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Putinologist Biden: who in the White House is responsible for forecasting the actions of the Kremlin and assessing the words of the head of Russia

Half of Washington DC is busy analyzing every word and move of Vladimir Putin these days. But when CIA Director William Burns speaks of a Russian autocratic leader waging a brutal war on Ukraine, his words take on extraordinary weight. Burns' rich experience in Russia makes him a unique figure among President Joe Biden's aides. Political.

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Putin is the epitome of a "specifically Russian combination of qualities": "impudent, capricious, resentful and insecure," the head of the Kremlin is "an apostle of vengeance," as Burns wrote.

Instead of abandoning his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is likely to double down on the stakes, as Burns recently predicted. "I think he's in such a mood that he doesn't believe he can afford to lose," Burns said.

Of course, just because he's the head of America's top intelligence agency, every word Burns says publicly about Putin will grab attention. But the 66-year-old is also a seasoned diplomat whose resume includes two visits to Russia, including serving as US ambassador from 2005-2008. Burns has been watching Putin for many years, and few people in the US government have had more intimate experience with the Russian leader.

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All this has made Burns a unique figure among President Joe Biden's top aides, entrusted with some of the most important tasks. It was Burns who was discreetly sent to Moscow by Biden last fall to warn Putin against attacking Ukraine, and it is Burns who is often approached by the Washington elite when trying to guess what Putin will do next.

In the coming months, amid lingering questions about whether U.S. intelligence on Russia and Ukraine was accurate enough — and whether Washington should have sent heavy weapons to Ukraine faster — Burns will likely have to answer many of them.

Burns is "very mature, he's very experienced, he's very reserved, he's very reasonable in what he says," said William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who has known the CIA director for a long time. “For all these reasons, and also because of his experience with Putin, we listen to him,” he said.

China, China… Russia?

Burns may be a good Putinologist, but even he didn't predict how much the Russian leader would grind the Biden administration's foreign policy agenda.

During Burns' Senate confirmation hearing in February, he said that as director of the CIA, he would have "four critical and interconnected priorities." They were: "China, technology, people and partnerships."
Russia was not on that list of priorities. To be fair, few people in Washington cared about that at the time. The city was much more obsessed with China and its ambitions.

That changed in the final months of 2021, when Putin amassed troops along Russia's border with Ukraine in numbers and in a way that alarmed US officials. Biden sent Burns to Moscow, where he met with Kremlin officials and spoke to Putin by phone, conveying US concerns about the troop buildup and warning that Moscow would pay for the invasion.

As the weeks passed, Biden administration officials decided to selectively declassify and release some US intelligence about the Kremlin's potential military plans. It was an unusual maneuver that Burns said was critical in thwarting Putin's attempts to use disinformation tactics to justify an all-out war in Ukraine, the country he first invaded in 2014.

Speaking at the Financial Times Weekend festival earlier this month, Burns said that because the administration publicly warned that Putin was preparing for an invasion, he and his colleagues spent "many sleepless nights actually hoping we were wrong." But Putin decided to disappoint them.

Even as Burns and his agency try to outsmart the Kremlin, the CIA director continues to believe that China is the biggest long-term geopolitical threat to the United States. The Asian giant, led by Xi Jinping, is "in many ways the most serious test the CIA has ever faced," Burns told an audience at Georgia Tech in April.

The communist-led country's achievements in artificial intelligence, economic ties with the United States, and cyber activity that, among other things, compromised the data of US federal employees, are just some of the many reasons why the CIA seeks to confront Beijing. It's harder than ever.

In an effort to secure the CIA's long-term focus on China, Burns created the China Center, the agency's only such center focused on a single country. The agency is also increasing its budget for China-related work and hopes to double the number of Chinese-speaking staff.

Burns also created the Transnational and Technology Center, which focuses on emerging technologies as well as overcoming challenges such as climate change. Burns appointed the agency's first "chief technical officer" Nand Mulchandani, with experience in the private and public sectors.

Early in his tenure, Burns ordered that more resources be devoted to studying the bizarre health incidents, often referred to as "Havana Syndrome", that affected many CIA officers, American diplomats, and other government officials. Concerns have been raised that Russia is behind the incidents and that they are related to technology that directs energy to the victims. However, US officials say they have not yet found evidence of Moscow's involvement.

Nevertheless, Burns' focus on the subject has made him endearing to many in the intelligence world.

Icebreaker

In fact, it's almost impossible to find anyone in Washington who would criticize Burns, even in private.

