Russian troops were losing the battle for Lyman, a small city in eastern Ukraine, in late September when a call came in for the commanding officer on the front line, over an encrypted line from Moscow.
It was Vladimir Putin, ordering them not to retreat.
The president seemed to have limited understanding of the reality of the situation, according to current and former U.S. and European officials and a former senior Russian intelligence officer briefed on the exchange. His poorly equipped front-line troops were being encircled by a Ukrainian advance backed by artillery provided by the West. Mr. Putin rebuffed his own generals’ commands and told the troops to hold firm, they said.
The Ukrainian ambushes continued, and on Oct. 1, Russian soldiers hastily withdrew, leaving behind dozens of dead bodies and supplies of artillery to restock Ukraine’s weapons caches.
Mr. Putin expected the war in Ukraine to be swift, popular and triumphant. For months, he struggled to come to terms with what instead became a costly quagmire, and found himself isolated and distrustful at the pinnacle of a power structure designed to reinforce his belligerent worldview and shelter him from discouraging news.
Through the summer, delegations of military experts and arms manufacturers emerged from presidential meetings questioning whether Mr. Putin understood the reality on the battleground, according to people familiar with the situation. And while Mr. Putin has since then gone to lengths to get a clearer picture of the war, they say, the president remains surrounded by an administration that caters to his conviction that Russia will succeed, despite the mounting human and economic sacrifices. [Continue reading…]