Vladimir Putin’s technophobia out of the fear of espionage could cost him Ukraine war

It can take several days for battlefield reports to reach Putin's desk, making them frequently out of date, says a new report.
Baba Tamim
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his briefing after the State Council meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace, in Moscow, Russia on December 22, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his briefing after the State Council meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace, in Moscow, Russia on December 22, 2022.

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Russia's president Vladimir Putin has long avoided the internet and smartphones due to concerns of cyber espionage.

The president refuses to go online, fearing digital surveillance, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on Friday, citing U.S. and Russian official sources. 

"Mr. Putin wakes daily around 7 a.m. to a written briefing on the war, with information carefully calibrated to emphasize successes and play down setbacks," according to current and former Russian intelligence officers. 

"He has long refused to use the internet for fear of digital surveillance, Russian and U.S. officials have said, making him more dependent on briefing documents compiled by ideologically aligned advisers," cited the report. 

It can take several days for battlefield reports to reach Mr. Putin's desk, making them frequently out of date, as per sources familiar with the situation. 

The journal claims that commanders on the front lines first provide information about the battlefield to the Federal Security Service (FSB), which then relays it to the Russian Security Council. The information is then given to Putin via the council's secretary.

Putin did occasionally access the internet, however, the Russian president doesn't own a smartphone, according to a Russian state media report from 2020.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, stated back then, "he doesn't have a smartphone, it's simply impossible."

Cost of delayed information on Ukraine invasion

When a call came in for the commanding officer on the front line, via an encrypted line from Moscow, in late September, Russian troops were losing the battle for Lyman, a tiny city in eastern Ukraine. 

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It was Vladimir Putin giving direct orders not to retreat, claimed the report. 

The president appeared to have insufficient knowledge of the realities of the situation, according to U.S. and European intelligence officials. 

Advance Ukrainian forces supported by Western-supplied artillery were encircling Putin's ill-equipped front-line men. Sources claimed that Mr. Putin ignored orders from his own generals and instructed the troops to maintain their position.

Russian troops rapidly departed on October 1 after more Ukrainian ambushes, leaving behind scores of dead bodies and artillery ammunition for Kyiv to salvage. 

Putin anticipated that the conflict in Ukraine would be quick, popular, and successful.

He battled for months to make sense of what turned out to be an expensive quagmire and found himself alone and distrustful at the top of a power structure built to support his aggressive worldview and protect him from "discouraging news," said the report.

Planning for what Mr. Putin refers to as a special military operation is considered a state secret, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

"The president, as earlier, has multiple channels for receiving information," rebutted Mr. Peskov. "Any claims that he receives distorted information do not correspond to reality."

Internet freedom in Russia 

People privy to matters in Kremlin claim that for months, a trickle of Russian officials, pro-government media, and experts attempted to personally inform their president about how his invasion was failing.

The Kremlin has restricted access to foreign social media sites and platforms after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, leading Russians to look for alternate methods to get around the restrictions. 

Russian internet freedom decreased more dramatically than that of any other nation this year, according to Freedom House, a non-profit organization with headquarters in Washington.