More than a year after he sent troops into Ukraine, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is beginning to accept his military’s shortcomings and adapt his strategies in hopes of eventually toppling Kyiv, according to top U.S. intelligence officials.
Testifying Wednesday at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual Worldwide Threats hearing, the country’s top intelligence officials said Russia’s military has been battered in what has become a grinding war of attrition with Ukraine and is being forced to focus “on more modest objectives.”
“The Russians are making incremental progress in Bakhmut, which is not a particularly strategic objective, but are otherwise facing considerable constraints, including personnel and ammunition shortages,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers.
"If Russia does not institute a mandatory mobilization and identify substantial third-party ammunition supplies, it will be increasingly challenging for them to sustain even the current level of offensive operations," Haines said. “We don't see the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains. … They may fully shift to holding and defending the territory they currently occupy.”
Various estimates by the U.S. and its allies contend about 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or are missing as a result of the now yearlong war in Ukraine.
And the U.S. National Security Council said last month that even Russia’s preeminent paramilitary force, the Wagner Group, has been hit hard with about 30,000 casualties, including 9,000 deaths.
A weakened Russia
Haines, the top U.S. intelligence official, said only that Russia is suffering from “high casualty rates” on the battlefield, adding U.S. intelligence analysts “don't see the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains."
The declassified intelligence report, released as Haines and other officials testified, further portrayed Russia’s military as weakened, and in some ways, more dangerous.
Russia’s military “will require years of rebuilding and leave them less capable of posing a conventional military threat to European security and operating as assertively in Eurasia and on the global stage,” it said.
As a result, the report warned, “Moscow will become even more reliant on nuclear, cyber, and space capabilities as it deals with the extensive damage to Russia’s ground forces.”
Additionally, Putin may be increasingly tempted to make use of those capabilities.
The new U.S. intelligence assessment cautions that Russia’s military failures are increasingly difficult to hide, hurting Putin’s standing.
In turn, Putin could “trigger additional escalatory actions … in an effort to win back public support,” the report said.
But in the context of the war in Ukraine, Haines described Putin’s use of Russia’s nuclear posture as saber rattling, “intended to deter the West from providing additional support” to Kyiv, as he plays for time.
“He probably will still remain confident that Russia can eventually militarily defeat Ukraine and wants to prevent Western support from tipping the balance and forcing a conflict with NATO,” Haines told lawmakers.
Russia’s long game
“Putin most likely calculates the time works in his favor and that prolonging the war, including with potential pauses in the fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years,” she said.
Haines and other U.S. intelligence leaders also warned that Russia is leaning more heavily on China, assessing that the relationship between the two countries “continues to deepen” with some help coming already from Beijing.
"We do see them providing assistance to Russia in the context of the conflict,” Haines said, declining to share details in a public setting, though she noted the type of assistance is making Chinese officials “increasingly uncomfortable."
"There are some limitations on where we see they would go in the partnership,” she added. “We don't see them becoming allies the way we are with allies in NATO."
U.S. intelligence agencies also see signs of Russia and China working, though not necessarily together, to weaken democracies across the globe.
Officials warn that both Moscow and Beijing are providing support specifically for would-be autocrats as they rise to power.
Threat from China
But between Russia and China, it is Beijing that U.S. intelligence sees as the unparalleled priority.
“[The] Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, under President Xi Jinping will continue efforts to achieve Xi’s vision of making China the preeminent power in east Asia and a major power on the world stage,” Haines said. “However, the CCP is increasingly convinced that it can only do so at the expense of U.S. power and influence.”
According to the U.S. threat assessment, China will likely try to drive wedges between Washington and its allies and push for authoritarian norms that favor its interests.
Yet despite the increasingly harsh rhetoric coming from Chinese officials in recent weeks, and a growing pessimism inside Chinese political leadership about relations with Washington, U.S. intelligence agencies think China will try to tread carefully.
“We assess that Beijing believes it benefits most from preventing a spiraling of tensions and by preserving stability in its relationship with the United States," Haines said.
President Xi “wants a period of relative calm to give China the time and stability it needs to address growing domestic difficulties,” she said, noting "China's long-term economic growth will continue to decelerate because China's era of rapid, catch-up growth is ending.”
Rubio lashes out at TikTok
Lawmakers echoed concerns about Beijing’s tactics, voicing concerns that a combination of U.S. government policies and corporate attitudes are putting the U.S. at a disadvantage.
“This is an ongoing challenge," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a Democrat. “Too many in our corporate world still believe that these collaborations inside of China are benign, even though when they turn a blind eye to the literally unprecedented amounts of intellectual property theft, too often because they’re making way too much money.”
The committee’s top Republican, Marco Rubio, also lashed out at China’s use of technology companies, focusing on ByteDance, the Chinese company behind the popular social media app, TikTok.
“It’s probably one of the most valuable surveillance tools on the planet," Rubio said during an exchange with FBI Director Christopher Wray. “I don't understand why this company is allowed to operate.”
“If we went out and decided to build something like this of our own to influence or spy in another society, I'm not sure we could build something like this, or even better,” Rubio warned. “And we've invited them in and protected by our laws.”
“It’s really a question of data collection,” Wray said, after additional questioning about TikTok. “It's the control of the software, which allows them to then have access to millions of devices.”
Other lawmakers voiced concerns about Beijing’s attempts to dominate the world’s supply chains, ranging from lithium-ion batteries to pharmaceutical ingredients.
“It suggests to me that this issue of dependency is something that really has to have some serious policy examination,” said Senator Angus King, warning of the “dangerous dependency” the U.S. has developed when it comes to materials that come from or pass through China.
“That goes also about their actions in Africa and in South America where they're trying to corner the market, if you will, on various commodities,” he noted.
“It's not just simply about China trying to create indigenous supply chains but actually to control global supply chains,” Haines, the intelligence director, said, warning Beijing has been tinkering with their export and import policies to pressure and shape global markets.
A push to reauthorize surveillance
U.S. intelligence officials also pushed lawmakers Wednesday to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The program allows the FBI and the National Security Agency to gather electronic data of non-Americans without first obtaining a warrant
Those efforts have proved to be controversial since there have been multiple occasions when such surveillance activity has resulted in the incidental collection of messages and data from U.S. citizens.
But the intelligence chiefs told lawmakers those concerns are being addressed and that stripping the agencies of the existing authority would damage national security.
“If you think about what we've been able to do with this authority since 2008 … provide and shine a light on what our adversaries are doing,” said the NSA director, General Paul Nakasone. “What's Iran doing? What's China doing? What's Russia doing? What's North Korea doing? In all parts of the world.”
Intelligence officials have previously said intelligence gained under FISA Section 702 helped the U.S. launch the strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
And CIA Director William Burns said Wednesday that the surveillance authority is also helping close to home in the fight against drug cartels sending fentanyl into the U.S.
FISA Section 702 “has helped us in some successful actions recently, with which foreign intelligence collected by CIA has contributed to both recent successes that our Mexican partners have had against the Sinaloa cartel and also recent successes against fentanyl production and processing equipment in Mexico and in the United States,” Burns said.