Lawmakers press intel officials over possible Russian chemical, nuclear attacks

Avril Haines, Director, Office of the Director of National Intelligence speaks to the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing examining worldwide threats on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden

Senators on Thursday pressed intelligence officials over the U.S. response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as fears mount that Moscow is preparing a chemical weapons attack and risking a nuclear conflict.  

Lawmakers further grilled intelligence officials over what steps the U.S. can take to deter Putin, including increasing American military and air assistance to help Ukrainians repel Russian forces amid increasing civilian casualties. 

CIA Director William Burns said intelligence leaders “take very seriously” the threat of a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine and said the decision to declassify and release intelligence previewing Putin’s likely moves has served to deter action and unify a global response. 

“I am convinced that our efforts at selective declassification to preempt those kind of false flag efforts and the creation of false narratives have been so important,” Burns said, speaking during an annual hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee worldwide threats hearing.  

“This is one information war that I think Putin is losing.”

Russian officials, amplified by state-backed media, are pushing a narrative, roundly rejected by U.S. officials, that biomedical research labs in Ukraine — and that are supported by the U.S. — are part of a more sinister plot surrounding dangerous weapons development. 

“Let me be clear, we do not assess that Ukraine is pursuing either biological weapons or nuclear weapons, which have been some of the propaganda that Russia is putting out,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers. 

Haines added that the intelligence community is “very concerned” and is monitoring “everything that may be going on with respect to Russia’s strategic nuclear forces” but had not assessed any significant changes that would indicate potential use of nuclear weapons.  

“It’s nothing unprecedented,” she said of what they are observing. 

The White House has said that Putin’s warnings about Ukrainian biological weapons may in fact be a signal that Russia may deploy such weapons of mass destruction, as it has done in previous conflicts.

Senators on both sides of the aisle largely praised the intelligence community for proactively releasing information detailing Putin’s invasion plans against Ukraine, which they credited with unifying the global community to respond quickly with sanctions and scaling up military assistance delivery. 

But they also raised concerns over other intelligence miscalculations that likely impacted the administration’s decisionmaking, such as overestimating Putin’s ability to overrun the country and capture Kyiv, and underestimating the strength and resolve of the Ukrainian forces to resist the Russian army. 

“I don’t want to be critical, but these mistakes had, potentially, real world policy implications about the willingness of the president or other NATO leaders to provide weapons that they thought might fall into the hands of Russians in a matter of hours,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said during the hearing.

“We need to ask ourselves, if we made mistakes about the first two weeks of this war, are we making mistakes about the next two weeks? Or the next two months? And the policy implications those might have.” 

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the intelligence community “made some assumptions about his [Putin’s] assumptions, which proved to be very, very flawed”.

He further added that he fell short on assessing the resolve of the Ukrainian army to push back on the Russian assault.

“I think assessing will, morale and the will to fight is a very difficult analytical task; we had different inputs from different organizations, and from my perspective, as a director, I did not do as well as I could have,” he said. 

The senators’ questioning of top intelligence officials comes as the Biden administration weighs how to increase defensive support to Ukraine while seeking to avoid triggering direct confrontation between the U.S., NATO and Russia. 

Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky has implored the West to install a no-fly zone, a measure that the administration has largely rejected over concerns that American forces shooting down Russian planes would widen the war.

Officials and experts have also pointed out that Russian attacks are largely being carried out by munitions on the ground that would not be impacted by a no-fly zone. 

Lawmakers also pressed officials over plans to bolster Ukraine’s Air Force with the transfer from Poland of Soviet-era fighter jets, the Mikoyan MiG-29.

Administration officials have tempered their earlier support for the effort, which was said to include the U.S. refilling Poland’s air force with American fighter jets, expressing concern over Putin’s calculations and viewing the delivery of war planes as widening the conflict. 

“When you look at anti-tank weapons and air defense, shoulder-fired kinds of weapons, there is a range of escalation, and I think in our view, that escalation ladder doesn’t get checked higher with those weapons, versus something like combat aircraft,” Berrier added.

Questions over Russia’s aggression against Ukraine largely dominated the hearing, which is meant to provide the intelligence community’s overview of a wide range of threats globally and to national security.

But intelligence officials raised the fact that China remains one of the top concerns among the community, with Haines calling it an “unparalleled priority” and Burns assessing that Beijing, which holds close ties with Moscow, has become “unsettled” by Russia’s aggression.

“President Xi, in particular, is unsettled by what he’s seen, partly because his own intelligence doesn’t appear to have told him what was going to happen,” Burns said.

Tags Avril Haines chemical weapons Joe Biden Nuclear weapons Scott Berrier Tom Cotton Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky William Burns
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