TRANSCRIPT: DNI – Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community [excerpt re: Russia] – Statement for the Record

U.S. Capitol in Bright Sunlight

(Senate Armed Services Committee – James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence – February 9, 2016)

Leading Threat Actors

Russia. Russia is assuming a more assertive cyber posture based on its willingness to target critical infrastructure systems and conduct espionage operations even when detected and under increased public scrutiny. Russian cyber operations are likely to target US interests to support several strategic objectives: intelligence gathering to support Russian decisionmaking in the Ukraine and Syrian crises, influence operations to support military and political objectives, and continuing preparation of the cyber environment for future contingencies.

Russia

Moscow’s more assertive foreign policy approach, evident in Ukraine and Syria, will have far-reaching effects on Russia’s domestic politics, economic development, and military modernization efforts. President Vladimir Putin has sustained his popular approval at or near record highs for nearly two years after illegally annexing Crimea. Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s fears of mass demonstration remain high, and the government will continue to rely on repressive tactics to defuse what it sees as potential catalysts for protests in Russia. The Kremlin’s fear of instability and its efforts to contain it will probably be especially acute before the September 2016 Duma election.

The Russian economy will continue to shrink as a result of longstanding structural problems-made worse by low energy prices and economic sanctions-and entered into recession in 2015. A consensus forecast projects that GDP will contract by 3.8 percent in 2015 and will probably decline between 2-3 percent in 2016 if oil prices remain around $40 per barrel or only 0.6 percent if oil returns to $50 per barrel. Real wages declined throughout most of 2015 and the poverty rate and inflation have also worsened.

We assess that Putin will continue to try to use the Syrian conflict and calls for cooperation against ISIL to promote Russia’s Great Power status and end its international isolation. Moscow’s growing concern about ISIL and other extremists has led to direct intervention on the side of Bashar al-Asad’s regime and efforts to achieve a political resolution to the Syrian conflict on Russia’s terms. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and over the Sinai, Russia has redoubled its calls for a broader anti-terrorism coalition.

Meanwhile, growing Turkish-Russian tensions since Turkey’s shootdown of a Russian jet in November 2015 raise the specter of miscalculation and escalation.

Despite Russia’s economic slowdown, the Kremlin remains intent on pursuing an assertive foreign policy in 2016. Russia’s willingness to covertly use military and paramilitary forces in a neighboring state continues to cause anxieties in states along Russia’s periphery, to include NATO allies. Levels of violence in eastern Ukraine have decreased, but Moscow’s objectives in Ukraine-maintaining long-term influence over Kyiv and frustrating Ukraine’s attempts to integrate into Western institutions-will probably remain unchanged in 2016.

Since the crisis began in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has redoubled its efforts to reinforce its influence in Eurasia. Events in Ukraine raised Moscow’s perceived stakes for increasing its presence in the region to prevent future regime change in the former Soviet republics and for accelerating a shift to a mulitpolar world in which Russia is the uncontested regional hegemon in Eurasia. Moscow will therefore continue to push for greater regional integration, raising pressure on neighboring states to follow the example of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan and join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

Moscow’s military foray into Syria marks its first use of significant expeditionary combat power outside the post-Soviet space in decades. Its intervention underscores both the ongoing and substantial improvements in Russian military capabilities and the Kremlin’s confidence in using them as a tool to advance foreign policy goals. Despite its economic difficulties, Moscow remains committed to modernizing its military.

Russia continues to take information warfare to a new level, working to fan anti-US and anti-Western sentiment both within Russia and globally. Moscow will continue to publish false and misleading information in an effort to discredit the West, confuse or distort events that threaten Russia’s image, undercut consensus on Russia, and defend Russia’s role as a responsible and indispensable global power.

Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova

The implementation timeline for the Minsk agreements has been extended through 2016, although opposition from Ukraine, Russia, and the separatists on key remaining Minsk obligations might make progress slow and difficult in 2016. Sustained violence along the Line of Contact delineating the separatist-held areas will probably continue to complicate a political settlement, and the potential for escalation remains.

Ukraine has made progress in its reform efforts and its moves to bolster ties to Western institutions. Ukraine will continue to face serious challenges, however, including sustaining progress on key reforms and passing constitutional amendments-required under the Minsk agreements to devolve political power and fiscal authority to the regions.

Belarus continues its geopolitical balancing act, attempting to curry favor with the West without antagonizing Russia. President Lukashenko released several high-profile political prisoners in August 2015 and secured reelection to a fifth term in October 2015 without cracking down on the opposition as he has in previous elections. These developments prompted the EU and the United States to implement temporary sanctions relief, providing a boost to a Belarusian economy.

Moldova faces a turbulent year in 2016. Popular discontent over government corruption and misrule continues to reverberate after a banking scandal sparked large public protests, and political infighting brought down a government coalition of pro-European parties in October 2015. Continued unrest is likely. The breakaway pro-Russian region is also struggling economically and will remain dependent on Russian support.