US officials found Russian President Vladimir Putin muted and subdued when he delivered his Victory Day address on Monday, further obscuring their attempts to ascertain the Russian leader’s ultimate objectives in Ukraine.
Officials inside the Biden administration have been contemplating ways Putin could exit his unprovoked war should he choose to do so, as the conflict grinds on and the Russian leader loses his chance for a quick triumph.
US officials still believe Putin is undeterred and wants a tangible victory in Ukraine. But they don’t know what measure could be sufficient for Putin to declare victory, one official told CNN, who said his goals are not readily apparent.
The difficulty in assessing Putin’s aims was underscored by comments from President Joe Biden at a fundraiser Monday night, where he said he is concerned the Russian leader has not yet devised a way out of the ongoing war in Ukraine, despite Putin’s “calculating” nature.
CIA Director Bill Burns shared similar concerns over the weekend, describing Putin “in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose.”
“I think he’s convinced right now that doubling down still will enable him to make progress,” Burns said.
Putin so far has failed to achieve any of his major war objectives in Ukraine. After initially believing his forces could take Kyiv and dismantle President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government within days, Putin was forced to recalculate and focus on eastern Ukraine. But that, too, has proven to be an incremental fight, according to assessments from the Pentagon.
While officials continue to privately assess what Putin’s new goal may be, Biden has ordered his top national security officials to clamp down on leaks about certain kinds of intelligence the US is providing to Ukraine.
Biden was furious following a New York Times report that said US intelligence was helping kill Russian generals. Although his aides pushed back, Biden felt the matter warranted his direct involvement. He arranged calls with his top national security officials with the intent of delivering a message: the leaks needed to stop.
Biden, officials told CNN, believed the reports about US intelligence playing a role in the deaths of Russian generals and the sinking of Russian ships were overstated, unhelpful and poorly disclosed, officials said.
While US officials have intentionally released certain intelligence since Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden believed this was not strategic and downplayed the strength of Ukrainian intelligence, an official said. Instead, Biden believed that information was best kept secret.
Administration officials have previously insisted there are clear limits on the intelligence it shares with Ukraine, including a ban on providing precision targeting intelligence for senior Russian leaders by name. Those limits are part of a White House effort to avoid crossing a line that Moscow may view as too escalatory.
So far, Russia has not taken any known direct action against the United States or NATO in response to ongoing military and intelligence support.
US officials have been left to speculate why Moscow has held back, particularly when it comes to cyberattacks, which the US warned ahead of the war that Russia might use as retribution for US assistance. Russia has also not moved to strike Kyiv during the visits of a host of senior American leaders, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
And the country has also not attempted to strike arms shipments flowing through Poland, a NATO nation. Only recently has Russia begun targeting railways inside Ukraine believed to be carrying Western arms to the fight.
In addition to sharing intelligence, the US has also provided billions in aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
Last week, Biden announced a $150 million package that includes 25,000 155mm artillery rounds, counter-artillery radars, jamming equipment and field equipment and spare parts, according to a White House official.
Biden has proposed a $33 billion new aid package for Ukraine, which he sent to Congress last month. The US has made it clear it intends to provide long-term support to Ukraine, and the proposed package last week was more than twice as much as the $13.6 billion infusion of military and humanitarian aid that Congress approved last month.