WASHINGTON - A member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle has voiced disagreement directly to the Russian president in recent weeks over his handling of the war in Ukraine, according to information obtained by U.S. intelligence.
The criticism marks the clearest indication yet of turmoil within Russia’s leadership over the stewardship of a war that has gone disastrously wrong for Moscow, forcing Putin last month to order the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of troops in a desperate bid to reverse recent battlefield losses.
The information was deemed significant enough that it was included in President Biden’s daily intelligence briefing and shared with other U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The discontent that the member of Putin’s inner circle expressed related to what the insider considered mismanagement of the war effort and mistakes being made by those executing the military campaign, according to one of the people.
The insider’s identity could not be confirmed, although the name has been included in U.S. intelligence reporting.
The new intelligence, coupled with comments from Russian officials, underscores divisions within Putin’s upper echelon, where officials have long been loath to bring bad news to an autocratic Russian leader who is seen as more isolated that at any time in his 22-year rule.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment on the intelligence.
The number of people Putin counts as close or trusted aides and advisers is small and composed primarily of colleagues from his days serving as a KGB officer and those he met while a deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The mobilization has sparked domestic unrest, prompted hundreds of thousands of Russian fighting-age men to flee the country and been beset by bureaucratic incompetence, with individuals being called up who are supposed to be excluded from service.
As the war enters its eighth month, and Russian victory remains elusive and ill-defined, the unquestioning loyalty Putin has enjoyed may be slipping, intelligence officials said, but they cautioned there was no indication the Russian leader was on the brink of being swept aside.
“Since the start of the occupation we have witnessed growing alarm from a number of Putin’s inner circle,” a Western intelligence official said. “Our assessments suggest they are particularly exercised by recent Russian losses, misguided direction and extensive military shortcomings.”
A second senior Western official said the internal tensions are “consistent with the way in which the campaign has gone for the Russians, and the atmospherics in the Kremlin. There are a lot of people who are convinced this isn’t going well or the right course of action.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged there have been disagreements and debates among Russian leaders as Putin has faced crucial decisions such as the mobilization.
“There is disagreement over such moments. Some think we should act differently,” Peskov told The Washington Post. “But this is all part of the usual working process.”
Asked about disagreements within Putin’s inner circle, Peskov said, “There are working arguments: about the economy, about the conduct of the military operation. There are arguments about the education system. This is part of the normal working process, and it is not a sign of any split.”
But Peskov said U.S. intelligence reporting about an individual in Putin’s inner circle directly challenging the Russian leader was “absolutely not true.”
Armed with American and European weapons, Ukrainian forces have recaptured thousands of square miles of territory in recent weeks from a Russian military reeling from personnel shortages.
The losses prompted a scramble by the Kremlin to organize hasty staged referendums and announce formal annexations of occupied land, widely condemned as illegal, all while beginning to draft hundreds of thousands of military reservists despite the risk of domestic opposition and protest.
Putin has also threatened to take extreme measures to protect Russia’s territory, including the use of nuclear weapons, hoping the threat will make Ukraine’s backers think twice about how far Kyiv should be enabled to advance.
The situation has led to public criticism of Putin’s defense minister and top generals in a rare outpouring of discontent.
Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, who has sent Chechen militias to fight against Ukraine, lashed out at a top general in recent days and said he should be demoted to private. After the comments, Kadyrov announced that Putin had promoted the Chechen to the rank of colonel general.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a longtime Putin ally whose Wagner mercenaries have also been fighting for Moscow in Ukraine, agreed with Kadyrov, describing Russian military leaders as “pieces of garbage” in a statement.
One Moscow-installed official in occupied Kherson described a retreat in recent days by Russian forces northeast of the city as a “regrouping” and claimed the region was “locked down,” but also called top Russian military leaders traitors and incompetents.
“Indeed, many people say that if they were the minister of defense, who brought things to this state of affairs, they would shoot themselves, if they were real officers,” Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russia-installed Kherson administration, said Thursday in a video on Telegram.
Putin’s problems on the battlefield are compounded by a haphazard mobilization at home.
“It seems to me his position is fragile,” one Russian official said of Putin in an interview on the day the mobilization was announced.
“In all these months we have heard that half the world is on our side. But neither Modi nor Xi are now supporting this,” the Russian official said, referring to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who were seen to be distancing themselves from Putin’s war effort during a summit last month in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
In another conversation this week, the official said he had not heard about any direct challenges to Putin from within the inner circle. But “there are protests” by the heads of parliamentary committees about how the president and the military are conducting the war - “about why the army is not being supplied properly, about why the campaign is not going as it should,” the official said.
Senior security officials in Europe said they were not aware that anyone had dared to challenge Putin directly over the course of events in Ukraine and added that they hadn’t seen the U.S. intelligence reporting on the criticism directed at Putin.
Even so, some of those officials said that cracks were increasingly evident across multiple layers of the Russian system, citing outbreaks of criticism and finger-pointing across the Russian military, security services and regional governments now forcing military-age men into service.
One senior European security official described growing “criticism of Putin - behind his back,” including from within the Kremlin ranks. “They think he’s stubborn,” the official said, and “obsessed with Ukraine” - an “obsession they do not necessarily share.”
A second security official in Europe said: “There is scapegoating. Finger-pointing. All of this is happening.”
Two Russian business executives who maintain contacts with political officials echoed those sentiments and said the coming weeks could be crucial for determining Putin’s future and what decisions he makes about the war.
If the Russian military doesn’t stem its losses, then infighting will break out, said one of these people, a member of the Russian business elite. “This is a breaking point.”
The mobilization of forces has proved widely unpopular in Russia and may signal that Putin feels pressured to take desperate measures.
For months, Putin had resisted calling up additional forces, even as battlefield losses suggested he had not deployed sufficient forces at the outset of the war. As early as the spring of this year, when Putin’s plan for a quick invasion and occupation of Ukraine had clearly fizzled, U.S. intelligence analysts assessed that he would have to announce a broad mobilization - amounting to hundreds of thousands of additional troops - if he hoped to achieve his objectives, which at the time Putin believed he still could, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Putin’s decision to call up what Russian officials say will be 300,000 additional troops ranks as among the most destabilizing and politically risky moves of his career and “may lead to regime instability,” a third European security official said.
Others, however, said that despite a mass exodus of military-age men from Russia, Putin has crossed an important threshold without triggering any meaningful internal challenge to his rule. Even regional officials angered by the mobilization are overwhelmingly complying, supplying tens of thousands of recruits.
“Everybody is keen on searching for signs of Russia folding, and you do see internal tensions,” a senior Baltic official said. “But Russia is now on a war footing, and they are still going. We haven’t seen anything to suggest otherwise.”
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Belton reported from London.