The US believes Russian president Vladimir Putin has not changed his aims in Ukraine and that his focus on the south-eastern Donbas region is a temporary shift “to regain the initiative” after failing to capture Kyiv.
Speaking to lawmakers in Washington, DC on Tuesday, director of national intelligence Avril Haines said the US “is not confident” that the fight in the Donbas will “effectively end the war”.
“We assess President Putin is preparing for prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” she said during a worldwide threat assessment hearing.
With both Ukraine and Russia confident they can make military progress, the chances of a negotiated solution in the short term were remote, she said, adding that the conflict was developing “into a war of attrition”.
The mismatch between Putin’s ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities could result in escalation in the coming months, she said.
“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 . . . as the conflict drags on, or if he perceives Russia is losing in Ukraine.”
Russia may also increase its attempts to intercept western security assistance, Haines said.
She added that Putin’s immediate aims were to capture the Donetsk and Luhansk with a buffer zone and encircle Ukrainian forces from the north, south and to the west of the Donbas “to crush the most capable and well equipped Ukrainian forces” holding the line in the east.
Russia wants to consolidate control of the land bridge it has established from Crimea to the Donbas, occupy Kherson and control the water source for Crimea while also extending the land bridge to Transnistria, said Haines.
Russia may be capable of achieving most of these near term goals in the coming months, but would not be able to extend control of the land bridge that stretches to Transnistria and includes Odesa without launching some form of military mobilisation, she added.
More immediately, “it is increasingly unlikely that they will be able to establish control over both oblasts and the buffer zone they desire in the coming weeks”.
“Putin most likely also judges that Russia has a greater ability and willingness to endure challenges than his adversaries” and is counting on the US and EU resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices worsen, said Haines.
Moscow’s continued use of nuclear rhetoric was aimed at deterring western powers from increasing lethal aid to Ukraine, she said. If Putin perceives the US to be ignoring his threats, he could order a large nuclear exercise to signal the risks of supporting Ukraine.
The US still assesses the likelihood of nuclear weapons use to be low, but heightened tensions always create the possibility of miscalculation, she said.
“President Putin would probably only authorise the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime,” she added.