Angry Putin set to ‘double down’ in Ukraine, intel chiefs warn lawmakers

Intelligence experts Tuesday painted a picture of an increasingly determined Vladimir Putin set to “double down” on his invasion of Ukraine despite being ill-prepared for the consequences to Russia’s economy and with little prospect for long-term success.

“I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now. He’s likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties,” CIA Director William Burns told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee during the yearly worldwide threats hearing.

“But the challenge that he faces, and this is the biggest question that’s hung over our analysis of his planning for months now … is he has no sustainable political end game in the face of what is going to continue to be fierce resistance from Ukrainians.”

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine dominated an annual hearing designed to review a vast number of threats facing the U.S., unifying a committee, whose members have at times been critical of the intelligence community, in heaping praise on the five officials assembled before them.

“You have been the glue in the international community that has brought together not only NATO but other important countries” that have rallied around punishing Russia, said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

Intelligence officials outlined numerous miscalculations by Putin as Russia continues its devastating assault on Ukraine.

Putin has been “stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for many years,” Burns said, and his inner circle of advisers has shrunk as he has created “a system in which it’s not proven career enhancing for people to question or challenge his judgment.”

“So he’s gone to war, I think, on the basis, Mr. Chairman, of a number of assumptions which led him to believe that Russia faced a favorable landscape for the use of force against Ukraine this winter,” he said.

“He’s been proven wrong on every count.”

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said that while Putin anticipated sanctions, he did not foresee the degree that the U.S., other nations, and private companies would “undermine his capacity to mitigate Western actions.”

“We assess Putin feels aggrieved the West does not give him proper deference and perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose but what he might be willing to accept as a victory may change over time given the significant costs he is incurring,” she said.

“Nevertheless, our analysts assess that Putin is unlikely to be deterred by such setbacks and instead may escalate, essentially doubling down,” Haines said.

Officials told lawmakers Russia has already sustained anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 casualties almost two weeks into the war.

Moscow has also bombed dozens of schools and hospitals in a move one official said may meet the criteria for war crimes.

“I don’t know that we have direct evidence besides what we’ve seen on social media. Certainly the bombing of schools and facilities that are not associated with the Ukrainian military would indicate to me that the stepping up right to the line if he hasn’t done so already,” said Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier.

Burns said part of the strength of resistance to Russia is based on Putin’s own past aggressive actions in Ukraine.

“In many ways, it’s been Putin’s aggression going back to 2014 in Crimea that’s created a strong sense of Ukrainian nationhood and sovereignty that he faces today,” Burns said.

But he added the Russian public is likely to remain unaware of the challenges and steep losses incurred in the invasion, given reporting by Russian state-owned media and increasing censorship of independent information sources.

“They’re going to continue to try to spin this and create a false narrative,” Burns said, pointing to false Russian claims of Ukraine using chemical weapons.

“That just gives you a flavor of the kind of things that they could easily try to fabricate or float in the future, particularly as they get more desperate,” he added.

“It’s going to take time, I think, for people to absorb the consequences of the choices that he’s made personally,” he said, noting that Russia has also arrested some 13,000 to 14,000 anti-war protesters at home.

Intelligence officials also faced questions about U.S. preparedness as it braces for a potential barrage of Russian cyberattacks.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) pressed FBI Director Christopher Wray on whether the U.S. is being “risk averse” or “proactive” in its approach to countering Russian cyberattacks.

Wray said that the bureau was taking both approaches, but was quickly interrupted by Mullin who said it couldn’t do it both ways.

“You can’t really be risk averse and be proactive at the same time because if you’re risk averse, you’re afraid to do anything because you don’t want to escalate it,” Mullin said.

“Since the threat has already come to us, it seems to me that we should be changing our approach to being very proactive to saying ‘listen, we have tools if you come after us, we’re going to punch you back,'” he added. “Are we in that area?”

Wray said that the bureau has made efforts to go after adversaries through a variety of means, including cyber.

Lawmakers also expressed impatience at seeing the U.S. go after wealthy Russians with significant U.S. holdings.

“Are we going to seize some yachts? I mean, that sounds great. Are we going to see some of the stuff taken out of their hands?” asked Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.).

“Whatever we can lawfully seize, we’re going to go after,” Wray responded.

The worldwide threats report released to accompany the hearing touched on a wider range of threats facing the U.S., including climate change, migration and global terrorism.

It also went into greater depth on other countries that present a challenge to the U.S., including China, Iran and North Korea.

While many are worried about the potential of a Russian cyberattack, the report warns China “presents the broadest, most active, and persistent cyber espionage threat to U.S. Government and private sector networks,” including those that could disrupt U.S. critical infrastructures like the oil and gas industry.

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