Posted originally on the CTH on February 27, 2023 | Sundance
CBS Margaret Brennan interviews CIA Director William Burns about the current status of the conflict in Ukraine. Director Burns outlines his discussions with Ukraine government officials as well as his talks with intelligence counterparts in Russia.
Within the conversation Director Burns outlines the importance of the CIA to continue providing enhanced intelligence operations to support both the conflict and the propaganda that surrounds the World War Reddit effort. Additionally, Burns confirms for the first time that his intelligence analysts now believe China has moved their status from improbable to possible in sending additional weapons to support Russia. WATCH:
[Transcript] – MARGARET BRENNAN: On the cusp of Russia’s invasion, you flew to Kyiv, and you told President Zelenskyy — tell me if this is right — the Russians are coming to kill you.
Was that the very first thing you said?
WILLIAM BURNS (CIA Director): It wasn’t the very first thing I said to President Zelenskyy.
But President Biden had asked me to go to Kyiv to lay out for President Zelenskyy the most recent intelligence we had, which suggested that what Vladimir Putin was planning was what he thought would be a lightning strike from the Belarus border to seize Kyiv in a matter of a few days, and also to seize an airport just northwest of Kyiv called Hostomel, which he wanted to use as a platform to bring in air — airborne troops, as a way, again, of accelerating that lightning conquest of Kyiv.
And I think President Zelenskyy understood what was at stake and what he was up against.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You also have said — and tell me if this is correct — that it was only a group of about three or four people around Vladimir Putin who knew that he was actually planning this invasion.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Mm-hmm. No, I think that’s true. Putin had narrowed his circle of advisers, and it was a circle in which he prized loyalty over competence.
It was a group of people who tended to tell him what he wanted to hear. That was one of the deepest flaws I think, in Russian decision-making just before the war is, it was such a close circle of people reinforcing one another’s profoundly mistaken assumptions.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Does he take counsel from anyone these days?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: I think he’s become increasingly convinced that he knows better than anyone else what’s at stake for Russia.
I think his sense of destiny, and his appetite for risk has increased in recent years as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You recently went back to Kyiv, and you met with President Zelenskyy. And three months ago, I understand you met with Russia’s top spy chief.
Is there any kind of opening that you are finding here, any kind of opportunity?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: No, I mean, the conversation that I had with Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s external intelligence service, was pretty dispiriting.
My goal was not to talk about negotiations. That’s something that Ukrainians are going to need to take up with the Russians when they see fit. It was to make clear to Naryshkin and, through him, to President Putin the serious consequences should Russia ever choose to use a nuclear weapon of any kind as well.
And I think Naryshkin understood the seriousness of that issue, and I think President Putin has understood it as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: There’s not a lot of contact with Russia right now.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: There’s not a great deal; you’re right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you still have that line of communication with your counterpart?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Yes.
And I — and I think, even in the most deeply adversarial relationships — and that’s certainly what our relationship with Russia is today — it’s important to have those lines open. And the president believes that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you walk away from those conversations with? You said it was dispiriting.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Mm-hmm.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: There was a very defiant attitude on the part of Mr. Naryshkin as well, a sense of cockiness and hubris, reflecting Putin’s own view, his own belief today that he can make time work for him, that he believes he can grind down the Ukrainians, that he can wear down our European allies, that political fatigue will eventually set in.
And, in my experience, Putin’s view of Americans, of us, has been that we have attention deficit disorder, and we’ll move on to some other issue eventually. And so Putin, in many ways, I think, believes today that he cannot win for awhile, but he can’t afford to lose.
MARGARET BRENNAN: He doesn’t seem to have that assessment, though,
I mean, 97 percent of his ground force is in Ukraine.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s a meat grinder. Does he just look at his population and say, I have enough young men I can continue to send off to die?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: He’s…
MARGARET BRENNAN: I mean, what is the price that makes him change his mind?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: He’s — Putin is certainly not a sentimentalist about the loss of Russian life or the huge losses that he’s taken in terms of Russian armaments as well during the course of the war.
But there’s a lot of hubris that continues to be attached to Putin and his view of the war right now. And I think what’s going to be critical is to puncture that hubris on Putin’s part and regain momentum on the battlefield.
I don’t think the Russians are serious today. And I think it’s only progress on the battlefield that’s going to shape any improved prospects for negotiations down the road.
MARGARET BRENNAN: At what point does Putin say, I can’t win?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: I think Putin is right now entirely too confident of his ability to wear down Ukraine, to grind away.
And that’s what he’s giving every evidence that he’s determined to do right now. At some point, he’s going to have to face up to increasing costs as well, in coffins coming home to some of the poorest parts of Russia. There’s a cumulative economic damage to Russia as well, huge reputational damage. It has not exactly been a great advertisement for Russian arms sales.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: So this is going to build over time, but, right now, the honest answer, I think Putin is quite determined.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about what appears to be potentially a new line of ammunition and weapons for Russia.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Secretary Blinken has said publicly we have begun to see — we have begun to collect intelligence suggesting that China is considering the provision of lethal equipment.
