Russian President Vladimir Putin has no intention of relinquishing his desire to control all of Ukraine but appears to understand that his once-vaunted military may not be able to give him what he wants, at least for now.
The latest analysis, shared by the top U.S. intelligence official late Wednesday, further suggests there may be an opening to bring the current fighting in Ukraine to an end, even if Russia sees it only as a chance to better position itself for future conquest.
“We assess at this stage that their [Russia’s] ground forces have been degraded to the point where it will take them years to get back to where they were,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said late Wednesday, during a discussion in Washington hosted by the Silverado Policy Accelerator and tech giant Google.
“Even their near-term military objectives are really not capable of being achieved by their military right now,” Haines said. “It is entirely plausible, from our perspective, that depending on how things develop over the coming months and so on that he [Putin] is convinced that there is value in effect, coming to some sort of agreement.”
Rescue workers try to evacuate an injured man from a residential building hit by a Russian military strike, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, June 29, 2022, in this screen grab obtained from a handout video. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Reuters)
U.S., European and NATO leaders have repeatedly voiced their support for Ukraine and backed it up with billions of dollars in weapons systems and other security aid that has allowed Ukrainian forces to blunt Russia’s invasion, which initially focused on capturing the capital of Kyiv.
But while Western nations have said Ukraine will decide how and when to end the war, U.S. officials have expressed hope for an eventual negotiated settlement.
Haines’ comments would seem to explain the thinking that a deal may eventually be possible. But she admitted that Putin’s coming to terms with the reality of his failed blitzkrieg is not a sign any settlement is imminent.
“We also, to be clear, don’t see right now an opportunity for both sides to come to a peaceful agreement,” she said.
Instead, Haines warned Russia’s forces appear to be focused on taking as much territory as they can in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine while consolidating control of territory it has taken in the south.
“Russia thinks if they are able to crush really one of the most capable and well-equipped forces in the east of Ukraine, that they believe that will lead to a slump in the Ukrainian resistance and that will give them greater opportunities,” she said.
In comments at a separate Washington conference earlier Wednesday, Haines said Russia controls about 20% of Ukraine along a conflict line that stretches for 1,100 kilometers.
“In short, the picture remains pretty grim and Russia’s attitude toward the West is hardening,” she said.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told U.S. President Joe Biden and other Group of Seven leaders he would like to see the war over by the end of this year. Zelenskyy has also said he wants to see all of Ukraine liberated, including Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 following a swift invasion.
In the meantime, U.S. and British military officials have described Russian gains in eastern Ukraine as incremental with officials warning that Russian forces are paying a heavy price.
“The Ukrainians are making them pay for a very small piece of ground,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Monday.
There are also indications that Ukrainian forces, while strategically ceding ground in places like Sievierodonetsk have started to mount a resistance against Russian occupation forces in the southern city of Kherson.
“Reporting suggests the Ukrainians have been successful in liberating several small towns northwest and west of Kherson, showing that despite tactical success by the Russians, they continue to hold on,” the defense official said.
Initial reports also indicate that Ukrainian forces have put four U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, to good use, with another four systems set to enter Ukraine in the coming weeks.
But, in response, Russia has launched a growing number of missiles against Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Russia launched new attacks, with the mayor of Mykolaiv, a river port just off the Black Sea, saying eight missiles landed there, including one that hit an apartment building, killing four people and wounding five.
“There is fighting everywhere,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said. The Russians are taking the city of Lysychansk building by building, he said.
Russia on Wednesday also responded to NATO’s decision to formally invite Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.
Putin told Russian state television that his goals for what the Kremlin has called a “special military operation” in Ukraine remains to liberate the Donbas.
He further warned that Russia would respond in-kind to any attempts by NATO to place troops and military infrastructure in Sweden or Finland.
“They want to join NATO, go ahead,” Putin said. “But they must understand there was no threat before, while now, if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind and create the same threats for the territories from which threats towards us are created.”
Despite Putin’s warnings, the top U.S. intelligence official said there were no indications Russia was itching for another fight.
“We don’t expect that it [NATO expansion] will result in something that is truly confrontational largely because, frankly, they’re pretty focused on Ukraine,” Haines said, noting Moscow has instead engaged in ongoing influence operations and disinformation campaigns aimed at the Swedish and Finish people.
“It may result in them shifting their posture over a long time,’ she said. “We’ll just have to see.”
This image taken from video and provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office , June 28, 2022, claims to show the moment just after a missile struck a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.