As Russia’s combat losses in Ukraine mount and waves of international sanctions grind down its military production capabilities, Russian President Vladimir Putin may increasingly turn to nuclear threats to back up his demands, a U.S. defense chief said this week.
“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 that will threaten their ability to produce modern precision-guided munitions,” Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
While Berrier noted heavy losses to Russia’s military manpower and modernized equipment weakened Russia, he warned that these losses would force Russia to turn to its nuclear arsenal to back up its foreign policy positions and to maintain power at home.
“As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences,” the DIA director said.
The Ukrainian side has held out against Russia’s invasion and claimed to have inflicted heavy losses thus far. As of Friday, Ukraine assessed Russia had lost around 14,200 troops in the fighting, along with 93 planes, 112 helicopters, 12 drones, 450 tanks, 1,448 armored vehicles, 205 artillery pieces, 43 anti-aircraft systems, 72 multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), three light speedboats and 950 other vehicles.
In his remarks, Berrier noted Putin has touted Russia’s military modernization efforts such as “fifth-generation fighter jets, 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 (C2) and logistics.” But, Berrier said, “Initial setbacks in Ukraine call some of Putin’s narrative into question.”
While the DIA director said the war in Ukraine has raised some questions about Russia’s conventional military capabilities, he noted Russia’s nuclear modernization.
“As of November 2021, Russia claims to have upgraded 86 percent of its nuclear triad and is developing several novel nuclear-capable systems designed to overcome ballistic missile defense systems and ensure that Russia can credibly inflict unacceptable damage on the West,” Berrier said. “Russia is developing new ballistic missile submarines, arming its heavy bombers with high-precision cruise missiles, and developing more capable ICBMs.”
Berrier said Russia’s policy towards nuclear weapons is that they are primarily for deterrence, but Russia also “maintains the right to use such weapons in response to what it views as an existential threat.”
Berrier also warned that while Russia’s conventional forces have struggled so far in Ukraine, the Moscow government appears determined to continue in its attack and may use less and less discernment of military targets and civilians.
“Stiff Ukrainian resistance is leading Russia to resort to more indiscriminate methods that are destroying cities, infrastructure, and increasing civilian deaths,” he said.