23.03.23 Review

Aggressive but Weak: According to American intelligence, Russia poses less danger today than it did a year ago as a result of its military failures in Ukraine

The annual Security Threat Assessment (ATA-2023) report published by US intelligence suggests that Russia remains an aggressive power that seeks to harm the United States, but its capabilities are lower than expected and have been reduced further after a year of war with Ukraine. Russia has become more aggressive but, at the same time, less dangerous since last year’s report (ATA-2022). There continues to be a threat of escalation and direct confrontation between Russia and the United States or another NATO country, but this is lower than before. Unless the Kremlin conducts another forced mobilisation and acquires significant stockpiles of weapons from third parties, Russia will most likely be unable to expand its occupation of Ukrainian territories this year. According to US intelligence experts, it will likely take years to restore Russia's military potential to its pre-war level. Against the backdrop of the war’s transition to a trench phase, the country has just a few cards left to play in any future confrontations with the US, including cyber warfare, space forces, nuclear weapons, and energy blackmail. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of Russia’s energy blackmail has significantly decreased over the past year.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence of the United States has stated in its ‘2023 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, ATA-2023’ report that the Russian military has suffered significant losses in the war in Ukraine, thereby reducing the threat it poses to European security. Further, military operations and economic sanctions have resulted in an indefinite postponement of the Russian army’s modernisation process. However, this situation also raises some concerns regarding the security of nuclear weapons and materials inside Russia.

Russia is now also less of a threat on the battlefield in Ukraine. A year after its full-scale invasion, it has failed to achieve its goals, and its army has had to withdraw from most of northern Ukraine to concentrate its efforts on Donbas and the southern regions and the protection of the land corridor to Crimea. In the presentation of the report to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Avril Hainers, the Director of National Intelligence, emphasised that, ‘If Russia does not initiate a mandatory mobilisation and identify substantial third party ammunition supplies, it will be increasingly challenging for them to sustain the current level of offensive operations in the coming months... in short, we do not foresee the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains​.’

The report highlights that, despite a reduction in Russia's military capabilities, the risk of escalation and the likelihood of a direct military confrontation between Russia and the United States or a NATO country still exists. However, the chances of such a situation occurring appears to have decreased. The report suggests that the failures of the Russian army on the battlefield have left Putin’s regime with only one thing to fall back on: Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Haines cautioned that ‘there is a real potential for Russian military failures to hurt President Vladimir Putin's domestic standings and thereby trigger further escalatory actions from Putin in an effort to win back public support.’

Despite experiencing military setbacks, Russia is determined to further its own interests and to attempt to gain the upper hand in the conflict. It also aims to weaken the United States and NATO countries. This means that, alongside China, Iran, and North Korea, it remains a key destabilising force for global security. While its conventional weaponry has been weakened, Russia will rely on its space forces and ‘cyber troops’ to pursue its aggressive objectives, as these resources remain highly effective in combat. Thus, it continues actively to train its military space units, to gather intelligence, and to deploy new anti-satellite weapons, such as ground-based jammers and directed-energy weapons. It also remains a significant threat in the realm of cybersecurity, and will continue to use its activities within this domain as a tool for foreign policy leverage.

China intends to preserve its strategic partnership with Russia and maintain diplomatic ties, in order to maintain its balance of power with the United States. However, China is pursuing its own interests in the war in Ukraine, namely reformatting its relationship with Russia, which has become increasingly dependent on the economic benefits of its relationship with China. China, in turn, has access to low-cost Russian resources and is expanding its exports to Russia. Moreover, China views the war in Ukraine as a means to divert American attention and resources away from any potential confrontation with China itself. As a result, China is not interested in Russia losing the war, as this could negatively impact President Putin's popularity at home and weaken his political power.

According to the report, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the partnership between Russia and China has created an axis of ‘attractive authoritarianism’ that stands in opposition to the liberal world order, democratic countries, and international organisations. The ongoing war in Ukraine has exacerbated the economic challenges created by the pandemic, resulting in higher commodity prices, increased market volatility, threats to global food security, and has destabilised financial systems, particularly in low-income countries. The combination of rising energy prices and food costs has pushed more people into extreme poverty. Russia could exploit the growing crisis and power vacuum in certain countries to maintain its global military, economic, and energy presence and influence, thereby weakening the power of the United States and the ‘collective West.’ Moreover, according to American intelligence, Russia still poses a significant threat to its neighbouring countries, and may carry out further acts of provocation or aggression against them.