“One of the Achilles’ heels of autocracies,” he said, “is that you don’t have people in those systems who speak truth to power or who have the ability to speak truth to power. And I think that is something that we’re seeing in Russia.”
The latest assessment also appeared to track with the mixed messages from the Kremlin on Wednesday about peace talks with Ukraine this week in Istanbul. The chief Russian negotiator described them as promising, but was basically contradicted by the Kremlin’s top spokesman.
New Russian attacks in Ukraine, on the northern city of Chernihiv and the suburbs of Kyiv, also appeared to reflect disarray in Kremlin messaging, coming one day after the Russian military said it was de-escalating in those areas. They suggested that Mr. Putin might be stalling for time, redeploying his invasion forces elsewhere in the country and girding for a protracted conflict.
Mr. Putin’s ultimate aim, however, remains murky.
With the war about to enter its sixth week, its calamitous economic and humanitarian impact has widened. Germany has taken the first steps toward rationing natural gas, in anticipation of Russia potentially cutting off deliveries; the total number of Ukrainian refugees has surpassed four million — half of them children; and the United Nations is forecasting the most dire world hunger crisis since World War II. Ukraine and Russia are ordinarily major suppliers of the world’s wheat and other grains.
The Chernihiv region, which extends to the border with Belarus, appeared to have been targeted with intense Russian strikes early Wednesday, hours after Russia had vowed to sharply reduce combat in that area and near Kyiv. Both were early targets of the Russian invaders, who were stymied by intense and unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance.