China isn’t yet prepared to successfully invade Taiwan and probably won’t try it soon in the belief that the U.S. is “distracted” by the Ukraine war, said Avril Haines, Director of National Intelligence, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. She also said that while there’s no clear end in sight to Russia’s invasion, the Intelligence Community doubts Russia will quit, but also doubts Russia will resort to nuclear weapons in the near future.
Senators lauded the Intelligence Community for correctly predicting the Ukraine war, but criticized it for its failure to predict Ukraine’s success in resisting the invasion and Russia’s troubles in carrying it out.
“Thus far, the IC does not assess that the Russia-Ukraine crisis is likely to accelerate [China’s] plan vis-a-vis Taiwan,” Haines said on May 10.
China was “surprised by the degree to which the United States and Europe came together to enact sanctions, and that is something they obviously will be looking at in the context of Taiwan,” Haines said. Also, “one of the issues for them is the confidence they have that they are able to take action in Taiwan over our intervention.” This will “play into their decision-making over time.”
Seeing events unfold in Ukraine “may give them less confidence, in some respects, over what is likely to happen” in a Taiwan invasion, Haines said.
Haines and Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier said 2027 is the point at which the U.S. thinks China believes it could prevail over a U.S. intervention to pull off a successful Taiwan invasion, noting China may therefore accelerate that date. They also said Taiwan needs to do more to prepare to defend itself, both in equipment and the structure of its military.
The NCO Effect
“On a day-to-day basis, I don’t see anything that would indicate [China] is trying to take advantage” of the West’s attention to Ukraine in the short term,” Berrier said.
A key lesson from the Ukraine conflict, he said, is that Russia lacks a professional noncommissioned officer corps, which has hobbled its “small unit tactics,” while Ukraine “has it about right” in terms of trained NCOs. Berrier said Russia’s lack of an NCO corps has forced top generals to come to forward areas, where a dozen have been killed so far, in order to press their troops to follow orders. A lack of good NCOs also affects Taiwan and China, he added.
Russia will probably have to broadly mobilize its national forces beyond the “special military operation” to assemble enough firepower to defeat Ukraine’s defenses, Haines said. She also said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “preparing for prolonged conflict,” which will not be satisfied by simply taking the Donbas region. While Putin will likely engage in “sabre rattling” of his nuclear capabilities, he will not likely use nuclear weapons unless he sees an “existential threat” to Russia, she asserted.
Russia’s conduct of the war has revealed “a number of significant internal challenges” with its forces, Haines said. Russia had to give up on its initial military objectives, “fall back from Kiev, and focus on the Donbas.”
“The next month or two of fighting will be significant,” Haines said. Even if Russia is successful in reinvigorating its efforts, “We are not confident that the fighting in the Donbas will effectively end the war,” she added. “We assess that Putin’s strategic goals have probably not changed.” The shift to the Donbas is probably temporary, she said, to “regain the initiative after the Russian military’s failure to capture Kiev.”
Putin’s immediate goals are to encircle Ukrainian forces from the North and South, capture Donetsk and Luhansk, “in order to crush the most capable and well-equipped Ukrainian forces who are fighting in the East; consolidate the land bridge Russia has established from the Crimea to the Donbas, … control the water source for Crimea, … and … extend the land bridge to Transnistria.” Securing the land bridge to Odessa is another move that will likely require “some form of mobilization” of the larger Russian military, Haines said.
“It is increasingly unlikely” that Russia will be able to take over “both oblasts and the buffer zone they desire in the coming weeks.” Oblasts are roughly the Ukrainian and Russian equivalent to a U.S. state.
Asked the state of the war today, Berrier said, “the Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning. And we’re at a bit of a stalemate, … It’s attrition warfare.” It will continue as long as Ukraine makes smart choices and keeps getting resupply from the west. Ukrainians have “grit” and the advantage of fighting for their own country in their own country, he said. That is formidable motivation that the Russians lack.
