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CIA chief: The uprising in Russia shows 'signs of weakness' in Putin's rule

CIA Director William Burns speaks during the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
Dan Bayer, Aspen Security Forum
CIA Director William Burns speaks during the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

Updated July 21, 2023 at 4:04 PM ET

CIA Director William Burns said that a recent uprising by a mercenary group in Russia exposed "signs of weakness" in President Vladimir Putin's regime and contributed to growing discontent among Russians.

"Putin has constructed his image around the notion that he is the arbiter of order in the Russian system," Burns said Thursday. But last month's brief rebellion by mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin challenged the persona Putin had cultivated for more than two decades.

"What we saw was Russian security services, the Russian military, Russian decision-makers adrift, or they appeared to be adrift, for those 36 hours. The question was, 'Does the emperor have no clothes?' Or at least, 'Why is it taking so long for him to get dressed?'" Burns added.

The spy chief took several jabs at the Russian leader during at interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered, at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

During the rebellion, Putin denounced Prigozhin in harsh terms, but met with him only days later and agreed not to prosecute him. Prigozhin is now believed to be in neighboring Belarus, where some of his mercenaries have apparently followed the man often referred to as "Putin's chef."

"What was remarkable to me was the way in which Putin felt compelled to do a deal with his former caterer," Burns told Kelly.

An opportunity to recruit spies

The spy chief said this turbulence in Russia, and growing disaffection with the war in Ukraine was creating fertile ground for the CIA to recruit Russians to spy on behalf of the U.S.

"It would be crazy for us not to take advantage of what is, in effect, a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a human intelligence service," Burns said.

The CIA recently posted a video on the Telegram app providing Russians with a secure way to contact the U.S. spy agency. Burns said it received 2.5 million views the first week it was posted.

"So the truth is, there's a lot of disaffection in Russia, in the elite and outside it, in Russia right now," he said.

Russia continues to unleash daily airstrikes on Ukraine, and this week the focus is the southern port city of Odesa and surrounding areas. Ukraine exports most of its grain from Odesa, and Russia announced it was suspending a deal that has allowed Ukraine to send its agricultural products through the Black Sea, which is controlled by Russia.

"What Putin is trying to do is wreck the Ukrainian economy and wreak real havoc on innocent Ukrainian civilians," Burns said. "What Putin is engaged in is a very systematic effort. It's not just about pulling out of the grain deal. It's also about three nights in a row of intensive attacks in port cities against grain storage facilities."

Ukraine last month began a counteroffensive in an attempt to dislodge Russian forces in the east and the south. But progress has been limited, with heavy casualties on both sides.

"I don't think it should come as a surprise to anyone that the counteroffensive is a hard slog. Offense is a lot harder than defense. The Russians have had months to prepare. I am, however, an optimist," he said, adding that he ultimately expected Ukraine to make some advances.

A long history with Russia

Burns has played a prominent role in the U.S. efforts to support Ukraine. He's made multiple visits to Ukraine, including one just last month, as part of the increasingly close intelligence partnership between the two countries.

In another reflection of his role in the administration, President Biden announced on Friday that he is elevating Burns to be a member of his Cabinet.

"It seems to me that William Burns is in many ways the right man, at the right place, at the right time," said Calder Walton, a national security specialist at Harvard and author of the new book, Spies: The Epic Intelligence Battle Between East and West.

"With his background as a diplomat and his deep knowledge, particularly on Russia, this was an absolute godsend for the U.S. intelligence community when Putin launched his war in February 2022," said Walton.

Walton believes Burns played a key role in the U.S. decision to declassify some of the intelligence on Russia's war plans in advance of the invasion. The move is widely seen as helping galvanize international support for Ukraine and preventing Russia from developing its own narrative about the conflict.

In his interview, Burns also offered his assessment of possible Chinese military action against Taiwan.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said his country's military should be prepared to carry out an invasion by 2027, and Burns was asked if he thought that was likely.

"Today, President Xi and the People's Liberation Army leadership have doubts about whether they could pull off a successful, full-scale invasion of Taiwan at acceptable cost to them," Burns replied.

"I think no foreign leader has paid more careful attention to Putin's experience in Ukraine than President Xi has, as he thinks about Taiwan. And I think that's probably reinforced some of those doubts," he added. "But having said all that, I don't think any of us at CIA or in the U.S. intelligence community underestimate President Xi's commitment eventually to try to control Taiwan."

Since taking over as CIA direction a little more than two years ago, Burns has established a China Mission Center dedicated to the country seen as the most serious long-term U.S. adversary.

However, this project is seen as a major challenge given China's vast, cutting-edge surveillance systems that make the country so difficult for foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate.

Before taking the top job at CIA, Burns was a diplomat for more than three decades, including a stint as U.S. ambassador to Russia. He sometimes jokes that most of his white hair came from dealing with Putin.

So who was the "creepiest" foreign leader he ever had to deal with? Answer: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who was overthrown and killed in 2011.

"You know, Gadhafi was in a class by himself," Burns said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
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