“I have no doubt about the cruel pain and damage that Putin can continue to inflict on Ukraine, or the raw brutality with which Russian force is being applied,” Burns said during prepared remarks at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “The crimes in Bucha are horrific. The scenes of devastation in Mariupol and Kharkiv are sadly reminiscent of the images I saw in Grozny, in Chechnya, as a young diplomat in the winter of 1994-95: Forty square blocks in the center of the city flattened by Russian shelling and bombing, leaving thousands of civilian deaths.”
Burns’ comments were in line with earlier assessments by senior Biden administration officials, including President Biden, that Putin is responsible for war crimes in Ukraine. On Wednesday, Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the United States is likely to determine that genocide has been committed.
Speaking in Iowa on Tuesday, Biden called Russia’s attack on Ukraine a “genocide.” He later told reporters he intentionally used the word and that he would “let the lawyers decide internationally whether it qualifies.”
“It sure seems that way to me,” Biden added.
Burns also recounted his own interactions in Moscow with Putin and his advisers in early November as the U.S. intelligence community was tracking the buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border in apparent preparations for invasion.
Burns said Biden sent him to Russia to convey “the depth of our concern of [Putin’s] planning for war and the consequences for Russia of attempting to execute that plan. I was troubled by what I heard.”
While it didn’t seem then that Putin had irreversibly made up his mind to attack, Burns said, he “was defiantly leaning in that direction, apparently convinced that this window was closing for shaping Ukraine’s orientation.”
Putin seemed to think the winter offered a “favorable landscape” for invasion and that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and his fellow citizens weren’t likely to mount an “effective resistance.” Putin also judged that the Russian military was “capable of a quick, decisive victory at minimal cost” and that he had made the Russian economy “sanctions-proofed by a war chest of foreign currency reserves,” Burns said.
Those assumptions proved profoundly flawed. The Russian military quickly became bogged down following the Feb. 24 invasion and was beset by logistical challenges and a ferocious response from Ukraine’s military, which has killed thousands of Russian soldiers. The United States and European countries promptly sanctioned the Russian central bank and froze hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that Putin had left exposed overseas.
Putin also misjudged Ukraine and its people, Burns said. “Ukraine, he had argued for years, was not a real country. But real countries fight back. And that’s what Ukrainians have done with such remarkable bravery, led with such courage and resolve by President Zelensky.”
The CIA director aimed several remarks at Putin personally, describing him as a grievance-fueled “apostle of payback,” who remains “firmly convinced that the West — especially the United States — took advantage of Russia’s moment of historical weakness in the 1990s.”
“His risk appetite has grown as his grip on Russia has tightened,” Burns continued. “His circle of advisers has narrowed, and in that small circle it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s sphere of influence. Every day, Putin demonstrates that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising ones.”
A few days after invading Ukraine, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to a higher level of alert, alarming world leaders and raising the prospect that the war could witness a heretofore unthinkable use of nuclear weapons.
But it’s not clear that Putin’s order led to any change in Russian position, Burns said during a question-and-answer session.
“While we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin about moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t see a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or, you know, military dispositions that would reinforce that concern,” Burns said. “But we watch for that very intently. It’s one of our most important responsibilities at CIA.”
Burns, who was confirmed as CIA director in March 2021, had given congressional testimony, but his remarks in Atlanta were the most extensive to date in an unofficial forum. He singled out China’s government as well, calling “the longer-term problem posed by China’s ambitious leadership … the single most important geopolitical challenge as far out as I can see into the 21st century.”
“A silent partner in Putin’s aggression, Xi Jinping’s China is our greatest challenge, in many ways the most profound test that CIA has ever faced,” Burns added.