“If Russia doesn’t declare war and mobilize, the stalemate is going to continue for a while,” Berrier said. If it does mobilize, “that would bring thousands more soldiers” into the conflict, and although they may be untrained and inexperienced, “that would bring mass and a whole lot more ammunition to the fight.”
He also said that for now, Ukraine probably has the edge because it can generate the most “trained and motivated troops.”
Asked if continued western support would give Ukraine a winning edge, Berrier observed that “well-led forces that have what they need … can do a lot.”
A War of Attrition
Berrier said Putin is unlikely to use a tactical nuclear weapon soon, but the DIA is “intensely” looking for warning that such a thing is planned.
He acknowledged that the IC “overestimated” Russia’s strength and inaccurately predicted it would seize a quick victory against Ukraine.
“We did not see this … hollow force, lack of an NCO corps, a lack of leadership training, a lack of doctrine,” he said.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) praised the IC community for correctly predicting Russia’s invasion months in advance, but said it must admit it was “grossly wrong” about how the war would play out.
“The assessment was, Ukraine would be overrun in a matter of weeks,” King said. “We were explicitly told, Kiev would fall in three days … If you don’t think that’s a problem, then we’ve got a problem.”
Berrier responded that the IC was assessing Ukraine’s “capacity to fight” against “the size of the Russian forces massed on their border,” not its “will to fight.” Berrier said “we will take a hard look at this, but in the totality, … I think there were a lot more successes than failures.”
Putin thinks Russia can stick out the challenges of the war “longer than his adversaries, and he is probably counting on U.S. and [European Union] resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation, energy prices get worse,” Haines said.
Both Ukraine and Russia believe they can continue to make progress, so the IC assesses no “viable … negotiations,” at least in the short term,” Haines said.
The conflict has become a war of attrition, Haines said, and Putin “faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current military capabilities.” That means months more of an “unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” she said, with decisions trending away from a strategic plan and more toward “ad hoc decision-making in Russia,” both militarily and in the domestic decisions needed to sustain the war effort.
As things go poorly for Russia, Haines said it’s likely he’ll impose martial law at home, “reorienting industrial production, or potentially escalatory military actions,” to free up the resources he needs to achieve his goals “as the conflict drags on, or if he perceives he is losing.”
Haines said the “flashpoints” in the near future are if Russia tries to “interdict” western aid to Ukraine, “retaliation for western sanctions,” or “threats to the regime at home.”
If Washington ignores Putin’s nuclear threats, he’s likely to launch “another large nuclear exercise,” mobilizing intercontinental mobile missiles, launching bombers, and deploying strategic submarines.
However, “we continue to believe” that Putin will only order the use of nuclear weapons “if he perceives an existential threat to the Russian state or regime, but we will remain vigilant in monitoring every aspect” of Russia’s strategic arsenal, Haines said.
She warned that “with tensions this high, there is always an enhanced potential for miscalculation [and] unintended escalation.”
Berrier said all this is part of Putin’s goal to regain what he perceives as Russia’s “rightful position on the world stage.”
Sanctions are having a powerful effect, Haines reported, driving 20 percent inflation in Russia as well as a likely drop of at least 10 percent in its Gross Domestic Product this year alone, with more years of severe economic disruption to come no matter the outcome in Ukraine. Despite this, she acknowledged that, because of the difficulty of getting information into Russia, Putin enjoys a 70 percent approval rating from the Russian electorate.
Asked if she is surprised Russia has not made significant cyber attacks against the U.S., Haines said Russia has focused its cyber attacks on Ukraine’s command and control and financial institutions, and has itself been surprised that those attacks have been felt more widely.
“They ended up affecting a much broader set” of networks than they intended, “outside of Ukraine and in Europe,” Haines said.
As for the U.S., “We have not seen the level of attacks we expected,” she reported. One “theory” why not is “we think that they may have determined that the collateral impact … of such attacks would be more challenging for them” in Ukraine, and also, they “might not wish to … sacrifice potential access” to avenues they could use to spy or attack later.
Refraining from cyber attacks on the U.S. may be out of “concern for escalation” with the U.S.
“That doesn’t mean they won’t attack, at some point,” she added.