Even as Ukrainian and Russian leaders predicted that the fall of Bakhmut could open the way for a broader Russian offensive, the U.S. intelligence chief said Wednesday that the Kremlin’s forces were too depleted by a year of war to wage such a campaign.
The chief of the Wagner mercenary group, which has spearheaded the grueling, street-by-street Russian assault on Bakhmut, the besieged city in eastern Ukraine, said on Wednesday that his forces had taken the eastern part of the city. Seizing the rest would allow Russia to accelerate its offensive across more open terrain, he said.
“The world has not yet met a well-prepared Russian Army, their units possessing all of the possible modern equipment that have not yet joined the battle,” the Wagner chief, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, said in a video message, speaking next to a World War II memorial in Bakhmut as explosions thundered in the distance.
Similarly, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in a CNN interview that “we understand that after Bakhmut they could go further.” He said, “It would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine.”
But testifying in Washington before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, argued that Russia, having suffered — and inflicted — staggering losses in Ukraine, lacked the troops and the ammunition to make major advances this year. And she said its battered forces had a serious morale problem.
Russia has reportedly turned to North Korea for artillery shells and has bought attack drones from Iran.
“If Russia does not initiate a mandatory mobilization 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,” Ms. Haines said. “And consequently, they may fully shift to holding and defending territories they occupy. In short, we do not foresee the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains.”
Each side in the war claimed this week that the battle for Bakhmut, which has resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, has been playing a vital role in weakening the enemy.
Russia has poured enormous resources into the fight, including Wagner’s tactic of sending waves of former prison inmates in near-suicide assaults. The Ukrainians have held on tenaciously, and claimed on Tuesday that the blood bath would leave Wagner a spent force; despite persistent rumors of withdrawal, they sent reinforcements to the city this week.
It is not only Russia whose resources are waning. Ukraine, with one-third as many people as Russia, can less easily absorb casualties. And Ukrainian forces, too, are chronically short of artillery ammunition, firing shells and rockets far faster than Western nations can supply them.
European Union defense ministers met on Wednesday to discuss the need to ramp up production of artillery ammunition to send to Ukraine, though no decisions were made. Until an increase gets underway, the E.U. leadership has proposed spending more than $1 billion to reimburse member nations for ammunition sent from their own stocks.
“It’s not going to be short,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, the E.U.’s chief foreign policy official. “But the sooner we start the better.”
The NATO nations have remained remarkably united in support of Ukraine, though that unity might be challenged by news about the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea. The lines, delivering Russian gas to Germany, were badly damaged by explosions in September, and Western countries have not identified a culprit.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that new intelligence cited by U.S. officials suggests that a pro-Ukrainian group had carried out the attack. The officials did not offer any more description of the group, its affiliations or its backers, other than to say that the saboteurs did not appear to have been working for a national military or intelligence agency.
Ukraine’s government has denied involvement. Ukraine “has nothing to do with the Baltic Sea mishap,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said on Twitter.
Any suggestion of Ukrainian involvement could undermine pro-Ukrainian sentiment, particularly in Germany, which was highly dependent on Russian gas before the war. The Nord Stream attack caused energy prices to spike worldwide, and forced Europe to make hurried arrangements to prevent a winter shortage of fuel.
German officials on Wednesday made it clear that they had not reached any conclusion about responsibility, and that they were awaiting the results of further investigations. Boris Pistorius, the defense minister, said without elaborating that the attack could also have been a “false-flag action” to make it appear that it had been carried out by pro-Ukrainian groups.
“The likelihood of either is equally high,” he told a German public broadcaster.
For now the NATO alliance is presenting a mostly solid pro-Ukrainian front.
Western officials have long questioned the strategic value of Bakhmut, now a blasted, largely abandoned ruin of what was once a city of 70,000 people, and insist that if it does fall to the Russians, that will have little effect on the course of the war.
The NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in Brussels on Wednesday that “we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days,” but its loss, he said, would not prove decisive.
The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, said Monday that if Ukrainian forces pulled back to “some very defensible terrain” near the city, “I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback.”
Ms. Haines, the intelligence director, described Russian advances in Bakhmut as “incremental progress,” and the city itself as not a “particularly strategic objective.”
But the two warring sides have staked enormous resources and pride on the fight for the city. Western officials estimate that up to 30,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in and around Bakhmut; Ukrainian casualties are also believed to be high, but Western officials refuse to give estimates.
Mr. Zelensky told CNN that “Russia needs at least some victory — a small victory — even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing every civilian there.” That way, he said, Moscow can portray its military, to its own people, as powerful and successful.
Ms. Haines was at the Senate on Wednesday to present the U.S. intelligence community’s annual global threat assessment. It warned that “there is real potential for Russia’s military failures in the war to hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s domestic standing and thereby trigger additional escalatory actions by Russia in an effort to win back public support.”
The Kremlin has illegally declared annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, and controls the majority of that territory. Ms. Haines testified that Mr. Putin may now see a drawn-out war, even one that is temporarily stalemated, as his best option.
In that, she is in agreement with Ukrainian officials, who want to mount a counteroffensive soon, fearing that the longer the Russians hold the region, the harder they will be to dislodge.
“Even as the Russian offensive continues, they are experiencing high casualty rates,” Ms. Haines said. “Putin is likely better understanding the limits of what his military is capable of achieving and appears to be focused on more limited military objectives for now.”
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Steven Erlanger from Brussels and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.