For a spy chief, it was an eye-catching claim. “We believe Putin’s advisers are afraid to tell him the truth,” the GCHQ boss, Sir Jeremy Fleming, confidently declared overnight to an audience in Australia.
The head of the British eavesdropping agency offered no details to back up his assertion – leaving the impression it was a piece of psychological warfare, of the “we know all is not well in the Kremlin” type.
Nor was it an isolated comment – a few hours earlier US officials were in similar terrain, showing the effort was coordinated. “We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military,” one said, stating that in particular the leader did not know at first that conscripts were being used in the war.
Given Russia’s failure to achieve a quick victory over Ukraine, such conclusions are on the face of it hardly surprising. And the Russian president’s dominance over the Kremlin and key figures within it is hardly a revelation.
Fleming’s remarks are intended to bring to mind how the Russian president publicly treated Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the SVR foreign intelligence agency, a meeting intended to agree the recognition of self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine.
“Speak plainly,” a smirking Putin repeated as Naryshkin stumbled over his answers to the Russian leader, perhaps enjoying the moment of fear that played across the face of his subordinate, normally considered a powerful hardliner who has known the president since the early 1990s at least.
GCHQ insiders are reluctant to get into detail at the best of times, although they insist such Kreminology is not conducted idly. But it is hard to avoid the impression that such statements have a propagandist quality when they are inserted into a speech given by a spy chief and inevitably picked up by the media.
Fleming’s speech also contained another unsupported statement, that Russian forces have been “even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft”, which intended to refer to more than one aircraft – a statement that can only have the purpose of highlighting to the Kremlin what the west believes it can see.
Former Whitehall insiders are divided about whether it is wise for intelligence chiefs to make such sweeping statements. “My view is that Fleming should only speak on the basis of intelligence or he risks misinforming the west,” said one former intelligence insider, who asked not to be named.
But Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser, said it was obvious that Putin had become “isolated and intolerant of criticism” and said it was a “continuation of the pre-conflict practice of putting out the intel assessment without revealing the sources”.
It is certainly true that prewar western intelligence predictions have been proven correct. They forecast that Russia would, on Putin’s orders, invade Ukraine and attempt to win a quick victory by encircling Kyiv and other major cities – although most thought the invaders would be more successful that has been proven.
But now Fleming appears to be seeking personal responsibility for the war. “It increasingly looks Putin has massively misjudged the situation,” the spy chief also said, again a fairly obvious comment, but arguably not very diplomatic given that almost any ceasefire and peace settlement will almost certainly have to involve the Russian leader.
There is also a risk that the west has become overconfident about Russian divisions and difficulties – and risked exaggerating claims, as happened in the run-up to the Iraq war. “It was true that an Iraqi unit had a 45-minute chemical weapon readiness order. That didn’t mean what was then said in parliament and reported in the media”, the long-serving former official recalled.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism