What the CIA Director Knows About the Russian President

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OPINION — No one has described today’s Russian President Vladimir Putin better than CIA Director William J. Burns did last Wednesday at a security forum in Colorado.

No American official other than Burns, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2005-to-2008, Undersecretary of State 2008-2011, and Deputy Secretary of State 2011-2014, has had an equal long-term, personal experience with Putin.

Most recently, as CIA Director, Burns met with Putin in the Kremlin on November 9, 2021 as President Biden’s personal envoy – making him the last American to speak to Putin before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

“I have watched and dealt with Vladimir Putin for more than two decades now,” Burns told the Aspen audience. “I have watched him stew, and he’s a combustible mixture of grievances, ambition and insecurity.”

Burns then listed some Putin characteristics:

“He’s professionally trained [as a KGB officer] to be a cynic about human nature. He’s relentlessly suspicious;

“Always attuned to vulnerabilities that he can take advantage of;

“He’s not a big believer in the better angels of the human spirit;

“He’s a big believer in control, intimidation and getting even. He really is an apostle of payback.”

Over the years, Burns said he has seen changes in the Russian leader. “When I was ambassador in Moscow now more than a decade ago,” he said, “there were fairly wide circles of people who Putin would listen to, some of whom would disagree with him sometimes. There actually is none of that now.”

Instead, Burns went on, “His very constrained circle of advisors either strongly agrees with him — or have even harder views — and many of them were professionally trained to have those sorts of views. Or they discovered a long time ago, that it’s not career enhancing to question his judgment.”

Urged on by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Burns confessed, “I have always found it difficult to understand the tactical choices he makes, especially on such an incredibly important issue as Ukraine, without understanding that mindset.”

Burns described the November 9, Kremlin meeting where he told Putin that CIA and Britain’s MI6 intelligence services had learned of Russia’s Ukraine invasion plans. Burns even described details that the two Western intelligence agencies had collected, before describing what the U.S. response would be along with its allies.

Putin did not deny the planning, Burns said, adding, “I came away more troubled than when I arrived.”

Back in Washington, Burns confessed he told President Biden that his “impression” was that Putin had not finally made up his mind, but that the Russian President “had convinced himself strategically that the window was closing on his ability to control Ukraine and its choices.”

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It was not a fear that Ukraine would join NATO. Instead Burns said, “He [Putin] could see the movement that Ukraine was undertaking was toward the West, economic, political and security terms as well.”

Burns said, “I think we need to understand Putin’s decision making in the run up to the war.”

As others have observed, Burns said that Putin’s “own personal sense of destiny and his appetite for risk has grown significantly over that time as well.” He added, “Nowhere are those views harder than on Ukraine.”

Burns said, “He [Putin] is convinced that his destiny as Russia’s leader is to restore Russia as a great power. He believes the key to doing that is to recreate a sphere of influence in Russia’s neighborhood. He does not believe he can do that without controlling Ukraine and its choices.”

Burns went on, “Putin really does believe his own rhetoric and he’s said, and I’ve heard him say this privately over the years, that Ukraine is not a real country…He believes it’s his entitlement and Russia’s entitlement to dominate Ukraine and so that was the strategic impression I took away.”

Summing up, Burns said, “That’s what produced, I think, this horrible war.”

A recent Illustration of Burns’ characterization of Putin’s distorted Ukraine rhetoric came July 7, in a talk the Russian President gave at the Kremlin to leaders of the State Duma and the heads of party factions.

“We hear some people say, that we started the war in Donbass, in Ukraine.” Putin said. “No, the war was unleashed by the collective West, which organized and supported the unconstitutional armed coup in Ukraine in 2014, and then encouraged and justified genocide against the people of Donbass. The collective West is the direct instigator and the culprit of what is happening today.”

As for the start of the war, Burns said, “Tactically, Putin and people closest to him believed they had a favorable landscape over this past winter — a Ukraine they judged to be weak and divided would fall quickly.”

They also thought they had, Burns said, “a Russian military modernized to a point where they could win a quick and decisive victory at minimal cost. European leaders he saw to be distracted by their transitions with elections coming up in the spring.”

Putin also “believed he had built a sanctions-proof economy,” Burns said, thanks to “a big war chest and reserves, although he failed to tell his central bank governor he was going to war and many of those reserves were outside his control in foreign countries.”

“Putin has his own way of looking at reality,” Burns said, “as we could see, the first phase of the war was based on some profoundly flawed assumptions especially about Ukraine and its will to resist.”

“The Russian military has adapted…Putin has shrunken his objectives, at least for the time being, and I stress that’s for the time being,” Burns cautioned.

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“Putin’s bet is that he can succeed in a ground war of attrition that they can wear down the Ukrainian military,” Burns said. “Winter is coming so you can strangle the Ukrainian economy and he can wear down European public [and] the United States because it’s Putin’s view we [the U.S.] always suffer attention disorder and always get distracted by something else.”

Burns’ closing views were that “Putin was wrong about breaking the [U.S., NATO] alliance [and] just as wrong now looking ahead.”

As for the fighting, Burns said, “The Russians are making slow progress. [The] Ukrainians will remain strong, have been brave and courageous, tenacious and quite skillful at using the weapons that we and others are supplying.”

Adding to Burns’ latter point, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley noted at a Pentagon press conference last Wednesday, “In the Russian-occupied areas, you have significant resistance behind Russian lines, so to speak.  So, the — the Russians are challenged not only to their front, with the Ukrainian conventional forces, but they’re also challenged in their rear areas.  Their rear areas are not secure, for sure, and the Ukrainians have very effective resistance networks set up.”

How long this conventional war of attrition continues is right now anyone’s guess. It is Putin, I believe, who will decide how long it goes on. That’s why Burns’ and other experts’ personal views of the Russian President are worth analyzing.

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