Intelligence Chief Says Putin Readying 'For Prolonged Conflict in Ukraine'

The US intelligence community has assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is readying for a drawn out war in Ukraine, with ambitions beyond the Donbas region, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate on May 10.

Haines was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday when she made her remarks.

“Russia’s failure to rapidly seize Kyiv and overwhelm Ukrainian forces has deprived Moscow of the quick military victory that it had originally expected would prevent the United States and NATO from being able to provide meaningful military aid to Ukraine,” Haines said.

Russia has since focused its military resources in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, Haines told the Senate, but cautioned that Putin’s ambitions remained broader and long-term.

“We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” Haines said. Credit: CSPAN via Storyful

Video transcript

AVRIL HAINES: And Russia, of course, also remains a critical priority. And there's a significant focus right now, in light of President Putin's tragic invasion of Ukraine in February, which has produced a shock to the geopolitical order with implications for the future that we are only beginning to understand but are sure to be consequential. And the IC, as you know, provided warning of President Putin's plans, but this is a case where I think all of us wish we had been wrong.

Russia's failure to rapidly seize Kyiv and overwhelm Ukrainian forces has deprived Moscow of the quick military victory that it had originally expected would prevent the United States and NATO from being able to provide meaningful military aid to Ukraine. The Russians met with more resistance from Ukraine than they expected, and their own military's performance revealed a number of significant internal challenges forcing them to adjust their initial military objectives, fall back from Kyiv, and focus on the Donbas.

The next month or two of fighting will be significant as the Russians attempt to reinvigorate their efforts. But even if they are successful, we are not confident that the fight in the Donbas will effectively end the war. We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine, during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.

We assess the Putin's strategic goals have probably not changed, suggesting he regards the decision in late March to refocus Russian forces on the Donbas as only a temporary shift to regain the initiative after the Russian military's failure to capture Kyiv.

And his current near-term military objectives are to capture the two oblasts in Donetsk and Luhansk with a buffer zone, encircle Ukrainian forces from the north and the south to the west of the Donbas in order to crush the most capable and well-equipped Ukrainian forces, who are fighting to hold the line in the east, consolidate control of the land bridge Russia has established from Crimea to the Donbas, occupy Kherson, and control the water source for Crimea that is to the north. And we also see indications that the Russian military wants to extend the land bridge to Transnistria.

And while the Russian forces may be capable of achieving most of these near-term goals in the coming months, we believe that they will not be able to extend control over a land bridge that stretches to Transnistria and includes Odessa without launching some form of mobilization. And it is increasingly unlikely that they will be able to establish control over both oblasts and the buffer zone they desire in the coming weeks.

But Putin most likely also judges that Russia has a greater ability and willingness to endure challenges than his adversaries, and he is probably counting on US and EU resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation, energy prices get worse. Moreover, as both Russia and Ukraine believe they can continue to make progress militarily, we do not see a viable negotiating path forward, at least in the short term.

The uncertain nature of the battle, which is developing into a war of attrition, combined with the reality that Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia's current conventional military capabilities likely means the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory. At the very least, we believe the dichotomy will usher in a period of more ad hoc decision making in Russia, both with respect to the domestic adjustments required to sustain this push, as well as the military conflict with Ukraine and the West.

And the current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will turn to more drastic means, including imposing martial law, reorienting industrial production, or potentially escalatory military actions to free up the resources needed to achieve his objectives as the conflict drags on or if he perceives Russia is losing in Ukraine. And the most likely flashpoints for escalation in the coming weeks are around increasing Russian attempts to interdict Western security assistance, retaliation for Western economic sanctions or threats to the regime at home.

We believe that Moscow continues to use nuclear rhetoric to deter the United States and the West from increasing lethal aid to Ukraine and to respond to public comments that the US and NATO allies that suggest expanded Western goals in the conflict. And if Putin perceives that the United States is ignoring his threats, he may try to signal to Washington the heightened danger of its support to Ukraine by authorizing another large nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, strategic submarines.

We otherwise continue to believe that President Putin would probably only authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime. But we will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect of Russia's strategic nuclear forces. With tensions this high, there is always an enhanced potential for miscalculation, unintended escalation, which we hope our intelligence can help to mitigate.

Beyond its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow presents a serious cyber threat, a key space competitor, and one of the most serious foreign influence threats to the United States, using its intelligence services, proxies, wide-ranging influence tools, the Russian government seeks to not only pursue its own interests, but also to divide Western alliances, undermine US global standing, amplify discord inside the United States, and influence US voters and decision making.

And to finish with our state actor threats, the Iranian regime continues to threaten US interests as it tries to erode US influence in the Middle East entrench its influence and project power in neighboring states, and minimize threats to regime stability. Meanwhile, Kim--

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