May 10 (UPI) — Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing for a “prolonged conflict” in Ukraine that could become “more unpredictable and escalatory” in the coming months, a top U.S. official said Tuesday.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Service Committee that Putin may not be satisfied with a victory in the Donbas region, where Russian forces are currently focused.
“The next month or two of fighting will be significant as the Russians attempt to reinvigorate their efforts. But even if they are successful, we are not confident that the fight in the Donbas will effectively end the war,” Haines said. “We assess President Putin in preparing for prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.”
Russian officials said Tuesday that Moscow’s troops and pro-separatist fighters have moved farther into eastern Ukraine and advanced to the border between the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which make up the Donbas. The officials said the advances were successful despite some heavy fighting along a strip of highway that civilians have used to flee.
Haines said Putin’s current goal is to take control of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and encircle Ukrainian forces from the north and south “in order to crush the most capable and well-equipped Ukrainian forces who are fighting to hold the line in the East.”
He also aims to “consolidate control of the land bridge Russia has established from Crimea to the Donbas, occupy Kherson, and control the water source for Crimea.”
Russia’s forces might be capable of achieving most of those goals in the coming months but would have to mobilize more troops to establish control over the oblasts, but Russia’s ground combat forces “have been downgraded considerably,” Haines said.
This degradation could lead Russia to shift to “a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” and “a period of more ad-hoc decision making in Russia” in the coming months, Haines said.
“The current trend increases the likelihood that President Putin will turn to more drastic means, including imposing martial law, reorienting industrial production, or potentially escalatory military actions to free up the resources needed to achieve his objectives as the conflict drags on, or if he perceives Russia is losing in Ukraine,” she said.
She added Putin could turn to carrying out major nuclear drills in order to draw the United States into the conflict.
“If Putin perceives that the United States is ignoring his threats, he may try to signal to Washington the heightened danger of its support to Ukraine by authorizing another large nuclear exercise involving a major dispersal of mobile intercontinental missiles, heavy bombers, strategic submarines,” she said.
On Tuesday, Russian forces concentrated militarily on two particular targets — the steel plant in Mariupol where civilians and soldiers are denying Moscow full control of the city, and Odesa, a city farther west that’s considered strategically important.
Ukrainian officials said that several Russian missiles whistled into Odesa beginning late on Monday in an apparent strategy to disrupt supply lines and interdict weapons shipments from Western allies. Like Mariupol, Odesa is also a port city that’s located across the Black Sea in south-central Ukraine.
One of the Russian rockets struck a shopping center and a warehouse there, according to Ukrainian officials — who also noted that Moscow used hypersonic missiles in the attack.
Meanwhile in Mariupol Tuesday, civilians and soldiers are under new attack from Russian forces at the steel plant there, which has acted as a bunker for the last pockets of resistance in the city.
It’s believed that most of the civilians at the plant have been evacuated, but dozens remain — but their whereabouts are uncertain given the network of tunnels below ground.
Russian military officials had declared victory in Mariupol a few weeks ago, but the troops and civilians at the steel plant are keeping Moscow from a total takeover in the city.
Farther north in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian counterattack has forced Russian commanders to keep troops in that region to keep the Kyiv from making key gains east of city. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has been mainly under Russian control since not long after the fighting began in February.
In Izyum, a city near Kharkiv, a local municipal official said on Tuesday that they’d discovered dozens of dead Ukrainians in a damaged five-story residential building that had been under Russian control. The official said that more than 40 bodies were found there.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the building was damaged, but officials noted that Izyum has taken some of the heaviest fighting in the region. Izyum is located about 75 miles southeast of downtown Kharkiv.
On Tuesday, the United Nations said that the number of dead from the Russian war may be thousands of victims higher than investigators have thought.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the actual casualty figures are “considerably higher” because of slow information from areas that are under heavy fighting.
The human rights office has previously put the Ukrainian death toll at around 3,400 — although it’s nearly universally agreed that the official figure is well shy of the actual toll.