By Katie Bo Lillis, Zachary Cohen and Natasha Bertrand, CNN
The US has intelligence that Russia may have delayed announcing its withdrawal from the Ukrainian city of Kherson in part to avoid giving the Biden administration a political win ahead of the midterm elections, according to four people familiar with the intelligence.
Senior Russian officials discussed the US midterms as a factor during deliberations about the withdrawal announcement, one person familiar with the intelligence said. Waiting until after the US election was always a “pre-planned condition” of Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson, a second person familiar with the intelligence told CNN.
Still, the election was far from the only consideration in Russia’s retreat, officials said. Military analysts say Russia had few other operational options and had been preparing to pull back for weeks, leading US officials to wonder when the Russians would officially acknowledge the withdrawal.
While the intelligence is not a formal assessment of Russia’s intentions, it is a sign that Russia has a continued interest in influencing the US political landscape — although the sources said Russia probably miscalculated the impact such an announcement would actually have on the elections.
“I doubt Americans would really have noticed,” said another source familiar with western intelligence.
President Joe Biden last week appeared to hint that the US believed that the timing of Russia’s announcement was more than mere coincidence.
“I find it interesting they waited until after the election to make that judgement, which we knew for some time they were going to be doing, and it’s evidence of the fact that they have some real problems — the Russian military,” Biden said at a press conference last Wednesday.
Biden also said he hopes that with the elections over, the Russians will be more willing to negotiate the release of US citizens detained in Russia, including Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. After the midterm elections, Griner’s attorney announced that the US basketball star would be moved to a Russian penal colony where she is due to serve the remainder of a nine-year drug smuggling sentence that was upheld in late October.
CIA Director Bill Burns was in Ankara on Monday discussing the American prisoners with his Russian counterpart, the National Security Council said, though the bulk of the discussion centered around managing the risk posed by nuclear weapons. The NSC declined to comment for this story.
The intelligence suggesting that Russia wanted to avoid giving the Democratic administration and Congress positive news on the eve of the elections adds to a growing body of evidence that Russia is betting that a Republican-led United States will offer less support to Ukraine.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has hinted as much in recent interviews, telling CNN that a Republican House will more closely monitor and control the money and weapons flowing to Kyiv. Some Republicans say his public comments have been taken out of context and military support for Ukraine will remain high no matter who controls the House. Still, there remain vocal critics of US support for Ukraine in the GOP conference, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and JD Vance, the incoming Republican senator from Ohio.
“Even though there is still robust bipartisan agreement on Ukraine, the party that has been much more vocally supportive is the Democratic Party, and particularly the Biden administration,” said one of the people familiar with the intelligence.
Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin appeared to confirm last week what the US intelligence community has known for years: that the Russian government sought to support Republican Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in the 2016 and 2020 elections because it deemed him friendlier to its interests.
“We interfered, we interfere and we will interfere” in US elections, Prigozhin, who runs the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm deployed during past US elections to spread disinformation, said on Telegram.
According to private researchers, suspected Russian operatives also used far-right media platforms to denigrate Democratic candidates in a handful of battleground states in the week leading up to this year’s midterm elections.
Still, multiple US and congressional officials who track Russian influence operations say that if Russia did choose to time its official withdrawal from Kherson to the US midterms, it likely overestimated how much Americans care about individual battles in Ukraine. That demonstrates a lack of sophistication in Russia’s information operations, these sources said.
“For all our hoopla about their information operations and political meddling, they’re still not that great at it in the grand scheme,” said the source familiar with western intelligence. “There is some really fundamental cultural misunderstanding there.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself did not announce the withdrawal — which Russia has termed a “maneuver” rather than a “retreat” — distancing himself from what has become a profound embarrassment for the Russian military. The withdrawal has been heavily criticized on Russian pro-war blogs.
“An announcement like this — no matter how Russia tries to spin it — it’s still clear that they’re giving up the only provincial capital that they seized during the invasion,” said one of the people familiar with the intelligence. “So it’s a ton of egg on their face.”
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CNN’s Sean Lyngaas contributed reporting