The head of US intelligence has said Vladimir Putin has “become better informed” about the difficulties facing his invading forces in Ukraine, as the Kremlin suggested the Russian president could visit the occupied Donbas region at a future unspecified date.
Speaking at a defense forum late on Saturday, Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, indicated Putin was no longer as insulated from bad news about the conditions facing his invasion of Ukraine as he was earlier in the campaign.
Alluding to past assessments that Putin’s advisers could be shielding him from bad news, Haines said he was “becoming more informed of the challenges that the military faces in Russia”.
“But it’s still not clear to us that he has a full picture of at this stage of just how challenged they are,” she said, addressing an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California.
Haines’s comments reflect a wider internalization of Russian military failures in Ukraine that has increasingly been reflected in remarks made by key regime propagandists, in public opinion polling and in analysis by the Russian military blogger community.
The scale of the challenges facing the Russian president have also been underlined by a series of battlefield setbacks in recent months that have led to the Russians retreating from the Kharkiv region, from Kherson oblast – including the key city of the same name – and from parts of the Russian-occupied Donbas region.
Although Moscow has responded by attacking key Ukrainian civilian energy infrastructure in an attempt to freeze Kyiv into concessions, that campaign, too, has had only a partial impact as Ukrainian engineers have moved quickly to repair damaged power plants and western allies have sent emergency generating plants to help disperse Ukraine’s energy network.
The Kremlin’s vague comments about a potential Putin visit, made on Saturday, appeared designed more for public consumption in Russia than indicating that any visit was imminent.
Making the remarks to Russian news agencies, the Kremlin press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said of any Putin visit: “In due time, this will happen, of course. This is a region of the Russian Federation.”
However, with heavy fighting continuing around the key Donbas town of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have been struggling for six months to make minimal progress, and an attempted Ukrainian offensive reported around Kreminna in recent days, the political and security conditions for a Putin visit appear inauspicious.
Reports on social media also suggested Ukrainian forces were making progress in operations on the east bank of the Dnipro River, opposite the recently liberated city of Kherson, after a reported amphibious landing on the Kinburn Spit last month.
Video and still images posted on Telegram and Twitter show a Ukrainian flag being tied to a crane near the shore in a port area on the east side of the river by a special forces unit, which described the area as “a springboard for the deoccupation of the left [east] bank of the Kherson region”.
While Ukrainian operations east of the river have been under an operational news blackout, Vitaly Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv oblast, has previously confirmed the presence of Ukrainian forces in the area.
Looking ahead to a second winter of fighting in Ukraine, Haines suggested that the fighting was continuing for now at a “reduced tempo”adding that there could be brighter prospects for Ukrainian forces in the coming months.
“Honestly, we’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict,” she said, adding that her team expected both sides would look to refit, resupply and reconstitute for a possible Ukrainian counter-offensive in the spring.
“Most of the fighting right now is around Bakhmut and the Donetsk area,” she said. “But we actually have a fair amount of skepticism as to whether or not the Russians will be in fact prepared to do that. And I think more optimistically for the Ukrainians in that timeframe.”
In his nightly address on Saturday, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, criticized western efforts to target Russia’s oil industry, a key source of funds for Putin’s war machine, saying their $60-a-barrel price cap on imports of Russian oil was insufficient.
“It is not a serious decision to set such a limit for Russian prices, which is quite comfortable for the budget of the terrorist state,” Zelenskiy said, referring to Russia. He said the $60-a-barrel level would still allow Russia to bring in $100bn in annual revenues.
“This money will go not only to the war and not only to further sponsorship by Russia of other terrorist regimes and organizations. This money will be used for further destabilization of those countries that are now trying to avoid serious decisions,” Zelenskiy said.
Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, the US and the 27-nation European Union agreed on Friday to cap what they would pay for Russian oil at $60 a barrel. The limit is due to take effect on Monday, along with an EU embargo on Russian oil shipped by sea.
Russian authorities have rejected the price cap and on Saturday threatened to stop supplying the nations that endorsed it.
Agencies contributed to this report