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US spies expect Putin to ‘double down’ on Ukraine war

The intelligence agencies also expect Russia to struggle to subdue and control the Ukrainian people

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifying before the House Intelligence Committee last year.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifying before the House Intelligence Committee last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The leaders of America’s intelligence agencies testified Tuesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin may intensify his military attack on Ukraine in the coming weeks but he faces the prospect of a long-running insurgency there. 

The officials said Putin badly overestimated both his ability to subdue Ukraine by force and the strength of the world’s reaction. His response going forward is likely to be a redoubling of his military offensive and more casualties, they told the House Intelligence Committee.

The officials also said Putin’s nuclear threats against the United States and NATO should be taken seriously and would increase if Russian and NATO forces entered direct conflict.

The hearing was called to review the 2022 version of the intelligence agencies’ joint assessment of worldwide threats. But, as Michael R. Turner of Ohio, the panel’s top Republican, said, “Vladimir Putin has cast a long shadow over this hearing.”

California Democrat Adam B. Schiff, the panel’s chairman, called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “the largest military conflict in Europe since World War II.”

‘Ugly next few weeks’

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said it is not yet clear that Putin will pursue what she called “a maximalist plan to capture all or most of Ukraine.”

But, she said, if Putin does press on with that plan, “we judge it will be especially challenging for the Russians to hold and control Ukrainian territory and install a sustainable pro-Russian regime in Kyiv in the face of what we assess is likely to be a persistent and significant insurgency.”

Haines added that what Putin might consider victory could change if he perceives the costs as outweighing the benefits.

CIA Director William Burns, meanwhile, testified that Putin “is determined to dominate and control Ukraine to shape its orientation. This is a matter of deep personal conviction for him. He’s been stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for years.”

Burns, like Haines, said Putin is unlikely to effectively control Ukraine.

“I fail to see, and our analysts fail to see, how he could sustain a puppet regime or pro-Russian leadership that he tries to install in the face of what is a massive opposition from Ukrainian people,” Burns said. “Where that leads, I think, is for an ugly next few weeks, in which he doubles down, as I said before, with scant regard for civilian casualties, in which urban fighting gets even uglier.”

Nuclear risks

The intelligence leaders also addressed Putin’s recent suggestion that any nation interfering in his attack could face nuclear retaliation. 

Haines said U.S. officials have not seen any system-wide changes in the readiness status of Russia’s nuclear forces. But she and the other witnesses said the threats should be taken seriously, particularly in light of Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, which holds that nuclear weapons can be used in a conventional war to cow an adversary, and its large stockpile of nuclear weapons with lower explosive yields than most such weapons possess.

“Russian doctrine holds that you escalate to de-escalate,” Burns said. “And so I think the risk would rise according to that doctrine of, in extremis, the Russian leadership considering the use of tactical nuclear weapons.” That would only be the case if Russian and NATO forces were in combat, he said.

Haines said the risks of misperceptions leading to nuclear exchange must be carefully watched.

“With tensions this high there is always an enhanced potential for miscalculation, unintended escalation, which we hope our intelligence can help to mitigate,” she said.

The officials said the war in Ukraine has led to thousands of casualties. In the Russian military alone, between 2,000 and 4,000 personnel have been killed, said Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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