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How far is Russian President Putin willing to go to take over Ukraine?

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In Mariupol, Ukraine, an official with the mayor's office says there are survivors after yesterday's attack on a city theater that was being used as a shelter. Exact numbers aren't known, but the official said the bomb shelter withstood. A newly released satellite image showed people tried to fend off a strike from Russian forces by having the Russian word for children written in large white letters outside of the Mariupol drama theater. It's believed hundreds of Ukrainian residents were inside at the time. Meantime, Russian forces have failed to take the capital and other major cities as quickly as many had expected. And the recent arrests of two high-ranking intelligence officials in Russia's FSB - that's the successor to the KGB - may be a sign of Vladimir Putin's growing frustration.

With us on the line from London is Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov, founder and editor of investigative website Agentura, which monitors Russia's Secret Service.

Andrei, in the multiple terms that Vladimir Putin has been president of Russia, his actions have been difficult to predict, perhaps now maybe more than ever. You've covered Putin and the Kremlin for many, many years. What do you believe his strategy is right now?

ANDREI SOLDATOV: Well, good morning to you. Well, I think and I fear that his strategy now is basically the same he had before he started invasion. He seems to be stick to the original plan because he believes that it could work.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. He did say yesterday - while President Zelenskyy was addressing the U.S. Congress, he did say yesterday that the operation in Ukraine is going according to plan. Is he saying that for himself to believe or for the Russian people to believe? Because he knows, I think, that the West doesn't believe him.

SOLDATOV: Yes, absolutely. But it looks like he convinced himself that everything is fine, that he is full in control of the situation. And given the fact that we do not see major shifts in military strategy in Ukraine, so it looks like he's really sticks to the plan he had before the war.

MARTINEZ: What is the significance of the reported arrest of two senior intelligence officials within the FSB?

SOLDATOV: Well, it seems that in terms of intelligence, this war is strikingly different from what we had before with Putin's wars. He started this war with humiliating the chief of his foreign intelligence agencies, SVR, Naryshkin, at this now-famous meeting of the security council. Two weeks later, he attacked the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB, his beloved agency, because the FSB's foreign intelligence branch was largely in charge of supplying intelligence about the political situation in Ukraine and also because this department was in charge of cultivating political opposition in Ukraine, political groups which might be supportive for the Russian troops. That never happened, but it seems that it doesn't change Putin's attitude to Ukraine, so he just attacks his people for being not extremely competent.

MARTINEZ: In that address, Vladimir Putin was using words such as natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen Russia. When you hear those kinds of words, Andrei, what does it make you think his mind is at?

SOLDATOV: To be honest, it's absolutely horrible. We already see thousands of Russians fleeing the (inaudible) country, and Putin seems to encourage them to leave. He attacked the Westernized part of the society, has said basically that the Russian people will spit them out like a fly. And it is - it sounds really horrible. He - again, he mentions the fifth column. So it means that now he is so angry that he is ready to - well, to increase repressions we already have in Russia.

MARTINEZ: And I was going to ask about that. So fifth column is a term that's used to describe a group of people trying to undermine from within. He mentioned - he used those words as a group creating civil unrest. I mean - and you mentioned it, too. So his rule could become even more repressive than it already has been?

SOLDATOV: Yes, absolutely. What we had before, we had selective repressions. And the interesting thing that he attacked with his repressions - not only the political opposition, but also the Russian elite. We have ministers in jail. We have governors in jail. We have even the FSB generals in jail. Now he seems to be thinking that more repression's needed. So maybe we are not talking anymore about some selective repressions or of something a bit more ambitious.

MARTINEZ: Is there any concern for you, Andrei, that he could get even more frustrated with the war and escalate further?

SOLDATOV: Yes. That's what I fear, to be honest. That's the usual Putin's way out of any crisis is to further escalate and to go somewhere else.

MARTINEZ: That was Andrei Soldatov, founder and editor of the investigative website Agentura. Andrei, thank you very much.

SOLDATOV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.