WASHINGTON — A once-confident Vladimir Putin may finally be giving up on his designs to quickly subdue Kyiv and conquer Ukraine, according to the most recent assessment by U.S. intelligence officials.
U.S. intelligence agencies have previously argued the Russian president believes it is necessary for him to conquer Ukraine for him to fulfill his destiny.
But as the war drags into its second year, U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Russian leader has conceded, somewhat, to realities on the ground.
“We assess that Putin has probably scaled back his immediate ambitions, to consolidate control of the occupied territory in eastern and southern Ukraine and ensuring that Ukraine will never become a NATO ally,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday.
"Russian forces gained less territory in April than during any of the three previous months as they appeared to transition from offensive to defensive operations along the front lines," Haines said.
"Russian forces are facing significant shortfalls in munitions and are under significant personnel constraints," she added. "If Russia does not initiate a mandatory mobilization and secure substantial third-party ammunition supplies, beyond existing deliveries from Iran and others, it will be increasingly challenging for them to sustain even modest offensive operations."
Haines, echoing a warning from her testimony before Congress in March, said Russia and Ukraine remained locked in a "brutally grinding war of attrition in which neither military has a definitive advantage."
Ukraine, she said, remains reliant upon Western military aid to push back against Russia’s manpower advantage while the Kremlin is being forced to rely more heavily on asymmetric threats and tactics because of the degradation of its ground forces.
Russia's ground forces are "relying on reserves and reserve equipment," said Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
"It's going to take them a while to build back," he told lawmakers while testifying alongside Haines. "The estimates go from five to 10 years based on how sanctions affect them and their ability to put technology back into their force."
Berrier, however, warned that the degradation of Russia’s ground forces should not been seen as an indication of overall weakness.
"Even though their ground forces are degraded right now, they will quickly build those back," he said, describing Moscow as "still an existential threat" because of its nuclear forces, which have not yet been tested.
But as for whether Putin might be inclined to use nuclear weapons to alter the course of the war in Ukraine, the U.S. intelligence leaders said, as of now, not so much.
"There are a number of scenarios we've thought through," Berrier told lawmakers. "Right now, I'd say we think it's unlikely."
"From an IC [intelligence community] perspective, it’s very unlikely," Haines added.
Kremlin drone attack
Like other senior U.S. officials, Haines and Berrier urged caution regarding Russia’s accusation that Ukraine launched a drone attack against the Kremlin this week as part of an attempt to assassinate Putin.
"You've seen the Ukrainian government deny having engaged in this and, at this stage, we don't have information that would allow us to provide an independent assessment on this," she said.
Haines said it is well known that Putin does not usually spend the night at the Kremlin, which casts some doubt on the Russian claim.
The DIA's Berrier also said that the available photos suggested the attack was staged with drones that would need to have been controlled by someone on the ground, within sight of the Kremlin.
Both Haines and Berrier told lawmakers that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had bought Moscow and Beijing closer together.
"Since the invasion, that closeness has accelerated to some extent and, in part, this is due to the fact that Russia is increasingly beholden to and needs China," Haines said.
"And China perceives Russia increasingly as a country that was already in the sort of little brother role, is often how it's described, but nevertheless is now even more beholden and therefore they have greater leverage."
Haines warned that this has led to greater cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic.
"Russia recognizes that they're going to need China and their investment in order to get to some of the resources that they're interested in in the Arctic," she said. "And as a consequence, China sees an opportunity, and an increasing one in light of the current scenario."
As relations between China and Russia deepen, ties between China and the United States have become "more challenging," Haines said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is growing ever more distrustful of the U.S., she said, reflecting a growing pessimism among Chinese officials who increasingly seek to portray Washington as the root of the world’s problems.
Still, Haines said U.S. intelligence analysts "continue to assess that Beijing wants to preserve stability and avoid triggering additional technology restrictions."
U.S. intelligence agencies are also taking note of Xi’s rhetoric on Taiwan.
"We continue to assess that he [Xi] would prefer to achieve unification of Taiwan through peaceful means," Haines told lawmakers. "But the reality is that he has directed his military to provide him with the military option."
If and when Xi might decide to use force to take Taiwan is less clear.
"There are a number of dates out there that mean different things to different people,” Berrier testified. "Bottom line is he's told his military to be ready. For what, we are not sure. When, we are not sure."
Islamic State, Afghanistan
While much of the U.S. focus has shifted to great power competition with China and Russia, terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qaida remain a concern.
But Haines suggested that one of IS’s key affiliates has suffered a significant setback.
In March, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, told lawmakers that the IS affiliate in Afghanistan, known as IS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, could launch attacks against U.S. interests or Western allies in under six months.
Haines, however, told lawmakers there is reason to think that external attack capability has been degraded.
"There have been some developments we can talk about in closed session since that statement was made that I think could affect the timeline,” she said.
Haines also urged lawmakers, again, to renew authorities granted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which expire this year.
FISA Section 702 allows U.S. intelligence agencies to gather electronic data of non-Americans without first obtaining warrants. But its use has been controversial because of repeated incidents in which officials have collected information on U.S. citizens.
FISA Section 702 "is utterly fundamental" to U.S. national security, Haines said. "Fifty-nine percent of every PDB, our president’s daily brief articles, are sourced to 702 information." [VOA/NS]