The second phase of Russia– now concentrated in the Donbass to 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, warning that President Vladimir Putin could “double down” on tough tactics to boost his army’s faltering momentum.
“I think Putin has bet 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, DC, adding that the Russian leader was probably trying “to adapt to some of the lessons of the failures of the first phase.”
Burns spoke at the Financial Times Weekend Festival during a moderated Q&A.
He warned that Putin is in a “state of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose” – even as Ukraine’s military, with accelerating support from the West, continues to show effective resistance.
“I think he’s convinced right now that doubling again will allow him to move forward,” Burns said of Putin, adding a lot – including the overall scope of the war and whether Moscow’s territorial ambitions remain limited to the south. -is or extend to include Odessa again. , Kyiv and other regions – would depend on the ability of Russian forces to build momentum in the coming weeks.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week that Russian forces were “backlogged” and that their advance in Donbass was “slow”, in part because of “stiff Ukrainian resistance”.
Despite the increased stakes for the Kremlin, Burns reiterated that there were no indications so far of an imminent deployment of Russian nuclear capabilities.
“We don’t see, as the intelligence community, practical evidence at this stage of Russian planning for the deployment or even the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons,” Burns said. But given the Kremlin’s past, he said, “we cannot take these possibilities lightly.”
Addressing recent news reports indicatingin carrying out deadly strikes against Russian targets, Burns echoed previous statements by the National Security Council and the Pentagon, which denied that the United States provided specific targeting information.
“I absolutely agree that it’s irresponsible – it’s very risky, it’s dangerous when people talk too much, whether privately or publicly about specific intelligence issues,” he said. declared.
“It was a big mistake – it was Putin’s biggest mistake – to plan this invasion and then launch it, to underestimate the Ukrainians,” Burns said. “And I think it’s also a mistake for any of us to underestimate what he brings in terms of intelligence to defend his own country.”
Burns admitted it was ‘a concern’ that Putin called Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership a ‘red line’, but said his rhetoric should not deter an expanded alliance if it is. is what the two Nordic countries and NATO finally agree to do, as seems increasingly likely.
The former career diplomat also mentionedand its continued and tacit support.
“I would not underestimate (…) Xi Jinping’s commitment to his partnership with Putin’s Russia,” Burns said, citing the lengthy joint statement released by the countries before the invasion began. “I think it reflects the commitment of the two leaderships to a partnership that each sees as useful, primarily in competition with the United States.”
But he also said Beijing likely had a “bitter experience” watching the conflict unfold over the past 10-11 weeks and that Xi was likely “disturbed” by the potential reputational damage of associating China with the “brutality” of Putin’s war.
Although the global reaction to the conflict is unlikely to have eroded Xi’s resolve to, over time, winthe robustness of Ukraine’s resistance and the West’s coordinated response likely affected his reckoning, Burns said.
“I think these are all pointed lessons that Chinese leaders are paying close attention to,” he said.
When asked by an audience member if there was any intelligence supporting unverified public reports that Putin was sick or unwell, the CIA chief quickly declined to answer.
“Having already talked about how it’s not a good idea to talk about intelligence in public, I’ll come back to that,” Burns replied. “It’s not something I have a lot to offer.”