If Ukraine keeps up resistance, expect Putin to make nuclear threats against the West

President Vladimir Putin can be expected to brandish threats to use nuclear weapons against the West if stiff Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s invasion continues, draining conventional manpower and equipment, according to a new assessment by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. 

“Protracted occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory threatens to sap Russian military manpower and reduce their modernized weapons arsenal, while consequent economic sanctions will probably throw Russia into prolonged economic depression and diplomatic isolation,” Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in its new 67-page summary of worldwide threats.

The combination of Ukraine’s defiance and economic sanctions will threaten Russia’s “ability to produce modern precision-guided munitions,” Berrier said in testimony submitted to the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing on Thursday. 

“As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength,” Berrier added, “Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.” 

The Pentagon agency’s grim appraisal of the war’s broader stakes comes on the eve of a call between President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping. Even as U.S. officials struggle to discern China’s position on the war, Biden will seek Xi’s help ratcheting up pressure on Moscow to end it.

Putin already has announced that he’s put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on a state of higher alert. The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the Defense Intelligence Agency report.

Unlike a report on global threats issued by multiple intelligence agencies last week with findings that predated the Russian invasion, the new report reflects information as of Tuesday.

A senior Pentagon official told reporters Thursday that the invasion is largely stalled, with Russia relying so far on more than 1,000 long-range missile strikes into Ukraine.

“U.S. efforts to undermine Russia’s goals in Ukraine, combined with its perception that the United States is a nation in decline, could prompt Russia to engage in more aggressive actions not only in Ukraine itself, but also more broadly in its perceived confrontation with the West,” Berrier said.

A key motivation for the invasion, he said, is Russia’s determination “to restore a sphere of influence over Ukraine and the other states of the former Soviet Union.” 

He added that “despite greater than anticipated resistance from Ukraine and relatively high losses in the initial phases of the conflict, Moscow appears determined to press forward by using more lethal capabilities until the Ukrainian government is willing to come to terms favorable to Moscow.”

Putin’s Order

Berrier said Putin’s order in February putting Russia’s nuclear forces on “special combat duty” refers to “heightened preparations designed to ensure a quick transition to higher alert status should the situation call for it.”

In addition to seeking to intimidate Russia’s adversaries, he said, it reflects “Moscow’s doctrinal views on the use of tactical, non-strategic nuclear weapons to compel an adversary” into pursuing negotiations “that may result in termination of the conflict on terms favorable to Russia, or deter the entry of other participants when Russian offensive progress of its conventional forces looks like it might be reversed or the conflict becomes protracted.”

On conventional forces, Berrier said Russia’s setbacks so far in Ukraine call into question Putin’s boasts about his military’s ability to deter or defeat threats with “fifth-generation fighters, state-of-the-art air and coastal defense missile systems, new surface vessels and submarines, advanced tanks, modernized artillery, and improved military command and control and logistics.”

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