- Reports say Russian President Vladimir Putin blames high-level officials for failings in Ukraine.
- But experts told Insider Putin is responsible for creating a culture that allows misinformation.
- "That only happened because he didn't want to hear the truth," said Russia expert Robert English.
When his country's forces first invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin was, by many accounts, anticipating a certain and speedy victory.
Reports suggest that the longtime leader was expecting to roll into the neighboring territory, flatten a modest resistance, and be met by scores of grateful Ukrainians bearing bread and salt, the traditional Ukrainian greeting custom.
The reality of Ukraine's resistance has been much bloodier and bleaker for the Russian interlopers — an unexpected failure that has led Putin to begin ousting high-level officials he blames for the losses, according to experts.
"I think that he is lashing out and scapegoating people whom he thinks probably misled him," said Simon Miles, assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations.
In mid-March, Ukrainian media reported that Putin fired Roman Gavrilov, the deputy chief of the Russian national guard, while Russian reports claimed Gavrilov had resigned. The cause of Gavrilov's departure was not immediately clear, with one source telling the outlet Bellingcat that his dismissal was due to "leaks of military info that led to loss of life," while two others said it was for "wasteful squandering of fuel."
Days later, reports emerged claiming Putin had placed under house arrest two senior officials with the FSB, Russia's security service, over intelligence failings in Ukraine. One such official has since been sent to Lefortovo prison, an infamous FSB jail on the outskirts of Moscow, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and leading expert on Russian intelligence.
But experts told Insider that if Putin is upset with the information or advice he's gotten from advisers, the longtime president himself is responsible for creating an autocratic culture of fear that allowed misinformation to filter directly to him.
"That only happened because he didn't want to hear the truth," said Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and eastern Europe. "It happened because he was more comfortable surrounding himself with 'yes-men' and sycophants instead of intelligent, independent people who would challenge his prejudice."
Putin thought taking Ukraine would be easy. He was wrong.
Despite Putin's expectations going into the invasion that Ukrainians would welcome Russia, "there was no bread and salt, quite famously," Miles said. After a stalemate earlier this month forced Russia to retreat from the areas around Kyiv and instead focus on the east, many have wondered how Putin got it so wrong.
Soldatov told The New Yorker in March that some of the firings in Russia's intelligence community may be a result of failed political warfare within Ukraine, his sources have suggested.
He said the foreign-intelligence branch of the FSB was likely tasked with setting up networks of pro-Kremlin political groups within Ukraine before the invasion, but those groups failed to materialize.
The cause of these Russian missteps, according to experts, is likely flawed or overinflated information delivered to Putin from the country's intelligence apparatus and his advisers.
"They probably told him that they had much more extensive networks and penetration of Ukraine's government – that they had laid the groundwork for a much more effective internal opposition to Zelenskyy, which would be triggered by Russian troops coming across the border," Miles said. But that, "as we know, didn't materialize at all."
Putin may have also overestimated opposition within Ukraine to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which was "not completely crazy," said Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work focuses on Russian politics and economics.
"Opinion polls suggested Zelenksyy wasn't very popular," Treisman told Insider. Though Zelenskyy has received overwhelming support from around the world and in Ukraine, prior to the war, his approval rating was about 30%, while the Ukrainian parliament's was even lower.
"Putin believed that a much larger part of the Ukrainian population felt tied to Russia and alienated by the Ukrainian government administration," Treisman said, adding that he was "probably given a very misleading view of the Ukraine public opinion" by those around him.
Bad news doesn't filter up in autocratic regimes
Last month, a US official said Putin's top advisors are purposely feeding him bad information about the war because they are "too afraid to tell him the truth."
When all state power lies in the hands of a single individual, advisors and employees have an outsized incentive to prove their value to the man in charge – even at the expense of accuracy and accountability, Miles told Insider.
"I would suspect that he was getting very overly-inflated stories from those figures in the FSB who are now allegedly under house arrest," Miles said referring to Russia's early military failures in Ukraine. "And when his intelligence services gave him information, they let him believe that they did so with high confidence."
Miles added that bad news does not filter up very well in authoritarian regimes.
"No one wants to own responsibility for saying things are not going well," Miles said. "Also, no one wants to own the risk of proposing the alternative way to do it."
Putin's reputation for firing those who disagree with him goes back years. In 2004, weeks before his re-election, the first-term president abruptly fired Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and the rest of his cabinet. Though publicly loyal to Putin, Kasyanov had challenged Putin's approach to dealing with oil industry oligarchs, The Washington Post reported at the time.
More recently, a viral video taken days before the invasion showed Putin pressing Russia's spy chief to clearly say "yes or no" on whether he supported recent actions by Russia in Ukraine. Sergei Naryshkin, chief of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, stammered and appeared to stumble over his words as Putin cut him off multiple times, providing a rare glimpse into the internal dynamics of the Kremlin.
"He got the bad advice that he asked for, even if he didn't realize he was asking for it," English said of Putin."He was, because he fired independent thinkers, he pushed aside people who disagreed with him, and he gradually promoted people who fed his ego, who fed his pride."
Putin's isolation is decades in the making
Putin's misinformation problem lies not only with the individual people in his circle but with the circle itself — in particular, its shrinking size. Much post-invasion reporting has remarked on Putin's increasing isolation in the months leading up to Russia's assault on Ukraine.
But his shift toward isolation has actually been building for decades, experts said.
"When he started out in the early 2000s, he had a broad range of different types of advisers with different views," Treisman said. "Now it's narrowed down to this hard-line, Russian nationalist friends and advisers."
In recent years, Putin's social isolation turned physical as well. For much of Putin's reign, he has lived at the suburban, presidential compound located an hour outside of Moscow, Miles said. Lately, Putin rarely went into the Kremlin except for official business.
But Putin's isolationist streak intensified with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 69-year-old has been exceptionally cautious in dealing with the virus, forcing people to take multiple tests and isolate for days in order to be granted a face-to-face meeting.
"So the isolation is not new. And I think that that isolation was a key role in his decision to launch this," Miles said, referring to the war.
A simple, timeless tale
Putin's apparent confidence, and miscalculation, going into the invasion of Ukraine was reminiscent of a prior era in Russia's history. Soviet Union intelligence and military officials were initially reluctant to invade Afghanistan in 1979, a conflict that would ultimately contribute to the fall of the USSR. The officials understood what would happen as a result of the invasion, English said.
"In the end, they were ignored, and a small group, four senior figures, kind of impulsively decided, and they did it in a kind of delusion that seems somewhat similar to Putin's delusion," English said.
Soviet leaders decided to go to war despite many indications they could fail, not unlike Putin. Some even believed that when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan they would be welcomed as liberators, similar to Putin's expectation in Ukraine. Neither happened.
The regimes of both the USSR and Russia today suffered from a fear of stepping too far out of line, which led to bad or incomplete information reaching the top, according to English.
"You don't rise up through the Communist party system if you're an independent, critical thinker and you don't rise up through the Putin administration if you're an independent, critical thinker either," he said.
English added that both cases illustrate that bad things happen "when autocrats with their egos and their prejudices get in power and they don't have anyone to check them."
And when things go wrong the leader blames the people around them – even though they didn't really have a choice because they were afraid, protecting their careers and their families by telling the person in charge what they want to hear, according to English, who said such a dynamic is far from unique to Russia.
"It happened in Soviet times, it happened in ancient times," English said, adding: "It's a simple, timeless tale."