send them home,” Kirby said.
In addition, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were continuing to bombard neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Kyiv and Chernihiv, despite claims military operations there were wrapping up.
“Kyiv is still very much under threat,” Kirby said.
The Russian defence ministry’s claims were the latest in a series of declarations by Moscow signalling Putin had scaled back his ambitions in Ukraine after a more than month-long invasion that has been stymied by fierce Ukrainian opposition.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said negotiators had made “substantial progress” in recent peace talks with Ukraine, but Kyiv cast doubt on the assertion saying the Kremlin was still insisting on unacceptable Ukrainian territorial claims.
Lavrov told Russian state media that he saw “positive movement forward” during peace talks that began in Istanbul on Tuesday, though they were “not yet the final result”.
He said Ukraine’s negotiators “confirmed the necessity to ensure Ukraine’s non-nuclear, [neutral] status and its security outside of Nato” and “understand that the issues of Crimea and Donbas have been settled for good”.
But Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, said Kyiv was only willing to discuss the final status of Crimea and Donbas — southern and eastern Ukrainian regions where Russia has annexed territory — once Kyiv “restores its sovereignty over them”.
US officials said Putin’s lack of access to accurate information could affect the ongoing negotiations.
Kirby said: “If he’s not fully informed of how poorly he’s doing, then how are his negotiators going to come up with an agreement that is enduring and certainly one that respects Ukrainian sovereignty?”
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Ukrainian officials acknowledged that Russian negotiators have changed their tone during the Istanbul peace talks. Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said the initial “ultimatums” issued by the Kremlin have been “quietly set aside” and the talks are now focused on “a clearly-defined specific” list of issues.
Podolyak said Kyiv was still seeking concrete security guarantees that could be enforced by “defined guarantor countries” with “powerful armies”, which would include the US and a handful of western allies.
“Pragmatically, we need to have allies who will stand by us when we need help here and now,” he said.