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Top US spy says war in Ukraine will likely become ‘more unpredictable and escalatory’

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines painted a grim and uncertain picture of the next phase of Putin’s two month-old invasion, which she told the Senate Armed Services Committee shows no signs of ending.

Even if Russia is successful in the Donbas, where Moscow is currently concentrating its military efforts, “we are not confident the fight in Donbas will effectively end the war,” Haines said. The intelligence community assesses that Putin is “preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine, during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” she said.

Russia’s moves over the coming months, as has been the case for the course of the war, come down to just one man: Putin. And his decisions are likely to become increasingly difficult for the intelligence community to predict over the coming months, Haines said, in part because “Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities.”

“At the very least, we believe the dichotomy will usher in a period of more ad hoc decision-making in Russia, both with respect to the domestic adjustments required to sustain this push, as well as the military conflict with Ukraine and the west,” she said.

“And 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 to free up the resources needed to achieve his objectives as the conflict drags on, or if he perceives Russia is losing in Ukraine,” she said.

The intelligence community believes that if Russia wants to achieve its maximalist objectives for the conflict — which Haines said could include building a land bridge around the southern bight of the country to Moldova — it would need to launch a full military mobilization inside Russia, a step he has so far not taken.

In the near term, Putin wants to fully capture the two eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, “crush” Ukrainian forces fighting to hold the line in the east and occupy the Kherson region and control Crimea’s water supplies, Haines said.

But for now, Defense Intelligence Agency head Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said at the same hearing, the conflict has deadlocked.

“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here,” Berrier said.

Haines described the state of the conflict as “a war of attrition.” And at least for now, she said, as both sides believe they can continue to make progress militarily, “we do not see a viable negotiating path forward, at least in the short term.”

Nuclear concerns

Despite the uncertainty, the US does not believe that there is any “imminent” threat that Putin will move to use nuclear weapons, Haines and Berrier told lawmakers — even as fears have grown in Washington that increasing western support to Ukraine will provoke Russia.

“Obviously we’re in a position where we’re supporting Ukraine, but we also don’t want to ultimately end up in World War III, and we don’t want to have a situation in which actors are using nuclear weapons,” Haines said. “Our view [is] that there is not sort of an imminent potential for Putin to use nuclear weapons.”

Berrier also said specifically that the US does not anticipate Russia moving imminently use a tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon.

Putin would likely only turn to nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat either to his regime or to Russia, Haines said. That could be the case if Putin were to believe he was losing the war in Ukraine, in particular if he believed NATO was “either intervening or about to intervene in that context.”

“But that there are a lot of things that he would do in the context of escalation before he would get to a nuclear weapon,” she said. “And also that he would be likely to engage in some signaling beyond what he’s done thus far before doing so.”

CNN’s Michael Conte contributed to this report.

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