Russians 'Shooting Down Their Own Aircraft'—Spy Chief on Troops' Low Morale

Russian troops in Ukraine suffering from low morale are refusing to follow orders, sabotaging their own equipment and have even accidentally shot down one of their own aircraft, according to the head of Britain's spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

In a speech in Canberra at the Australian National University on Thursday, GCHQ chief Jeremy Fleming said there was evidence that Russian soldiers engaged in the invasion of Ukraine have low morale and are refusing to carry out their duties.

"We've seen Russian soldiers—short of weapons and morale—refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft," Fleming said.

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An Ambulance marked with a "Z" is seen destroyed at the central train station that was used as a Russian base on March 30 in Trostyanets, Ukraine. Ukrainian forces announced this week that they had retaken Trostyanets, a northeastern town that has seen fierce fighting and was occupied by Russians for weeks, from Russian control. Last week, after its advances have stalled on several fronts, Russia appeared to revise its military goals in Ukraine, claiming that it would focus its efforts on the battle in the eastern Donbas region. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

GCHQ's analysis hasn't been independently confirmed yet, and Fleming made no mention of exactly what aircraft Russian troops allegedly shot down or when it supposedly happened.

Fleming said that Vladimir Putin's plan for the invasion of Ukraine is "failing" and that the Russian president "has massively misjudged the situation" in Ukraine, including underestimating "the economic consequences of the sanction regime."

His advisers, Fleming claimed, are "afraid to tell him the truth."

Similar claims were made by both U.S. and EU officials on Wednesday, who talked about tensions within the Kremlin.

During a press briefing with reporters, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said the U.S. government had "information that Putin felt misled by the Russian military, which has resulted in persistent tension between Putin and his military leadership."

A senior European diplomat confirmed the same conclusion drawn by U.S. intelligence, according to Reuters.

The Kremlin has not immediately responded to the claims.

But the latest briefing from Russia's Ministry of Defense on Wednesday showed no signs of faltering in what Russia has consistently repeated through the latest weeks of war: that Russia's "special military operation" to "denazify" and liberate Ukraine is going according to plan.

Russian defense ministry spokesperson General Major Igor Konashenkov spoke of Russian "air dominance," destroyed Ukrainian air defense systems, military depots and training centers and Russian efforts to avoid civilian casualties.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a concert marking the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, on March 18 in Moscow, Russia. Getty Images

Russian reports on Wednesday do not mention any self-shooting down of Russian aircraft, but only how a Russian military jet downed a Su-24 jet of the Armed Forces of Ukraine during an air fight in the Rovno region close to the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.

Konashenkov said that "all the main tasks of the Russian armed forces in Kyiv have been completed," and that forces are now regrouping to liberate the Donbas region. Moscow has accused Ukraine of committing genocide against ethnic-Russians in Donbas, but failed to provide any evidence of it.

According to Oryx, a Dutch website documenting equipment losses in the war in Ukraine based on verified photos and videos, Russia has lost 71 aircraft since February 24 (59 of which were destroyed), while Ukraine's armed forces lost 25 (22 of which destroyed).

Regarding Western sanctions on Russia, on Wednesday Russian state-controlled media TASS reported that Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, said "the efforts to bound Russia fail as we were ready for such predictable attacks."

Medvedev said that there are still "real difficulties" Russia "has to cope with" Western sanctions, but called them simply "annoying" rather than profoundly damaging, as they appear to be.

Low Morale and Poor Equipment

There is evidence that what Fleming said about Russian troops being affected by low morale is true.

According to intelligence shared by the U.S. Pentagon last week, Russian troops are suffering from low morale, supply shortages and logistical and command challenges. Many have suffered from frostbite during the winter snap of mid-March because of improper gear.

U.S. estimates put the number of Russian troop losses in Ukraine around 7,000—but the real number could be even higher.

Last week, Western officials reported that Russian soldiers ran over their commander, allegedly blaming him for the losses on the field. The identity of the commander is uncertain—first named as Colonel Yuri Medvedev in an early report and then as Colonel Medvechek, commander of 37 Motor Rifle Brigade, by security and defense editor for Sky News, Deborah Haynes.

His fate is also unclear: while Western officials initially reported that the commander died, other reports on social media showed conflicting evidence.

Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbaliuk, who first reported the mutiny, said that a soldier ran over his officer's legs with a tank, and that the commander was later brought to a hospital in Belarus.

According to Tsymbaliuk, the battalion had lost 50 percent of its men.

Newsweek has contacted GHCQ and Russia's Ministry of Defense for comment.