Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine, betting that Russia is more willing and able to endure the longer-term effects of the war than Moscow’s adversaries, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told senators on Tuesday.
“The [intelligence community], as you know, provided warnings of President Putin’s plans” to attack Ukraine before the Kremlin’s Feb. 24 invasion, Haines told senators in her opening statement. “But this is a case where I think all of us wish we had been wrong.”
The remarks by Haines, the nation’s top intelligence official, who was speaking at a public hearing before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, add weight to forecasts that the war in Ukraine will drag on and predictions that the broader effects, such as inflation, will not go away quickly.
“The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will turn to more drastic means,” Haines said. Putin “is probably counting on U.S. and E.U. resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy shortages get worse,” she added.
In the short term, she told senators to prepare for more “ad hoc” decisions from Russia as it figures out how to achieve its aims in the face of fierce resistance by Ukrainian forces.
The Russian president’s objectives extend beyond capturing the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and include consolidating control of a land bridge linking Russia, Donbas and Russian-held Crimea to the south, she said. “The next month or two of fighting will be significant as the Russians attempt to reinvigorate their efforts,” she added.
Fighting has been focused in Donbas in recent weeks, according to U.S. and Western defense officials. Russian forces are making gains on the battlefield, but they are achieving a “single-digit-kilometer kind of progress,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of ground rules set by the Pentagon.
Ukraine’s most well-trained and best-equipped forces are fighting to hold the line in that area, Haines said.
Speaking next to Haines at the hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Russian and Ukrainian forces had reached a stalemate on the battlefield.
Russia’s other goals include occupying Kherson in the south and controlling the waters off Crimea, Haines added. Its aim of extending a land bridge to Transnistria, a breakaway region that the international community recognizes as part of Moldova, is unlikely to succeed, she said.
Odessa, one of the last major Black Sea ports remaining under full Ukrainian control, stands in the path to Transnistria. The city, which had escaped the brunt of the fighting during the first weeks of the war, has been suffering increasing Russian bombardment, including a missile attack this week that hit a shopping center, according to Ukrainian officials.
The most likely flash points in coming weeks will include Russian attempts to intercept Western security assistance to Ukraine, Haines said. Russia’s nuclear threats are attempts to deter the West from providing Kyiv with more lethal aid, she said. But if Washington ignores the threats, Putin may authorize a new round of nuclear weapons exercises, Haines added.
The exercises may involve mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers and strategic submarines, she said. “We otherwise continue to believe that Putin would probably only authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat.”
Haines added later that losing in Ukraine could be seen by the Russian leader as such a threat, but she and Berrier both said they saw no imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
The United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine this year. On Tuesday night, the House approved a $40 billion support package that included almost $15 billion in military equipment, training, intelligence support and salaries for Ukraine’s military.
The United States and its allies have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia, including the seizure of Russian government assets and luxury goods suspected to be owned by oligarchs loyal to Putin. U.S. allies in Europe and Asia have also imposed sanctions, though they continue to purchase billions of dollars of Russian energy.
Haines said sanctions were biting. The intelligence community has observed close to 20 percent inflation in Russia, she said. “We expect their GDP will fall about 10 percent, possibly more, over the course of the year,” she added. The assessment aligns with an earlier forecast by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a large bipartisan majority of Americans backed increased sanctions against Russia. In all, 73 percent of respondents said the United States is doing either the right amount or too little to support Ukraine. At the same time, more than 70 percent said they opposed direct U.S. involvement.