Russian President Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons if he feels that he’s losing the war in Ukraine or if he perceives his regime to be under threat, the US intelligence chief has warned.
US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines appeared in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, testifying that Mr Putin may become more “unpredictable” and “escalatory” in his invasion of Ukraine that began on 24 February.
She warned that the fighting will become fiercer and that Mr Putin will try to go beyond the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, with his possible targets including Moldova, which borders Romania and southern Ukraine.
Transnistria, a region of Moldova, is being controlled by pro-Russian separatists supported by around 1,500 Russian troops.
“The next month or two of fighting will be significant as the Russians attempt to reinvigorate their efforts,” Ms Haines said.
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency Directory, Lt General Scott Berrier, told the committee that “the Russians aren’t winning. And the Ukrainians aren’t winning. We’re at a bit of a stalemate here”.
“We are not confident that the fight in the Donbas will effectively end the war,” Ms Haines said. “We assess President Putin is preparing for prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.”
“The uncertain nature of the battle which is developing into a war of attrition, combined with the reality that Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities likely means the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” she added.
Ms Haines told the committee that Mr Putin is “probably counting on US and EU resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices get worse” and that he “most likely also judges that Russia has a greater ability and willingness to endure challenges than his adversaries”.
She said the US doesn’t see a “viable negotiating path forward, at least in the short term”.
Ms Haines said that according to the US assessment, Mr Putin was using the threat of nuclear weapons to make the West hesitant to provide more “lethal” weaponry to Ukraine.
She added that Mr Putin “would probably only authorize the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime”, adding that if Mr Putin doesn’t perceive the US to be listening to its threats, Russia may organise a nuclear exercise.
The spy chief said Mr Putin could interpret his regime to be in danger if “he perceives that he is losing the war in Ukraine, and that NATO in effect is either intervening or about to intervene in that context, which would obviously contribute to a perception that he is about to lose the war in Ukraine”.
Ms Haines said that Russia may pose a “serious cyber threat” to the US in order to “amplify discord inside the United States and influence … voters and decision making”.
She said it’s the US view that China is “working hard to effectively put themselves into a position in which their military is capable of taking Taiwan over our intervention”.
She added that the administration doesn’t believe that the war in Ukraine would speed up China’s plans for Taiwan, but she agreed that there’s a threat of Taiwan being invaded between now and 2030.
Ms Haines said it’s “likely” that Mr Putin will impose martial law to support his war in Ukraine, adding that he may look to “more drastic means” to keep the invasion afloat.
He may also increase industrial production to make up for lost resources or order “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”.
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