The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared to dig his heels in over the war in Ukraine and let it drag on for some time—and along the way, Putin might resort to extreme measures to ensure Russia wins in the end, top U.S. spies warned Tuesday.
The next steps Putin might take include escalating domestic measures that could contribute to the war effort, such as instituting martial law, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines warned in a Tuesday briefing.
“The uncertain nature of the battle... 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 [be] more unpredictable and potentially escalatory,” DNI Haines told senators. “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.”
The assessment, which Haines delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, comes as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its 76th day. Russian forces have turned their attention to taking Eastern Ukraine in recent weeks after failing to take the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war due to a series of logistical and planning issues.
And as the Russian military has shifted its attention to the Donbas, or eastern portions of Ukraine, the fighting is beginning to reach somewhat of a “stalemate,” the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director, Scott Berrier, said Tuesday.
“I would characterize it as the Russians aren't winning, and the Ukrainians aren't winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here,” Berrier said.
Putin doesn’t view the Donbas as the final stand in Ukraine, though, Haines warned, suggesting that more carnage might be on the way. Putin views it as just a “temporary” focus so that the Russian military can “regain the initiative,” Haines said.
“We are not confident that the fight in the Donbas will effectively end the war,” Haines said. “We assess President Putin is preparing for prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.”
The assessment that Putin might escalate comes a day after Victory Day in Russia, when Russians celebrate the victory in World War II—a day U.S. and Ukrainian officials alike had warned Putin would seize on to mobilize more troops for the war. Victory Day came and went without any public mobilization, however.
But Russians are starting to see signs that Putin might be secretly putting in the legwork to pull in more resources to make the war effort function beyond the near term, just as Haines is warning Putin has his sights set on doubling down. Moscow Metro employees have been threatened in recent days that they might be sent to the war in a possible mobilization “if there are not enough soldiers to be sent to the ‘special operation,’” one of the employees’ wives told the Coalition for Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Russia and Verstka.media, using the term Russia has been using to describe the war in Ukraine.
“At a meeting in the metro depot… all men were ordered to undergo an extraordinary medical examination for subsequent possible sending to the war in Ukraine,” she said, adding that if they disobeyed they were told they could be fired or face criminal accusations. “It was precisely and clearly stated that the leadership is obliged to allocate a certain number of people for possible sending to the war.”
The Daily Beast has not independently verified the claims.
Russia has already lost tens of thousands of troops in the invasion and for weeks has been looking for alternative sources of manpower. Russia’s been looking to Syria for more fighters, the Wall Street Journal reported, and Russia’s defense minister has said Russia is recruiting 16,000 people from the Middle East to fight in Ukraine, too.
Members of Congress have been questioning the U.S. intelligence community for weeks now about whether the Kremlin has tapped into mercenaries working for a private Russian contractor known as the Wagner Group.
Haines confirmed Tuesday the Russian government has indeed pulled Wagner in for operations in Ukraine. “We do see Wagner being used in ... Ukraine. We see that,” Haines said. “Russia deployed them effectively in Ukraine.”
The U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Putin intends the war to last for some time could spell disaster ahead. Putin could become more likely to make a miscalculation and resort to using nuclear weapons, Haines warned.
Putin would only “authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state,” she said, adding that “with tensions this high there is always an enhanced potential for miscalculation—unintended escalation.”
“There is not… an imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons,” Haines clarified.