Russian President Vladimir Putin is still looking to achieve military objectives beyond eastern Ukraine after failing to capture Kyiv in the early stages of the war, the US intelligence chief has said.
Speaking to US lawmakers on Tuesday, Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, said the shifting of Russian military operations to Ukraine’s Donbas region in the east is only temporary.
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“We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” Haines said.
“We assess that Putin’s strategic goals have probably not changed, suggesting he regards the decision in late March to refocus Russian forces on the Donbas is only a temporary shift to regain the initiative after the Russian military’s failure to capture Kyiv.”
Haines said US intelligence has assessed that Putin wants to expand territory across the Black Sea coast possibly to Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova backed by Russia. Such a move would help Russia secure water supplies to Crimea, which it captured and annexed in 2014, and potentially deny Ukraine access to the sea.
Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24 after a months-long standoff that saw Moscow amass troops near the Ukrainian borders as Putin demanded an end to NATO expansion into former Soviet republics.
But late in March, Moscow announced shifting its war efforts to the Donbas region after a faltering campaign to seize the Ukrainian capital.
On Tuesday, Haines said that early in the invasion Russia was looking to overwhelm Ukrainian forces and quickly capture Kyiv to prevent US and NATO from being able to provide military aid to Ukraine.
“The Russians met with more resistance from Ukraine than they expected, and their own military’s performance revealed a number of significant internal challenges, forcing them to adjust their initial military objectives, fall back from Kyiv and focus on the Donbas,” Haines said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had warned last month that if Russia succeeds in capturing the eastern region, it may make another attempt to capture Kyiv.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, he said, “If our forces in Donbas won’t be able to hold their positions, then the risk of a repeated offensive against Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast [province] is almost probable.”
On Tuesday, Haines said with both parties to the conflict believing they can make military progress, the US intelligence community does not see a “viable negotiating path forward at least in the short term”.
“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 military capabilities likely means the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” she said.
The US intelligence chief also provided an assessment of Russia’s nuclear posture, saying that Moscow’s rhetoric around the possible use of nuclear weapons and recent intercontinental missile tests, are meant to “deter the United States and the West from increasing lethal aid to Ukraine”.
“We, otherwise, continue to believe that President Putin would probably only authorise the use of nuclear weapons if he perceived an existential threat to the Russian state or regime,” she said. “But we will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said in March that Russia would only use nuclear weapons in the case of an “existential threat”.
Later on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia of launching cyberattacks late in February against “commercial satellite communications networks to disrupt Ukrainian command and control during the invasion”.
Blinken said the attack had “spillover” effects on other European countries.
“The activity disabled very small aperture terminals in Ukraine and across Europe,” he said in a statement. “This includes tens of thousands of terminals outside of Ukraine that, among other things, support wind turbines and provide Internet services to private citizens.”
He added that the US and its allies are taking steps to defend against what he called “Russia’s irresponsible actions”.