Putin plotting ‘protracted conflict’ beyond Donbass, could escalate nuclear threats: top US intelligence official

Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for a “protracted conflict” in Ukraine and could resort to drastic measures if the fighting does not go his way, according to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Haines said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had shocked the geopolitical order, “with implications for the future that we are only beginning to understand. , but which will certainly be substantial”.

Although Putin has focused his forces on Donbass after failing in the north, the United States does not believe he will be content with the eastern part of the country, Haines said.

“The next month or two of fighting will be significant as the Russians try to reinvigorate their efforts. But even if they succeed, we are not convinced that the fighting in Donbass will effectively end the war,” he said. she declared. “We believe that President Putin is preparing for a protracted conflict in Ukraine in which he still intends to achieve goals beyond Donbass.”

But for now, Putin’s goal is to take control of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the Donbass and encircle Ukrainian forces from the north and south “in order to crush the most capable and the best equipped who are fighting to hold the line in the East”. “, said Haines.

Putin also wants to “consolidate control of the land bridge that Russia has established from Crimea to Donbass, occupy Kherson and control Crimea’s water source”, she said.

The United States is also seeing signs that its military wants to extend this land bridge to Transnistria, in Moldova, according to Haines.

Haines said Russia might be able to achieve “most” of these goals in the coming months, but would need to mobilize more troops to achieve the last one:

“We believe 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 can establish control over the two oblasts and buffer zone they desire in the coming weeks,” Haines said.

But Putin is “likely counting on US and EU resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices worsen,” she added.

Economic forces are also at work in Russia, with Western sanctions having a “quite significant” impact on Russia, according to Haines.

“Among the indicators that one could look at are, for example, the fact that…we expect inflation to be around 20% in Russia, that we expect their GDP to fall by around 10 %, maybe even more, over the course of the year,” she said.

The fighting itself also undermined Russian capabilities.

“Our view is that the ground combat forces have degraded dramatically. It will take them years … to rebuild that,” she said.

But degraded conventual forces could push Putin towards other means of exerting force.

“That may end up meaning they’re more reliant on asymmetric tools during this time,” Haines said. “So they can rely more on things like cyber, nuclear, precision, etc. And that’s obviously a shift in how they exercise their influence efforts.”

The gap between Putin’s lofty aspirations and his degraded conventional capability could lead to “a more unpredictable and potentially growing trajectory” and “a period of more ad hoc decision-making in Russia” in the coming months, Haines said.

This could also manifest itself at the national level.

“The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will turn to more drastic means, including the imposition of martial law, the redirection of industrial production or potentially escalating military actions to free up the resources needed to achieve his goals as the conflict drags on, or if he perceives that Russia is losing in Ukraine,” she said.

What could happen next?

“The most likely flashpoints for escalation in the coming weeks relate to increasing Russian attempts to bar Western security aid, retaliation for Western economic sanctions, or threats against the regime at home. We believe that Moscow continues to use nuclear rhetoric to dissuade the United States and the West from increasing lethal aid to Ukraine and to respond to public comments by United States and NATO allies that suggest broader Western objectives in the conflict,” she said.

The next step for Putin could be to launch major nuclear exercises to command respect from the United States

“If Putin perceives that the United States is ignoring his threats, he can try to signal to Washington the heightened danger of his support for Ukraine by authorizing another major nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, strategic submarines,” Haines said.

But so far, US officials have said they do not believe Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or anywhere else.

“Furthermore, we continue to believe that President Putin would likely only authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime,” Haines said.

ABC News

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