“We named the auditorium after this guy, and he didn’t even die,” joked a State Department official (the William J. Burns Auditorium is a 1927 room in the Harry S. Truman building).

Burns is also often the one who calms people down with a joke in a meeting. "Sometimes he's the kind of person who says, 'Yes, it's really hard. And it’s very hard not to have perfect answers,” said a former senior Biden administration official.

One of the worst moments for the Biden administration was the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban last August, which led to mass and sometimes fatal evacuations at the Kabul airport.

Critics wonder if the US intelligence community has been too slow to realize how quickly Kabul will fall.

During those turbulent weeks, Burns discreetly traveled to Kabul to speak with Taliban leaders after their takeover of the Afghan capital, and people who knew him said he was focused on securing the CIA's Afghan partners.

"There's a reason you're sending Bill Burns to deal with the Taliban at a time when Afghanistan is falling apart," the former administration official said. "This is a man who can sit down at the negotiating table with some of the toughest and most oppressive people in the world and find a way to do it on behalf of the American people in situations that can confuse many others."

Burns has his share of regrets.

In his memoirs "The Back ChannelBurns describes how much he wished he could have done more to counter then-President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq and topple dictator Saddam Hussein, though as a senior diplomat, he repeatedly took pains to point out the pitfalls.

Although he writes that his actions at the time had many complex motives, Burns admits in the book that one of them was "the nagging feeling that Saddam was a tyrant who deserved to be gone."

The Biden administration, and the CIA in particular, have been lauded for accurately predicting Putin's actions against Ukraine, as well as for choosing to publicize some of what the United States knew. However, it remains unclear why the United States did not predict—at least publicly—how badly the Russian military would perform and how long the Ukrainian military could hold out.

In fact, it was widely believed in the US government that Russian forces would quickly overwhelm Ukrainian forces. Some foreign policy observers wonder if this is why the United States did not send more military aid to Ukraine sooner.

father's advice

Burns spent 33 years in the diplomatic service; he retired in 2014 after serving as Deputy Secretary of State. He went on to serve as president of the Carnegie Endowment.

During Donald Trump's presidency, Burns spoke out with rare public fury against what he saw as Trump's attempts to destroy the foreign service through budget cuts, political retaliation, and other means.

Burns' reverence for public service came in part from his father, a two-star army general and director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In his memoirs, Burns mentions how his father once wrote to him: "Nothing can make you more proud than to serve your country with honor."

Now Burns is joking about how his wife and two daughters are enjoying being part of "the world of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan" even though he drives at minimum speed and can barely handle a Roku remote.

Burns, who holds degrees from La Salle and Oxford, has more diplomatic experience than current Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. But they have similar temperaments and get along well, according to people who know them, brushing aside rumors that Burns is a "shadow secretary of state."

"They are friends. And they are not just friends from Washington,” said a senior Biden administration official.

It is often more prudent for Burns, rather than Blinken, to act as presidential envoy, according to US officials. The director of the CIA's travels are usually clandestine, while Blinken almost always takes reporters with him. Burns made 10 trips within the country and 16 trips abroad; domestic visits were often technology-related, such as in California.

In some cases, as in the case of Russia, Burns was sent in part to signal that the United States had intelligence to back up its concerns.

Former intelligence officials say they don't hear much about Burns from people who still work for the CIA and see it as a sign of respect. Morale appears to have risen from the Trump years, who often expressed disdain for the intelligence community who said Russia interfered in the 2016 election, which he won.

Burns is "reserved and apolitical" and close to other Biden aides, said John Cypher, a former CIA officer based in Russia. “This is important to the CIA. It helps the agency have a director with strong connections to the White House and other cabinet members,” he said.

Advanced putinology

After visiting the Kremlin last fall, Burns returned to Washington with few illusions and not-so-good news for Biden and the rest of the administration.

"He was extremely realistic about the likelihood of what was going to happen and the need to prepare for it," a former senior administration official said of Burns.

As he later publicly explained, Burns did not understand from their telephone conversation that Putin had already made the irreversible decision to invade Ukraine.

“Over the years, I have learned to never underestimate Putin’s ruthless determination, especially with regard to Ukraine,” Burns told an audience at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Putin, Burns noted, has long believed that Ukraine is not a real country, and that at best it should treat Russia with respect.

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A few weeks later, when Ukrainian forces managed to contain and even push back Russian forces, Burns nonetheless looked to the future with caution.

Failure, he told the Financial Times audience, is not something Putin will easily accept.

"He relied so heavily on the choice he made to launch this invasion that I think he's convinced right now that doubling down on the stakes will allow him to make progress," Burns said.

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