Top US intelligence officials acknowledged Tuesday that they misjudged Russia’s military strength prior to that country’s invasion of Ukraine, including failing to recognize Russia had a “hollow force” that would struggle against fierce Ukrainian resistance.
They estimated that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s conventional forces will take “years” to recover as a war that has seen thousands of Russian weapons destroyed, thousands of troop casualties and nearly a dozen generals killed continues.
“What we did not see from the inside was sort of this hollow force, lack of NCO corps, lack of leadership training, lack of effective doctrine,” Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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The current US National Defense Strategy, for which the Pentagon publicly released an unclassified summary in March, labels Russia an “acute” threat, apparently a step down from China’s “pacing challenge” but still part of the basis for the Pentagon’s record $773 billion budget request for 2023.
Prior to the war, which is nearing its 12th week, US officials predicted that Kyiv could fall to Russia in a matter of days. Instead, Ukrainian forces thwarted Russian attempts to take the capital, forcing Russia to retreat and refocus its efforts on the southeastern Donbas region.
Ukraine’s latest estimate of Russian battlefield losses tallies about 26,000 casualties and the destruction of more than 1,000 tanks, more than 2,800 armored personnel vehicles, more than 300 planes and helicopters, and more. Those numbers could be overestimated fueled in part by the parallel information war between Ukraine and Russia.
Berrier said his agency estimates that eight to 10 Russian generals have been killed in the war and agreed with Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s suggestion that’s because they don’t have lower-ranking officers they can trust to carry out orders on the front lines. Ukrainian officials have placed the number of Russian generals killed at 12.
While Berrier said the war appears to now be in a “stalemate,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who testified alongside Berrier, suggested Russian military’s weakness could lead to Putin becoming more volatile.
“The reality that Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities likely means the next few months could see us moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory,” Haines said.
In addition to misjudging Russian capabilities ahead of the war, US officials, including Berrier at a previous hearing, have attributed their faulty prediction on Kyiv falling to underestimating Ukrainians’ will to fight.
But on Tuesday, Berrier sparred with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, when asked about the intelligence community’s struggle assessing will to fight. King also cited overestimates about the now-defunct Afghan forces’ will to fight the Taliban.
“There was never an intelligence community assessment that said the Ukrainians lacked the will to fight,” Berrier said. “Those assessments talked about their capacity to fight.”
Pressed further by King, Berrier acknowledged the assessments about Kyiv being overrun were “grossly wrong,” but still held the issue wasn’t US analyzes about Ukrainians’ resolve, adding, “I think the intelligence community did a great job” predicting the invasion .
“How can you possibly say that when we were told explicitly Kyiv would fall in three days and the government of Ukraine would fall in two weeks,” King shot back. “If you don’t concede there was a problem on this, then we’ve got a problem.”
Asked Tuesday how Russian losses in the war affect the overall threat from Moscow, both Berrier and Haines said it will take “years” for Russia to rebuild its conventional forces and replace the equipment and soldiers it’s lost.
“The overall threat level is not so much changed as it is the question of how it’s evolving,” Haines added. “The ground combat forces have been degraded considerably. … That may end up meaning that they have greater reliance on asymmetric tools during this period. So they may rely more on things like cyber, nuclear precision, etc.”
— Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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