Vladimir Putin could see the prospect of defeat in Ukraine as an existential threat to his regime, potentially leading him to resort to using a nuclear weapon, the top US intelligence official has warned.
The warning on Tuesday came in a review of intelligence chiefs who briefed the Senate on global threats. The forecast for Ukraine was a long, grueling war of attrition, which could lead to Putin’s increasingly fleeting acts of escalation, including full-scale mobilization, the imposition of martial law, and — if the Russian leader felt the war was against him, danger would yield its position in Moscow – even the use of a nuclear warhead.
The grim forecast came on a day of ongoing fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine, and Russian missile strikes on the port of Odessa, with the UN admitting that the number of civilian casualties from the war is likely to far exceed the current official estimate of 3,381. .
National intelligence director Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that Putin would continue to brandish Russia’s nuclear arsenal in an effort to deter the US and its allies from further aiding Ukraine. The shift in focus to the east and south is likely a temporary tactic rather than a permanent push back on war targets, she said.
The Russian leader would not use a nuclear weapon until he saw an existential threat to Russia or his regime, Haines argued. But she added that he could view the prospect of defeat in Ukraine as such a threat.
“We think that [Putin’s perception of an existential threat] could be the case in the event that he finds himself losing the war in Ukraine, and that NATO is in fact either intervening or about to intervene in that context, which would obviously contribute to the perception that he is on the brink of losing the war in Ukraine,” Haines told the committee’s hearing.
She added that the world would likely have a warning that nuclear use was imminent.
“There are a lot of things he would do in the context of escalation before getting to nuclear weapons, and also that he would probably give some signals beyond what he’s done so far,” Haines said.
That signaling could include a further large-scale nuclear exercise, involving the substantial proliferation of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers and strategic submarines.
The assessment prepared by US intelligence chiefs for the senators suggested that Ukraine was facing the prospect of a war of attrition. They said Putin planned to capture the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, plus a buffer zone around it, to secure a land bridge to Crimea. He wanted to hold Kherson, north of Crimea, to secure the water supply to the peninsula.
However, his ambitions did not stop there. Haines said there were “indications” that Putin wants to extend the land bridge to Transnistria, the Moscow-occupied region of Moldova, thereby controlling Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast. However, Haines said Putin would face an arduous task and that the extension of the land bridge into Transnistria, including the capture of Odessa, would not be possible without a full mobilization. She added that the capture of the Donbas plus a buffer zone was unlikely in the coming weeks.
The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, said the US believed between eight and 10 Russian generals had died in the conflict so far.
Like Haines, Berrier predicted a stalemate, where neither side could achieve a breakthrough. But a decision by Putin to order a full mobilization in Russia, ushering in a formal declaration of war, could change the military balance.
“If they mobilize and declare war, thousands of soldiers will come to fight,” Berrier said. “And even though they may not be as well trained and skilled, they will still carry mass and a lot more ammunition.”
Despite all the setbacks, Haines said Putin was likely convinced that Russia ultimately had more stamina than Ukraine and its backers.
“He is likely counting on the determination of the US and EU to ease as food shortages, inflation and energy prices worsen,” she said.
Given Putin’s belief that he could eventually prevail, and the fact that Ukraine showed no signs of giving in, Haines said US intelligence agencies “see no viable negotiating path, at least not in the short term”.
Meanwhile, as the war of attrition continued, the conflict was likely to follow “a more unpredictable and potentially escalating trajectory.”
“The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will resort to more drastic means, including imposing martial law, refocusing industrial production, or potentially escalating military actions to free up the resources needed to achieve his objectives. as the conflict continues, or if he sees Russia losing in Ukraine,” Haines said.
The most likely flashpoint in the coming weeks, she added, would be escalating Russian efforts to intimidate the west into stopping arms supplies to Ukraine and possible retaliation for Western economic sanctions or perceived threats to Putin’s regime domestically.