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Putin preparing for "prolonged conflict" in Ukraine, intel chief says

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Russia's war in Ukraine is unlikely to end even if its forces are successful in taking the country's eastern Donbas region,  Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Tuesday, as President Putin banks on diminishing Western resolve to achieve goals extending past the Donbas and across the coast to neighboring Moldova.

"We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas," Haines told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee during an annual hearing on worldwide threats. She noted that entrenched military engagement means there's no "viable negotiating path forward" for Ukraine and Russia in the immediate term.

Haines said Putin likely believes his own country has a "greater ability and willingness to endure challenges" and is"probably counting on U.S. and E.U. resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices get worse."

But the Russian leader's ambitions may not match his army's military capabilities, Haines said, raising the risk of a "more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory" in the conflict.

She said Russian ground combat forces have been "degraded considerably," and could take "years" to rebuild – which could make Putin could reach for asymmetric or "more drastic" measures, including "imposing martial law, reorienting industrial production or potentially escalatory military actions" if he perceives Russia is losing, Haines said.

A senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday that Russian forces were "two weeks or more" behind schedule in the south and east, calling their progress in the Donbas "very uneven and incremental."

Haines also told the panel Russia has likely held back from launching significant cyberattacks in Ukraine out of concern for their "collateral impact," including impeding the Kremlin's own ability to gather intelligence.

On Tuesday, the U.S., European Union and United Kingdom officially blamed the Russian government for hacking satellite telecommunication modems in Ukraine and parts of Europe on February 24, in what the governments said was a coordinated attack coinciding with the Russian invasion.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement that this attack "had spillover impacts into other European countries," which in effect, "disabled very small aperture terminals in Ukraine and across Europe," including "tens of thousands of terminals outside of Ukraine that, among other things, support wind turbines and provide Internet services to private citizens."

"That attack had an outsized impact," Haines told lawmakers. Russia"intended to focus on Ukrainian command and control, but ultimately, they ended up affecting a much broader set… of terminals outside of Ukraine, including in Europe," she said.

Haines noted the intelligence community assesses that Russia has not waged a large-scale cyber attack against the U.S. amid its invasion of Ukraine due to "longstanding concern about the potential for escalation in cyber vis-a-vis the United States." But, she added, "That doesn't mean that they won't attack at some point."

In Ukraine, an escalation of the conflict could also take the form of attacks on deliveries of Western security assistance, retaliation for sanctions or the staging of "another large nuclear exercise," Haines testified, though she said the intelligence community had detected no "imminent potential" for Putin to use nuclear weapons.

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, told lawmakers the conflict was "at a bit of a stalemate here."

"I think I would characterize it as the Russians aren't winning, and the Ukrainians aren't winning," he said. Russia could mobilize additional reserve forces – bringing thousands of more soldiers into the battle – but absent a declaration of war, Berrier said, "I don't see a breakout on either side."

Both intelligence officials said China's leadership was closely following developments related to the Russia-Ukraine conflict but that current U.S. assessments did not indicate an accelerated timeline for an attempted military takeover of Taiwan.

Ellee Watson contributed reporting.

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