Stalled and frustrated, Putin will likely 'double down' in the coming weeks, CIA says
CIA Director William Burns said Tuesday that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has fallen far short of Vladimir Putin's expectations and that he believes the Russian president is likely to escalate military operations.
"I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now. He's likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties," Burns testified before the House Intelligence Committee. "His military planning and assumptions were based on a quick, decisive victory."
Burns was one of several intelligence chiefs who appeared before the committee's annual hearing on worldwide threats.
The CIA director said Putin premised his war on four false assumptions: He thought Ukraine was weak, he believed Europe was distracted and wouldn't mount a strong response, he thought Russia's economy was prepared to withstand sanctions and he believed Russia's military had been modernized and would fight effectively.
"He's been proven wrong on every count," said Burns, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008.
The CIA director says he now expects Putin to escalate military operations while the Ukrainians will continue to resist fiercely. The likely result, he says, is "an ugly next few weeks" of fighting for control of Ukraine's cities, including the capital, Kyiv.
"His own military's performance has been largely ineffective," Burns said of Putin. "Instead of seizing Kyiv within the first two days of the campaign, which is what his plan was premised upon, after nearly two full weeks they still have not been able to fully encircle the city."
Russia has suffered heavy casualties
Reliable casualty figures have been hard to come by. Russia's Defense Ministry announced last week that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed and nearly 1,600 wounded.
The head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, said his best estimate is that Russian deaths have now risen to between 2,000 and 4,000.
Meanwhile, the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, said Putin's longer-term plans for Ukraine are still uncertain.
"What's unclear at this stage is whether Russia will continue to pursue a maximalist plan to capture all or most of Ukraine, which we assess would require more resources," Haines said. "If they pursue the maximalist plan, we judge it will be especially challenging for the Russians to hold and control Ukrainian territory and install a sustainable pro-Russian regime in Kyiv."
Burns agreed that Putin does not appear to have a defined plan for what he would do if Russian forces took control of Ukraine.
"The challenge he faces — and this is the biggest question that's hung over our analysis of his planning for months now — is he has no sustainable political endgame in the face of what is going to continue to be fierce resistance from Ukrainians," Burns said.
Putin positioned more than 150,000 troops near Ukraine's borders before the war began on Feb. 24. The U.S. Defense Department said Russia has now sent almost all those combat forces into Ukraine.
However, the Pentagon said it has not seen signs that Russia is moving additional forces toward Ukraine at this point.
U.S. officials and analysts who follow Russia say the Russian military would need a force several times the size of the current one to maintain a sustained occupation of Ukraine.
Putin's announcement on nuclear weapons is seen as sending a message
Also, Putin last week publicly called for Russia to put its nuclear forces on a higher state of alert, and members of the House Intelligence Committee pressed Haines on how to interpret this.
Haines said Putin appears to be sending a message rather than taking action at this stage.
"Putin's public announcement that he ordered Russia's strategic nuclear forces to go on 'special alert' was extremely unusual," Haines said. "We have not seen a public announcement by the Russians regarding a higher nuclear alert status since the 1960s."
But she added, "We also have not observed forcewide nuclear changes that go beyond what we have seen in prior moments of heightened tensions during the last few decades. Our analysts assess that Putin's current posturing in this arena is probably intended to deter the West from providing additional support for Ukraine."
Many analysts expected Russia to carry out extensive cyberattacks against Ukraine, but so far this has not happened on a large scale.
Still, the head of the National Security Agency, Gen. Paul Nakasone, said his agency is keeping close watch.
"We're very, very focused on ransomware actors," Nakasone testified. He said he remains concerned about "cyberactivity that's designed for perhaps Ukraine that spreads more broadly into other countries."
Putin traveled to China last month to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the opening of the Winter Olympic Games. The two countries declared a friendship "without limits."
But Burns said he doesn't think China was counting on a major Russian invasion of Ukraine and the international turmoil it would create.
"I think President Xi and the Chinese leadership are a little bit unsettled by what they're seeing in Ukraine," Burns said.
"I think they're unsettled by the reputational damage that can come with their close association with President Putin. I think they're a little 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 the Europeans and the Americans much closer together," he said.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmyre1.
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