America’s intelligence chiefs say Vladimir Putin is digging in for the long haul in Ukraine and could prove unpredictable as neither side appears to be winning and the enemies have reached a stalemate.
In a rare public hearing, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines and Defence Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier gave their sobering assessment of the war.
They considered Russia could be playing the long game in the belief the US and European Union, who are helping fund Ukraine’s resistance, would eventually cave.
“We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine,” said Ms Haines.
“He is probably counting on US and EU resolve to weaken as food shortages, inflation and energy prices get worse.”
Addressing the Senate armed services committee about global threats to the US, Mr Berrier said the Russians and Ukrainians had reached an impasse.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate.”
It comes as a senior US defence official said Russian forces had fallen several weeks behind their expectations in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas.
In the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, Russian hypersonic missiles struck two hotels and a shopping mall.
However in the north-east, Ukraine says its forces have recaptured villages from Russian troops near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, pressing a major counter-offensive that could signal a shift in the war’s momentum.
A Ukraine military spokesperson said troops had recaptured the settlements of Cherkaski Tyshky, Ruski Tyshki, Borshchova and Slobozhanske, in a pocket north of Kharkiv in recent days.
Yuriy Saks, an adviser to Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, said the successes were pushing Russian artillery out of range of parts of Kharkiv.
“The military operations of the Ukrainian armed forces around Kharkiv, especially north and northeast of Kharkiv, are sort of a success story,” Saks told Reuters.
“The Ukrainian army was able to push these war criminals to a line beyond the reach of their artillery.”
The counterattack could signal a new phase in the war, with Ukraine now going on the offensive after weeks in which Russia mounted a massive assault that Ukrainian troops mostly held off.
By pushing back Russian forces who had occupied the outskirts of Kharkiv since the early days of the war, the Ukrainians are moving into striking distance of the rear supply lines sustaining the main Russian attack force further south.
“They’re trying to cut in and behind the Russians to cut off the supply lines, because that’s really one of their (the Russians’) main weaknesses,” Neil Melvin of the RUSI think-tank in London said.
“Ukrainians are getting close to the Russian border. So all the gains that the Russians made in the early days in the northeast of Ukraine are increasingly slipping away.”
By pushing in north of Kharkiv, Ukraine could now try to turn the tables, and force Russia to switch to trying to defend its own long supply lines which stretch from the Russian border to the city of Izyum south of Kharkiv.
In the south, Russian forces were again pummelling the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol on Tuesday (local time), trying to capture the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the ruined city.
Scores of civilians have been able to leave the steelworks in recent days but an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, Petro Andryushchenko, said at least 100 still remained inside.
The city council of Mariupol has collected over 800 reports of war crimes from residents who fled. These include the destroyed maternity ward and Drama Theatre where women and children died.
Ukraine’s Azov Regiment still fighting at the steelworks has pleaded for the safe evacuation of its wounded soldiers who are “no longer combatants”.
‘Deliberate and malicious attack’
Russia has been accused of a massive cyber attack against a satellite internet network which took thousands of modems offline at the onset of the war.
The digital assault against Viasat’s KA-SAT network in late February helped facilitate President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country, the Council of the EU said in a statement on Tuesday.
“This cyber attack had a significant impact causing indiscriminate communication outages and disruptions across several public authorities, businesses and users in Ukraine, as well as affecting several EU Member States,” the statement said.
A British Foreign Office statement quoted Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as saying the cyber attack was a “deliberate and malicious attack by Russia against Ukraine”.
Declaration of @JosepBorrellF on behalf of the EU strongly condemning the malicious 🇷🇺 #cyber activity against 🇺🇦 satellite KA-SAT network conducted before the unprovoked & unjustified invasion of Ukraine.#Russia must stop this war.#StandWithUkraine https://t.co/Vi09j7EQnB
— EU Council Press (@EUCouncilPress) May 10, 2022
Russia’s primary target in the attack was the Ukrainian military, but it also disrupted wind farms and internet users in central Europe, the statement said, citing Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).
The Foreign Office statement cited “new UK and US intelligence” which suggested Russia was behind the cyber attack, without elaborating.
The remote sabotage caused a “huge loss in communications in the very beginning of war,” Ukrainian cybersecurity official Victor Zhora said in March.
— Marise Payne (@MarisePayne) May 10, 2022
The Australian government on Monday issued a statement criticising the Russian cyber attacks in February, which it said were aimed at disrupting Ukrainian command and control systems during the invasion.
“These unacceptable activities are further examples of Moscow’s indiscriminate approach to cyber operations and blatant disregard for the effects of such operations on the public, including through the commercial sector,” the statement said.
“Australia is committed to imposing costs on state-based or state-sponsored malicious actors who seek to undermine an open, free, safe and secure cyberspace,” the statement by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said.
Russia routinely denies it carries out offensive cyber operations.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.