Washington does not believe the Russian military can recover from its losses in Ukraine to make territorial gains there this year, the top US intelligence official has said, but she warned that Vladimir Putin still believes that time is on his side.
The assessment, presented by the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, at a Senate hearing on Wednesday morning, was noncommittal on whether Ukraine could take back significant amounts of occupied land in its planned counter-offensive this spring. Haines said that would depend on multiple factors, including the loss of Ukrainian troops and equipment in resisting Russian attacks.
“There is currently a grinding, attritional war in which neither side has a definitive military advantage,” Haines told an open session of the Senate intelligence committee.
The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has warned that the long-embattled city of Bakhmut, on the eastern front, could fall in a few days, but Haines described Russian advances as “incremental” and Bakhmut as “not a particularly strategic objective”.
She listed Russia’s military constraints as including “personnel and ammunition shortages, dysfunction within the military leadership, exhaustion as well as morale challenges”, and high casualty rates.
“Putin likely has a better understanding of the limits of what his military is capable of achieving and appears to be focused on more modest military objectives for now,” Haines said.
She claimed US-led sanctions were having an impact on Russia’s ability to build more weapons.
“It will be increasingly challenging for them to sustain even the current level of offensive operations in the coming months and consequently, they may fully shift to holding and defending the territories they now occupy,” Haines said.
“In short, we do not foresee the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains, but Putin most likely calculates the time works in his favour, and prolonging the war, including with potential pauses in the fighting, may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russian strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years.”
Haines did not say whether US intelligence agreed with the assessment that the longer the war lasts, the better Putin’s chance of success. She did, however, sound a note of caution about Ukraine’s prospects in an expected counter-offensive in the coming months.
“At present the Ukrainian armed forces remain locked in a struggle to defend against Russian offences across eastern Ukraine,” she said. “And while these Russian assaults are costly for Russia, the extent to which Ukrainian forces are having to draw down their reserves and equipment as well as suffer further casualties will all likely factor into Ukraine’s ability to go on the offensive later this spring.”
Haines did not mention another factor, the speed of delivery of western military equipment, which Kyiv portrays as being decisive. She did address the question of whether China would supply Russia with weapons and military equipment, suggesting that Beijing was currently undecided on how far to go down that path.
“We do see them providing assistance to Russia in the context of the conflict,” she said, adding that it was something the US watched very carefully. “We see them in a situation in which they’ve become increasingly uncomfortable about the level of assistance and not looking to do it as publicly as might otherwise occur, given the reputational costs associated with it.”
Despite the combative rhetoric of Xi Jinping and others in the Chinese leadership, Haines said it was the concerted assessment of US intelligence that Xi wanted to avoid further US sanctions.
“He wants a period of relative calm to give China the time and stability it needs to address growing domestic difficulties,” Haines said.