The second phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine — now concentrated in the Donbas in the east and south — is “at least as risky” and perhaps “even riskier” than the first, eight-week part of the conflict, CIA Director William Burns said Saturday, warning that President Vladimir Putin could “double down” on harsh tactics to boost his army’s flagging momentum.
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“I think Putin has staked a lot on this second phase of what is an incredibly ugly and brutal offensive against the Ukrainians,” Burns said at a public event in Washington, D.C., adding the Russian leader was likely trying “to adapt to some of the lessons from the failures of the first phase.”
Burns spoke at the Financial Times’ Weekend Festival at a moderated question-and-answer session.
He warned that Putin is in a “frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose” – even as Ukraine’s military, with accelerated support from the West, continues to demonstrate an effective resistance.
“I think he’s convinced right now that doubling down still will enable him to make progress,” Burns said of Putin, adding much — including the overall scope of the war and whether Moscow’s territorial ambitions remain limited to the southeast or expand to again include Odesa, Kyiv and other areas — would depend on whether Russian forces could demonstrate momentum in the coming weeks.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week that Russian forces were “behind schedule” and their progress in the Donbas was “slow,” in part due to a “stiff Ukrainian resistance.”
Despite heightened stakes for the Kremlin, Burns reiterated that there were no indications to date of an imminent deployment of Russian nuclear capabilities.
“We don’t see, as an intelligence community, practical evidence at this point of Russian planning for deployment or even potential use of tactical nuclear weapons,” Burns said. But given the Kremlin’s past saber rattling, he said, “we can’t take lightly those possibilities.”
Addressing recent news reports indicating U.S. intelligence assisted Ukraine in carrying out lethal strikes against Russian targets, Burns echoed previous statements from the National Security Council and Pentagon, which denied the U.S. had provided specific targeting information.
“I absolutely agree it is irresponsible — it’s very risky, it’s dangerous when people talk too much, whether it’s leaking in private or talking in public about specific intelligence issues,” he said.
“It was a profound mistake — it was Putin’s biggest mistake — in planning for this invasion and then in launching it, to underestimate the Ukrainians,” Burns said. “And I think it’s equally a mistake for any of us to underestimate what they bring to the table in intelligence terms in defending their own country.”
Burns admitted it was “a concern” that Putin has called Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO a “red line,” but said that his rhetoric should be no deterrent to an expanded alliance if that is what the two Nordic countries and NATO ultimately agree to do, as seems increasingly likely.
The former career diplomat also spoke about China’s perception of the war and its continued, tacit support for it.
“I would not underestimate … Xi Jinping’s commitment to his partnership with Putin’s Russia,” Burns said, citing the lengthy joint statement issued by the countries before the start of the invasion. “I think that’s a reflection of the commitment of both leaderships to a partnership which each sees as useful, mainly in competition with the United States.”
But he also said Beijing had likely had a “bitter experience” watching the conflict unfold over the past 10-11 weeks and that Xi was likely “unsettled” by the potential reputational damage of associating China with the “brutishness” of Putin’s war.
While global reaction to the conflict had likely not eroded Xi’s determination to, over time, gain control of Taiwan, the robustness of Ukraine’s resistance and the West’s coordinated response was likely affecting his calculation, Burns said.
“I think those are all sharp lessons that the Chinese leadership is paying careful attention to,” he said.
When asked by an audience member whether any intelligence supports unverified public reports that Putin is ill or ailing, the CIA chief swiftly declined to answer.
“Having talked before about how it’s not a smart idea to talk in public about intelligence, I’ll just return to that,” Burns replied. “That’s not something I have much to offer on.”