That’s not to suggest that they’ve made a definitive conclusion about this.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary Blinken said that the U.S. had picked up information over the last couple of months. But picking up information over the last couple of months to thinking they’re actively considering it, I mean, how confident are you in the intelligence that this is something Xi Jinping himself may change his mind about?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Well, we’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment.
We also don’t see that a final decision has been made yet, and we don’t see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment. And that’s why, I think, Secretary Blinken and the president have thought it important to make very clear what the consequences of that would be as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: To deter it?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Yes, to deter it, because it would be a very risky and unwise bet.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, why would Beijing risk a tailspin in its relationship with the United States and with Europe by crossing this line?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: It’s a good question, and that’s why I hope very much that they don’t.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think that Beijing benefits from having the West distracted and involved in a prolonged conflict in Europe…
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: I mean…
MARGARET BRENNAN: … that that’s the aim?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: It’s conceivable.
But I think there’s no foreign leader who’s watched more carefully Vladimir Putin’s experience in Ukraine, the evolution of the war, than Xi Jinping has.
MARGARET BRENNAN: What are the consequences for the conflict in Ukraine if this does happen? What does more ammunition and more weapons mean? Does this — is it a game-changer?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: We also have evidence that the Iranians are providing lethal equipment and munitions, that the North Koreans are doing the same thing as well.
So, wherever that lethal assistance comes from, it prolongs a vicious war of aggression.
MARGARET BRENNAN: How good is our visibility into Xi Jinping’s thinking and his decision-making process?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Oh, it’s always the hardest question for any intelligence service as well, you know, in — in an authoritarian system where power is consolidated so much in the hands of one man.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you had such exquisite intelligence when it came to Russia and Vladimir Putin and his inner circle. Do we have that for Xi Jinping?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Oh, we work very hard to develop that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Working on it?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: I think we work very hard to develop the very best intelligence we can.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But I wonder if, when you’re talking about his thinking and his decision-making if he suffers from the same kind of yes-man culture that you said Vladimir Putin does, because Xi Jinping got rid of a lot of people in his government.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: It’s a — Margaret, it’s a concern in any authoritarian system.
And I think what we’ve seen in Beijing is President Xi consolidating power at a very rapid pace over the course of the more than a decade that he’s been in power as well.
And as we’ve seen, where Putin’s hubris has now gotten Russia, and the horrors that he’s brought to the people of Ukraine in that kind of a system, a very closed decision-making system, where nobody challenges the authority of their insights of an authoritarian leader, you can make some huge blunders as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve said Xi Jinping told his military to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027. The intel community seems a little bit more ambiguous in its conclusions here.
Do you think it’s an outright invasion, or do you think China’s more likely to slowly strangle democracy in Taiwan?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: We need to take very seriously Xi’s ambitions with regard to ultimately controlling Taiwan.
That doesn’t, however, in our view, mean that a military conflict is inevitable. We do know, as has been made public, that President Xi has instructed the PLA, the Chinese military leadership, to be ready by 2027 to invade Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean that he’s decided to invade in 2027 or any other year as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: I think our judgment, at least, is that President Xi and his military leadership have doubts today about whether they could accomplish that invasion.
I think, as they’ve looked at Putin’s experience in Ukraine, that’s probably reinforced some of those doubts as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you when the intelligence community will have some insight into what Beijing was collecting with that spy balloon over the U.S.?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: It was clearly an intelligence platform.
And I think we’ll be able to develop a pretty clear picture of exactly what its capabilities were.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But it will be a while, won’t it?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: It takes some time, but I think my understanding is that we’re managing to pull up quite a bit of evidence and material from that platform.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think Xi Jinping knew that balloon was sent here?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: I don’t know.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You have an idea.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Well, I think the Chinese leadership obviously understood that they had launched this capability, that it was an intelligence platform.
Whether — when and what the Chinese leadership knew about the trajectory of this balloon, I honestly can’t say.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve said in the past, there’s the beginnings of a full-fledged defense partnership between Russia and Iran. Exactly how far does the alliance go?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: Well, it’s moving at a pretty fast clip in a very dangerous direction right now, in the sense that we know that the Iranians have already provided hundreds of armed drones to the Russians, which they’re using to inflict pain on Ukrainian civilians and Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.
We know that they’ve provided ammunition for artillery and for tanks as well. And what we also see are signs that Russia is proposing to help the Iranians on their missile program and also at least considering the possibility of providing fighter aircraft to Iran as well.
So it’s a quite disturbing set of developments.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Have Iran’s leaders made the decision to pursue a nuclear weapon?
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: To the best of our knowledge, we don’t believe that the supreme leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge that they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003.
But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programs, they’ve obviously advanced very far, you know, over the course of the last couple years.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Eighty-four percent purity, reportedly.
DIRECTOR WILLIAM BURNS: They’ve advanced very far, to the point where it would only be a matter of weeks before they could enrich to 90 percent, if they chose to cross that line.
And also, in terms of their missile systems, their ability to deliver a nuclear weapon once they developed it, has also been advancing as well. So, the answer to your question is, no, we don’t see evidence that they have made a decision to resume that weaponization program, but the other dimensions of this challenge, I think, are growing at a worrisome pace too.