Amid new Russian attacks near Kyiv, White House says Putin misled by aides
A day after Russia said it would “drastically” reduce attacks on strategic northern cities in its war against Ukraine, those regions came under fresh bombardment Wednesday, deepening Ukrainian and Western officials’ skepticism over any easing of the offensive.
As Moscow offered mixed signals about its war aims and negotiating prospects, the White House said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence indicates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s senior aides have been “too afraid to tell him the truth” about an invasion seemingly gone awry.
“It is increasingly clear that Putin’s war has been a strategic blunder that has left Russia weaker over the long term, and increasingly isolated on the world stage,” said White House communications director Kate Bedingfield.
She pointed to U.S. intelligence indicating that the Russian leader had been misled by top aides’ too-rosy estimates about the situation on the ground in Ukraine.
Five weeks into the war, the humanitarian crisis sparked by the fighting reached stunning new heights, with the United Nations saying Wednesday that more than 4 million people, including 2 million children, have fled Ukraine since the invasion began.
At the same time, the U.S. announced an additional $500 million in budgetary aid for Ukraine, which has been publicly pleading for more armed support from Washington and the West.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who conferred by phone Wednesday with President Biden, said on his website that any peace with Russia will need to be negotiated from a ”strong position on the battlefield.”
After Ukrainian forces reported shooting down rockets outside the capital, Kyiv, and a regional official said the northern city of Chernihiv saw regular shelling overnight, Ukrainian officials scoffed at the notion that Moscow was sincere about de-escalation in the country’s north and near the capital.
“The ‘decreased activity’ in the Chernihiv region was demonstrated by the enemy carrying out strikes on Nizhyn, including airstrikes, and all night long they hit Chernihiv,” regional Gov. Viacheslav Chaus said on the Telegram messaging app.
There were “no areas without sirens” in Ukraine, Vadym Denysenko, an advisor to the interior minister, told CNN, naming the Donbas in the east, Kyiv and Khmelnytsky, a western region where an industrial site was hit with no reported injuries.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said about 20% of the Russian forces arrayed around Kyiv have begun to “reposition” in the last 24 hours, possibly to resupply, and to refit and repair equipment in neighboring Belarus, Moscow’s ally. But none of those forces appeared to be returning to their “home garrison,” Kirby said, which is how the Pentagon would define withdrawal.
“If the Russians are serious about de-escalating, because that’s their claim, then they should send them home,” Kirby said. “But they’re not doing that.”
The White House said the Russian leader’s top aides were not believed to be conveying to him either the extent of battlefield setbacks or the full effect of Western sanctions imposed after the Feb. 24 invasion.
“We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military” about the feasibility of the Kremlin’s war plans, Bedingfield said, adding that this has resulted in “persistent tension” between the Russian leader and his top lieutenants.
Wednesday’s comments marked the apparent continuation of a Biden administration strategy, implemented before the start of the invasion, to divulge what would normally be considered sensitive U.S. intelligence about the thinking and actions of Putin’s inner circle.
Analysts say such disclosures could be aimed at prodding the Russian leader to acknowledge, even privately, the failure to capture Kyiv or topple Zelensky — but also run the risk of further frustrating and angering Putin as the war drags on.
Putin’s forces have made major gains in the country’s south and east, but any notion that the central government in Kyiv would swiftly capitulate have been sharply dispelled by fierce resistance on the part of the Ukrainian military and ad hoc volunteers.
Signals emanating from Moscow have been contradictory. After negotiations Tuesday in Istanbul, Russia pledged to scale down its attacks on Kyiv and Chernihiv as a gesture of goodwill toward peace talks and focus its battle on eastern Ukraine, including the Donbas, home to a pro-Russia separatist movement.
In Russia’s war in Ukraine, investigators are able to collect evidence of war crimes “in real time,” lawyers and experts say, giving hope of more timely justice.
But in an overnight video address, Zelensky warned his compatriots to stay on alert.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said. “Ukrainians have already learned during the 34 days of the invasion and during the past eight years of war in the Donbas that you can trust only concrete results.
“We can call those signals that we hear at the negotiations positive,” Zelensky said. “But those signals don’t silence the explosions of Russian shells.”
Zelensky’s caution mirrored that of U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who said what mattered were Russia’s actions, not its words.
Ukrainian officials appear to have no illusions about Putin’s sincerity. Oleksiy Arestovych, a Zelensky aide, said in televised remarks that Russia had left some of its forces near Kyiv to keep Ukrainian troops tied down and had moved others to the east to try to encircle Ukrainian fighters there. He said no Russian pullback had been detected around Chernihiv.
In heavily bombarded Kharkiv, a Ukrainian soldier guards what’s left of a landmark building. ‘We unite and fight back,’ he says.
A British Defense Ministry report released Wednesday described Russia’s proclaimed shift east as “likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance.”
“Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganize and supply,” the report said. “Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having reorganizing its units in forward areas within Ukraine.”
In a speech Wednesday to the Norwegian parliament, Zelensky repeated his plea for foreign nations to supply Ukraine with more materiel.
“All weapons you can help us with will be used only to protect our freedom, your freedom,” he said, adding that the future of Europe “from north to south, from east to west, is being decided right now.”
Ukrainian troops have blocked Russians from entering the capital and the second-largest city, Kharkiv, even as missiles have hit both urban areas almost daily, killing residents and destroying residential and military targets.
Southern and eastern regions have borne the brunt of the war. Satellite photos show vast swaths of the port city of Mariupol destroyed. Local officials say residents struggle to find water and food in the city, parts of which are Russian-occupied. Satellite images released Wednesday showed hundreds of residents lining up for groceries in the city, where authorities have declared a food crisis.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko told Ukrainian television that 5,000 people had died in the city since the war began. Boychenko, who, like the majority of the prewar population of 430,000, has fled his home, said 90% of buildings were damaged and 40% destroyed.
Ukrainian ombudswoman for human rights Lyudmila Denisova said Wednesday that Russians targeted a Red Cross building in Mariupol.
“Enemy aircraft and artillery fired on a building marked with a red cross on a white background, indicating the presence of wounded, civilians or humanitarian cargo,” she said in a statement. It was unclear when the attack happened. This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it would call off operations in Mariupol because aid workers were unsafe in the city.
The U.N. on Wednesday named three human rights experts — from Norway, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Colombia — to a panel that will investigate “all alleged violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law” in the war. The U.S. formally accused Russia of war crimes last week after Biden said he personally felt Putin was a “war criminal.”
In a sign of the challenge of delivering humanitarian aid, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Wednesday that Russia and Ukraine had agreed to keep open only three safe corridors. In recent weeks, the number of evacuation routes has at times been triple that. Vereshchuk said in a video update that Ukraine had requested an additional 97 safe passageways during Tuesday’s talks in Istanbul.
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Political efforts to end the fighting have been fitful.
Zelensky has indicated that he is open to declaring “neutral” status for Ukraine and giving up its goal of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ukrainian negotiators said the matter could be put to a national vote as long as Western allies, including the U.S., provided security guarantees in lieu of NATO membership. Ukraine also said it would consider negotiating the status of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that Ukraine’s submission of proposals was a “positive factor.” But “we cannot state that there was anything too promising or any breakthroughs,” he said. He told reporters that significant work still lay ahead.
Talks were originally scheduled to continue Wednesday but ended Tuesday, and it was unclear when additional discussions will take place.
McDonnell reported from Lviv, Kaleem from London and King from Washington. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.
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