Russian nuclear forces have not moved to an unusually heightened state of alert despite the recent public announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the country’s massive nuclear arsenal was being readied for use, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress Tuesday.
U.S. intelligence also assesses that the Russian military is bogged down in Ukraine as a result of vigorous military resistance and problems in providing support for the 100,000 troops now in the country, Ms. Haines told a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Ms. Haines said Mr. Putin’s Feb. 27 announcement of a heightened “special mode of combat duty” for Russia‘s nuclear force was “extremely unusual.”
Mr. Putin’s announcement of the higher alert did not use terms for a formal nuclear alert, but it was the first time since the 1960s that Russia made a public statement about increasing its nuclear warfighting readiness. The action appeared designed to deter U.S. and NATO countries from intervening in the Ukraine conflict.
While the Biden administration condemned Mr. Putin’s remarks, “we also have not observed force-wide nuclear posture changes that go beyond what we have seen in prior moments of heightened tensions during the last two decades,” Ms. Haines said.
But she said U.S. intelligence continues to monitor the movement of Russian mobile missiles, strategic bombers and missile-bearing submarines.
“We’re watching very closely for movement of anything related to strategic forces,” the DNI told lawmakers.
Last month, Russian nuclear forces conducted large-scale exercises days before the invasion that were meant to send a message to the West.
“He is effectively signaling that he is attempting to deter NATO from intervening,” she said of Mr. Putin.
CIA Director William J. Burns, testifying along with Ms. Haines and other intelligence leaders, said the Russian nuclear saber-rattling is a concern because of Moscow’s new warfighting doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” during a regional conflict.
Russia will use tactical nuclear strikes “in extremis” if its forces continue to falter in pacifying Ukraine and if U.S. and NATO forces join the war.
Defense Intelligence Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. D. Scott Berrier warned that the danger of nuclear escalation in Eastern Europe is real and that Mr. Putin has invested in developing new tactical nuclear arms that provide an asymmetric military advantage.
“I also believe that when he says something, we should listen very, very carefully and take him at his word,” Gen. Berrier said.
Ms. Haines said the Russian military plan called for rapidly seizing Kyiv as a way to prevent the United States and NATO from rapidly sending weapons to Ukraine.
“Moreover we assess Moscow underestimated the end strength of Ukraine’s resistance and the degree of internal military challenges we are observing, which include a plan, morale issues and considerable logistical issues,” she said.
Mr. Putin anticipated some of the Western sanctions imposed on the government in the aftermath of the invasion, but was not expecting the harsh reaction from the United States and Europe, U.S. analysts believe.
However, “our analysts assess that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and may escalate to achieve neutrality to prevent [Ukraine] from further integrating with the U.S. and NATO,” she said. The Russian leader, she added, remains confident he can defeat Ukraine without triggering a conflict with NATO.
National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone testified that he is concerned Moscow will launch cyberattacks against Ukraine that could spread beyond the country.
Cyberattacks by Russia could strike U.S. allies and ultimately critical U.S. infrastructure such as electric grids, transportation and communications networks, Gen. Nakasone said.
“We’re very concerned about the risk of the spillover effect” of cyberattacks in Ukraine, said FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said, noting the GRU Russian military intelligence service attacks several years ago called “NotPetya.”
NotPetya is a family of encrypting malware that infected tens of thousands of computer networks around the world through the Microsoft Windows operating system.
Noting Russia‘s military problems in the early days of the two-week-old invasion, Ms. Haines said the Russians failed to rapidly seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and that the operational plan was proving flawed, resulting in heavy casualties, supply line problems and low morale.
Russian artillery attacks and airstrikes also are being carried out against civilians, and the intelligence community has begun documenting the abuses in order to hold the Russians accountable in the future.
Gen. Berrier, the DIA director, said estimates of Russian losses in Ukraine range from 2,000 to 4,000 troops killed.
Ms. Haines said it is not clear whether Russia will continue the current campaign or take it to a higher level of violence.
Capturing Ukraine will require more Russian soldiers than are currently in the country and there are signs that military rules of engagement have been loosened.
“We judge it will be especially challenging for the Russians to hold and control Ukrainian territory and install a sustainable regime in the face of what we assess to be a persistent insurgency,” Ms. Haines said. “And the human toll of the conflict is already considerable and only increasing.”
The CIA’s Mr. Burns, a Russia expert, said Mr. Putin is determined to dominate and control Ukraine to shape its geopolitical orientation.
“This is a matter of deep personal conviction for him. He’s been stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for many years. That personal conviction matters more than ever in the Russian system,” he said.
Mr. Putin launched the war thinking Ukraine was weak and easily bullied and that the Europeans were distracted by other political issues, Mr. Burns said. The Russian leader also believed he had “sanctions-proofed” the economy and was confident in the modernized Russian armed forces.
“He’s been proven wrong on every count,” he said.