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U.S. says Putin being misled, as Ukraine refugee tally hits 4 million

A day after negotiations showed some progress, Russian officials gave conflicting statements and fighting continued

Ukrainian refugees wait on a bus after crossing the border with Poland on March 30. More than 4 million Ukrainians have fled the country in the past five weeks to escape the war, according to the United Nations. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)
10 min

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advisers are shielding him from how badly the invasion of Ukraine is going, top U.S. officials said Wednesday, as the conflict raged on despite peace talks and the number of Ukrainians who have fled their country topped 4 million.

Putin’s advisers may be afraid to deliver bad news to a leader who has been willing to take increasingly extreme measures against people who dissent within the Russian system, U.S. intelligence officials said. One worrisome consequence, Pentagon officials said, was that negotiations underway between Russia and Ukraine to end the nearly five-week-old invasion could be undermined by misinformed expectations and directives from the Russian side.

“We have information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military, which has resulted in persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership,” White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield told reporters. “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.”

Both the Ukrainian and Russian negotiators had generally positive things to say Wednesday about the most recent round of talks, which concluded a day earlier in Istanbul. But adding to the general sense that there are splits on the Russian side or, at a minimum, a lack of understanding about Putin’s desires, some top Russian officials gave contradictory statements.

Ukrainian officials said Russian bombing and shelling continued on Wednesday, although forces did appear to be withdrawing from around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv, something the Russian side had signaled a day earlier. A spokesman for the Russian defense ministry said that its military was refocusing its operations on eastern Ukraine, away from the Ukrainian capital.

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Gen. Tod D. Wolters, head of U.S. European Command, said March 29 that there "could be" an intelligence gap that led the United States to overestimate Russia's capability. (Video: C-SPAN)

Top U.S. officials said that Putin’s alleged information problems are one of the weaknesses of the Russian system.

“One of the Achilles’ heels of autocracies is that we don’t have people in those systems who speak truth to power or have the ability to speak truth to power. And I think that is something that we’re seeing in Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a visit to Algiers.

At the Pentagon on Wednesday, spokesman John Kirby called it “discomforting” that Putin “may not fully understand the degree to which his forces are failing” thus far in Ukraine.

“One outcome of that could be a less-than-faithful effort at negotiating some sort of settlement here,” 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?”

The exodus of Ukrainians — nearly 10 percent of the country’s prewar population fleeing in five weeks — underscored the regional crisis that Europe is now facing. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that an additional 6.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced inside Ukraine, meaning about a quarter of the nation of 44 million people has been uprooted. An estimated 2 million of those who have fled the country are children.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi arrived in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, near the Polish border, and said he would look for ways “to increase our support to people affected and displaced by this senseless war.”

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The flood of Ukrainians into other countries has started to overwhelm their ability to absorb them, officials warned. More than half of the refugees have fled to Poland, while others have gone to other neighboring countries such as Romania and Moldova. About 350,000 people have gone to Russia, according to the latest U.N. refugee figures. The International Organization for Migration has said nearly 200,000 non-Ukrainians who were living in the country have also had to escape.

Ultimately, the refugees are likely to be spread across Europe, and some countries are bracing for the impact. Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, may take in up to 100,000 Ukrainians by the end of April, for example, a step that would balloon the country’s population by nearly 8 percent. Proportionally, that would be as if the United States were to take in 25 million refugees in the same time frame.

The European Union has enacted unprecedented measures to allow Ukrainians “temporary protection” anywhere in the 27-country bloc for up to three years.

Ukrainian refugees arrived weary but relieved at the Polish border on March 9. They then boarded buses that would take them to the next stop on their journey. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The apparent breakdown in communication inside the Kremlin adds to the challenges of Ukrainian and other European and American policymakers who are seeking to end the conflict. Leaders of both the Ukrainian and Russian negotiation teams offered a mixed picture of the talks on Wednesday, saying they had made progress during talks in Istanbul on Tuesday but that there were still disagreements on key issues.

From the Ukrainian perspective, the Russian team “definitely moved the negotiations forward,” Ihor Zhovkva, deputy chief of staff to President Volodymyr Zelensky, told BBC Radio on Wednesday.

“This was the first time that, instead of giving its own ultimatums and red lines, the Russian side listened to Ukrainian positions,” Zhovkva said. He also said Ukraine is still seeking security guarantees in a legally binding treaty to end the war and stop future aggression.

