U.S. intel chief warns of 'devastating' impact of Russian missile attacks

Avril Haines said Thursday night that Moscow is making "very incremental progress" in its war on Ukraine.

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Halina Panasian weeps inside her destroyed house after a Russian rocket attack.
Halina Panasian weeps inside her destroyed house in Hlevakha, Ukraine, on Thursday after a Russian rocket attack. (Roman Hrytsyna/AP)

AUSTIN, Texas — President Biden’s chief intelligence adviser raised fresh concerns Thursday night that Russian missile attacks are having a “devastating” impact on the Ukrainian economy, noting that the war has already reduced the country's gross domestic product by nearly one-third.

Speaking during a question-and-answer session at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said U.S. officials so far “do not see any reduction in the resolve of the Ukrainians to fight this war.”

But at the same time, Haines seemed to offer a more sobering view of the conflict than most Biden administration officials have shared to date. She said the “brutal” missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure are taking a far bigger toll than has been publicly understood.

A woman and children walk next to a severely damaged house.
A woman and children walk next to a house in Hlevakha damaged by a Russian military strike. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

“What we do see is the impact it's having on the economy,” she added. “The Ukrainian economy has already been devastated during this conflict. And we're seeing a reduction of about 30% of the GDP. I mean, it's really — it's brutal, and if [the Russians] take down the [Ukrainian energy] grid, and if they have the impact that they're looking to have on critical infrastructure, it will be really challenging.”

Haines’s comments came on a day when the Russians unleashed another barrage of missiles, killing 12 civilians, as part of a campaign targeting the energy grid with the apparent goal of leaving the country without power and water during the freezing winter months.

Her carefully couched comments on the difficulties facing Ukraine come during a crucial period when the Biden administration and Western allies are racing to step up their military aid to the Kyiv government. Just this week, the White House announced that the United States will send heavy-duty M1 Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine — a move that helped persuade Germany to send some of its even more critically needed Leopard tanks to the country.

An electrical worker checks damage at a power plant after a rocket attack.
An electrical worker checks damage at a power plant after a rocket attack in Kyiv on Thursday. (Daniel Cole/AP)

Haines touted the administration’s declassification of intelligence last year that revealed Russia’s intentions to invade Ukraine during a period when European allies were skeptical that President Vladimir Putin would actually go through with it. And she said the U.S. has continued to provide important tactical battlefield intelligence to the Ukrainian military.

But she also described the war as having devolved into a “grinding conflict” where the movements are in “hundreds of meters.” The frontlines, she noted, have mostly remained “relatively static” even while the Russians press an offensive in the eastern Donbas region in which they have made “very incremental progress.”

The occasion for Haines’s appearance was a forum on declassification of government records sponsored by a little-known federal agency called the Public Interest Declassification Board.

The board has pushed the intelligence community to address what it views as an alarming explosion in classified records that the government can’t even keep track of — an issue that has taken on new relevance with the discovery of classified documents at the homes and offices of former President Donald Trump, President Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence.

On Wednesday, Haines, citing ongoing special counsel investigations, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that she could not accede to requests to share with the panel copies of the documents at issue or even describe them. Her stance drew criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines speaks before a Senate committee.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2022. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

And she entirely avoided the subject of the Trump, Biden and Pence documents Thursday night, both in prepared remarks and in a later question-and-answer session with Adam Klein, the director of the University of Texas’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law, who never raised the subject. Haines left immediately after the session without taking questions from journalists.

But in her prepared remarks, she did acknowledge that “overclassification” had become a serious problem that has proliferated with an explosion in digital data. She promised new initiatives using technology and artificial intelligence to help reduce the number of such records, now literally in the tens of millions.

“Not only is this an important issue for our democracy, but it undermines our national security,” Haines said, adding that overclassification “erodes our basic trust that citizens have in our government.”

“To be clear, just because information is inconvenient or embarrassing is not a basis for classification,” she said.