Demoralised Russian soldiers in Ukraine have accidentally shot down their own aircraft, sabotaged their own kit, and refused to carry out orders, a British spy chief has claimed.
Sir Jeremy Fleming, the head of GCHQ, said President Vladimir Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth about how badly things are going.
In a rare public speech on Thursday in Australia, the senior intelligence officer also said:
• Wagner Group, the private military company with suspected links to the Kremlin, is understood to be prepared to “send large numbers of personnel into Ukraine to fight alongside Russians”
• Wagner mercenaries are likely to be used as “cannon fodder” to try to limit Russian military losses
• There are indications that Russian cyber attackers are “looking for targets” in the countries that oppose Moscow’s actions
The British intervention came as a US official also said accurate information about Russia’s failures on the battlefield is not making its way to President Putin “because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth”.
This included not letting him know his military was using conscripts in Ukraine, the official said.
Sir Jeremy made similar remarks in his speech at the Australian National University in Canberra.
“It increasingly looks like Putin has massively misjudged the situation” in Ukraine, he said.
He listed these missteps as misjudging the Ukrainian resistance, underestimating the strength of the Western response, underplaying the economic consequences, and over-estimating the abilities of his military to secure a quick victory.
Read more: The Ukraine invasion explained
“Even though we believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth, what’s going on and the extent of these misjudgements must be crystal clear to the regime,” the GCHQ director said, calling the invasion a “strategic miscalculation”.
GCHQ is the lead UK spy agency for cyber and other forms of communications intelligence.
Russians ‘shot down own aircraft’
Revealing details about the state of the Russian military operation, Sir Jeremy said: “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.”
GCHQ did not offer any evidence or further details, such as how many aircraft and whether it includes fast jets and attack helicopters.
But the information is understood to be based on intelligence.
The spy chief touched on the role of mercenaries and foreign fighters to augment the Russian side.
“Recently, we have seen that Wagner looks to be taking it up a gear,” he said.
“They are looking at relocating forces from other conflicts and recruiting new fighters to bolster numbers. These soldiers are likely to be used as cannon fodder to try to limit Russian military losses.”
Cyber operations against Ukraine
Turning to the cyber dimension of Russia’s invasion, Sir Jeremy said his agency never thought a catastrophic cyber attack was central to Moscow’s use of cyber in a war.
Instead, he said there have been lots of cyber operations against Ukraine.
“And we’ve certainly seen indicators which suggests Russia’s cyber actors are looking for targets in the countries that oppose their actions,” he added.
He spoke about the position of Russia’s ally China – the world’s most powerful authoritarian state – on the Ukraine crisis.
Sir Jeremy noted that Moscow clearly views Beijing as a supplier of weapons and technology and a country that will buy its energy to reduce the economic damage of Western sanctions.
But the spy said Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “calculus is more nuanced” – not publicly condemning the invasion, perhaps because it helps him oppose the US and because of any plans he may have regarding Taiwan.
“There are risks to them both (and more for China) in being too closely aligned,” he said.
“Russia understands that long term, China will become increasingly strong militarily and economically. Some of their interests conflict; Russia could be squeezed out of the equation.”
Speaking more broadly about global security, the GCHQ boss described the combination of a series of historic events – Russia’s war in Ukraine; the COVID pandemic; the growing dominance of technology and cyber; the role of China; and the end of the US-led campaign in Afghanistan – as “a period of generational upheaval”.
It is a time for Western, liberal democracies to “step up”, finding new ways to collaborate and cooperate, the spy chief said, amid the challenge posed by authoritarian regimes.
He also stressed the need to be “persuasive and coherent” to stand a better chance of winning over countries that have not decided “which way they should jump”.
“All of this change will take decades to resolve,” he said. “But what I can be clear on now is that how we approach these challenges will be as important as what our response is.”