“They took into consideration our proposals,” he said. “Hopefully, when they come back with their proposals, we will be moving forward to the conclusion of this international treaty.”

But Zhovkva insisted that Ukraine would not trade an “inch” of its eastern territory or ever consider it Russian land.

The head of the Russian delegation offered a similar, relatively positive assessment. “Yesterday, for the first time, the Ukrainian side provided … its readiness to fulfill a number of important conditions for building normal and, I hope, good neighborly relations with Russia in the future,” Vladimir Medinsky said in a televised statement.

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Medinsky outlined some of Ukraine’s commitments, some of which Russia said it had demanded “for years,” including Ukraine’s promise not to join NATO, renunciation of nuclear weapons, a refusal to host foreign military bases and military contingents, and to conduct military exercises only with the consent of guarantor states, including Russia.

These sets of principles, Medinsky said, gave way to a “possible future agreement.”

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov poured cold water on hopes of a speedy resolution, saying that an agreement is not close. “So far, we cannot say anything very promising, any breakthroughs. There’s still a long, long way to go,” he told reporters.

Consultations continued on Wednesday, with a lower-level team of Ukrainian officials flying to Tel Aviv to talk to Israeli policymakers. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has offered to be a mediator in the conflict.

And President Biden spoke by phone to Zelensky, getting an update on negotiations and offering an additional $500 million in aid on top of $16.3 billion already promised for the country, according to a White House readout of the call.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, their first face-to-face meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine last month. Lavrov told reporters that the Ukraine-Russia negotiations had made “significant progress” in Istanbul, a sharply different tone from Peskov and a possible sign of poor coordination among Russian officials.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin reiterated at a news conference that there were “no limits” to Sino-Russian cooperation, according to China’s official broadcaster CCTV.

Russia’s promised drawdown around the key cities of Kyiv and Chernihiv did not halt hostilities near the cities on Wednesday. The governor of the Chernihiv region, Viacheslav Chaus, said that Russian forces “spent the whole night striking” the city.

But by Wednesday evening, the Ukrainian military said that it was indeed seeing a “partial withdrawal” of Russian forces around both cities. The British Defense Ministry said that the withdrawal may be connected to Russian units “suffering heavy losses” and returning to Belarus and Russia to “reorganize and resupply.”

Russia meanwhile continued a high-stakes dance around energy supplies for Europe, for which it had been demanding payments in rubles starting on Thursday. Europe currently pays for its natural gas in euros, and the switch in currencies would apparently enable Russia to sidestep sanctions that have frozen much of the country’s hard currency reserves.

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European leaders have refused to make the switch, entertaining the possibility that Russia will cut off energy shipments altogether. In a measure of European concerns, German policymakers on Wednesday activated the “early warning” phase of an emergency plan to ensure natural gas supplies in the event of a disruption, asking people to “reduce their consumption as much as possible.”

In a sign that Russia isn’t yet prepared to flip off the switch, Peskov said the Kremlin would postpone the March 31 deadline to switch to ruble payments as it continued discussions with European leaders. A Russian cutoff of natural gas and oil would be profoundly painful to Europe, potentially leading to energy rationing and some factories being asked to go offline temporarily. But it would also cut off one of the last and biggest remaining flows of cash to the Kremlin.

The disruption to global energy supplies can also be felt in the United States, amid rising prices at the gasoline pump and increased costs for the components and metals needed for battery technology. Acknowledging that challenge, Biden is expected to announce a massive release of the nation’s strategic oil reserves on Thursday, according to two people familiar with the matter. The White House’s plan is expected to call for the release of 1 million barrels per day from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve on an ongoing basis for several months, said the people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a matter not yet made public. The SPR currently holds roughly 570 million barrels of crude oil.

The White House also plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to secure materials necessary for clean energy with the aim to break dependence on foreign sources of oil and natural gas.

According to an official familiar with the plan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it hasn’t been formally announced, Biden as soon as this week may sign a presidential determination to encourage domestic production of critical minerals for both stationary large-capacity batteries and those used in electric vehicles.

Francis and Suliman reported from London. John Hudson in Algiers; Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv; Isaac Stanley-Becker in Berlin; Rachel Pannett in Sydney; Eugene Scott, Paulina Villegas, Amy B Wang, Steven Mufson, Alex Horton, Tyler Pager, Jeff Stein and Maxine Joselow in Washington; and Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.