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Putin prepared for ‘prolonged’ conflict, U.S. intelligence chief says

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said May 10 that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be preparing for a “prolonged conflict” in Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

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.

But the war may grow more volatile in the next few months, she said. Both Ukraine and Russia appear confident in achieving battlefield progress, making a diplomatic path unlikely. That, combined with the mismatch between Putin’s ambitions and the Russian military’s capabilities, means the war could become more “unpredictable and escalatory,” she said.

“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 Ukraine, gas shortages further complicate daily life

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.

A shopping center and warehouse in Odessa were heavily damaged in strikes that Ukrainian officials said were carried out by Russian forces on May 9. (Video: The Washington Post)

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.

Russian TV shows simulation of Britain and Ireland wiped out by a nuke

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.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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