Russia’s military failures in Ukraine, combined with crippling economic sanctions, are likely to spur Russian President Vladimir Putin to apply heavier and more indiscriminate force in his war against Kyiv, according to the latest public assessment by U.S. intelligence officials.
The officials painted a bleak picture for Ukraine Tuesday during testimony before Congress on the U.S. intelligence community’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, warning that despite mounting a fierce and often effective resistance, a growing number of cities will face growing desperation.
Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv could run out of food and water in as little as 10 days, they said.
It will be “an ugly next few weeks,” CIA Director William Burns said, adding that in the most likely scenario, Putin “doubles down with scant regard for civilian casualties."
“(Putin’s) been stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for many years,” Burns warned, calling Ukraine “a matter of deep personal conviction” for the Russian leader.
“Putin is determined to dominate and control Ukraine, to shape its orientation," he added.
U.S. intelligence officials, like their counterparts at the Pentagon in recent days, described growing frustration by Russian forces reaching all the way up to Putin, who expected Kyiv to fall in one or two days.
Instead, Russian forces have seen their incursions stall while suffering between 2,000 and 4,000 casualties, all while trying to carry out what the U.S. officials described as an ill-constructed plan.
“They are facing significantly more resistance from Ukrainians than they expected and experiencing significant military shortcomings," Avril Haines, director of National Intelligence, told lawmakers.
Still, there are few signs Putin is willing to back down.
Putin “perceives this is a war that he cannot afford to lose,” Haines told lawmakers.
"What is unclear at this stage is whether Russia will continue to pursue maximalist plans to capture all or most of Ukraine, which we assess would require more resources even as the Russian military has begun to loosen its rules of engagement," she said.
Haines further warned it remains equally unclear that spending more resources on Ukraine will get Putin the result he wants, predicting that even if Russia is able to topple Ukraine’s government, Russian forces will face a "persistent and significant" insurgency.
Yet despite a Russian invasion that has featured what they described as repeated stumbles and setbacks, U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers it would be a mistake to dismiss Putin as crazy.
"I think he's far more insulated from other points of view,” Burns said. “That doesn't make him crazy, but it makes him extremely difficult to deal with because of the hardening of his views over time and the narrowing of his inner circle."
“When he says something, we should listen very, very carefully, maybe take him at his word," said Lieutenant General Scott Bernier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said Putin is convinced he may hold an asymmetric advantage over the United States and NATO due to Russia’s efforts to grow and modernize its array of weapons, including its nuclear arsenal.
Pressed by lawmakers on Putin’s decision to place his nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, the U.S. intelligence officials said the move was “very unusual.”
But they also said that the U.S. has yet to observe any movement by Russian forces to indicate a change in posture.
“He is effectively signaling that he's attempting to deter” more U.S. and Western support for Ukraine, Haines said.
U.S. intelligence officials also warned lawmakers that Russia’s war in Ukraine is having an impact on its relationship with China.
Intelligence assessments have repeatedly warned of closer ties between Moscow and Beijing, each seeing benefits of teaming up at times to push back against the U.S. and the West.
But Beijing’s patience with Putin may be starting to wear thin.
“I think President Xi (Jinping) and the Chinese leadership is a little bit unsettled by what they're seeing in Ukraine,” Burns told lawmakers.
“I think they're unsettled by the reputational damage that can come by their close association with President Putin,” he said. “I think they're a little bit unsettled about the impact on the global economy. … I think they're a little bit unsettled by the way in which Vladimir Putin has driven Europeans and Americans closer together.”
Although much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on Russia and Ukraine, U.S. intelligence officials made clear that the top threat to the United States is the Communist Party of China.
“China remains an unparalleled priority for the intelligence community," Haines said.
She said Beijing “is coming ever closer to becoming a peer competitor in areas of relevance to national security … pushing to revise global norms and institutions to its advantage.”
Haines further warned that China is engaged in "the largest ever nuclear force expansion and arsenal diversification in its history … working to match or exceed U.S. capabilities in space and present the broadest, most active and persistent cyber espionage threat."
“President Xi Jinping and China’s other leaders are determined to force unification with Taiwan under Beijing's terms,” Haines told lawmakers.
"China would prefer coerced unification that avoids armed conflict, and it has been stepping up diplomatic, economic, military pressure," she said, cautioning, “Beijing is preparing to use military force if it decides it is necessary.”
U.S. intelligence officials warned Tuesday that like Russia and China, Iran remains a threat that bears watching, with the written intelligence assessment saying Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears “invigorated” following the country’s most recent election.
"We always have to be mindful of the fact that the threat this Iranian regime poses is not only about the nuclear issue or even the missile issue," said Burns. "It's also a threat to our interests across the Middle East, a threat to our partners."
Berrier also expressed concern about what Tehran might do should it be able to get access to additional cash, possibly as part of ongoing nuclear negotiations with Washington and other powers.
“If they get more funding, I think the threat becomes even worse,” he told lawmakers. “The Iranians have done remarkably well given the resource constraints that they're under with the development of ballistic missiles."
While not a focus for lawmakers during the approximately three-hour-long hearing, the written version of the intelligence community’s assessment, submitted to lawmakers late Monday, ranks the threat from North Korea as the fourth-most-serious among nation-states and predicts North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will likely continue with his current saber rattling.
"He probably does not view the current level of pressure on his regime, the economic hardships resulting from sanctions and his domestic COVID-19 countermeasures as enough to require a fundamental change,” the report to Congress said.
The report also noted Pyongyang’s efforts to develop hypersonic weapons, but it did not say whether North Korea successfully tested hypersonic glide vehicles, as it claimed, in September and January.
Contrary to public assessment by some U.S. officials late last year, the written 2022 threat assessment seemed to downplay concerns about terrorism when compared to other threats.
With Islamic State and al-Qaida in particular, the report said that despite concerns that both groups could thrive under the Taliban in Afghanistan, intelligence officials now see a more limited threat.
“Al-Qaida senior leaders lack an operational presence in Afghanistan, and the group’s affiliate, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, is weak," the report said.
IS, meanwhile, is “attempting to exploit an influx of funds and personnel from prison breaks to undermine the Taliban and build an external attack capability if it can withstand Taliban pressure," the report added.
Despite the death last month of caliph Amir Muhammad Sa'id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, IS leaders “remain committed to their vision of building a self-styled global caliphate headquartered in Iraq and Syria … working to rebuild capabilities and wear down opponents until conditions are ripe for seizing and holding territory," the report said.