The head of the CIA, Bill Burns, might be labeled either a pawn or a peacemaker if he used his expertise in Russia to help negotiate an end to the ongoing brutal and unwinnable war.
The CIA has largely failed in its only legal mission, which is to give US policymakers accurate intelligence about the world outside of the Washington echo chamber so that US policymakers may make informed decisions. The CIA is lost in a disorganized maze of mirrors that it created.
Bill Burns was the previous deputy secretary of state; if, as many of his predecessors, President Biden genuinely desired to be led by reliable intelligence (which is by no means clear), then his choice of Burns as the director of the CIA was an encouraging, if confusing, appointment. Burns was no longer in charge of setting State Department policy, but his decades of diplomatic experience and wisdom might now potentially influence Biden’s decisions, particularly about the current crisis in US relations with Russia. Speaking Russian with ease, Burns spent several years living and working at the US Embassy in Moscow, first as a political officer and then as the US ambassador.
In cables from Moscow spanning more than a decade, it is difficult to detect Burns’ fingerprints on Biden’s Russia policy or on the handling of NATO’s war in Ukraine, where US policy has driven headlong into precisely the dangers Burns warned his nation about. What Burns tells the president behind closed doors is unknown to us. However, unlike General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he has not made a public appeal for peace negotiations, even though it would be extremely unprecedented for a CIA director to do so.
Calls for a moderate approach with Russia
If Bill Burns publicly stated any of the worries he voiced earlier in his career, he might be shunned or possibly fired as a Putin apologist in the current climate of inflexible pro-war, anti-Russian orthodoxy. He has denounced Russia as the only cause of the disastrous war in Ukraine, but he has kept his awful predictions about what would happen if he invited Ukraine to join NATO tucked away in his back pocket. He has also done this without bringing up the crucial background that he has so eloquently described over the previous 30 years.
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In his 2019 memoir “The Back Channel,” Burns confirmed Secretary of State James Baker’s assurance to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that there would be no NATO expansion or forces beyond the borders of a reunified Germany. Despite the informal nature of this pledge before the Soviet Union’s breakup, Burns explained that the Russians, feeling betrayed, interpreted Baker’s words seriously.
During his role as a political officer at the US Embassy in Moscow in 1995, Burns reported widespread resentment towards early NATO expansion across the domestic political spectrum in Russia. President Bill Clinton’s administration, considering NATO membership for Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, faced criticism from Burns, who deemed the decision premature or needlessly provocative. He observed that this move fueled Russian grievances, contributing to lasting tension in Russia’s relations with the West.
After holding various posts in the Middle East, Burns became the US ambassador to Russia in 2005, dealing with contentious issues like trade, conflicts in Kosovo, and missile defense disputes. Throughout his tenure, the matter of NATO expansion remained a persistent source of friction.
In 2008, during the Bucharest NATO Summit, Burns, then serving in the Bush administration, opposed the push to extend a NATO invitation to Ukraine and Georgia, expressing his concerns in a candid email to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice two months before the summit.
Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests,” Burns wrote. “At this stage, a MAP [Membership Action Plan] offer would be seen not as a technical step along a long road toward membership, but as throwing down the strategic gauntlet. Russia will respond. Russian-Ukrainian relations will go into a deep freeze … It will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In addition to the aforementioned personal email, he composed a thorough 12-point official cable addressed to Secretary Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This cable, previously undisclosed, was brought to public attention through a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable release in 2010.
Dated February 1, 2008, the memo’s subject line, presented in all caps, left no room for ambiguity: NYET MEANS NYET: RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES.
In explicit terms, Burns conveyed the strong opposition expressed by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other high-ranking officials, emphasizing that Russia would interpret further NATO expansion to the east as a potential military threat. He underscored that NATO enlargement, particularly concerning Ukraine, was not only “an emotional and neuralgic” matter but also a strategic policy concern.
Not only does Russia perceive encirclement and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests. Experts tell us that Russia is particularly worried that the strong divisions in Ukraine over NATO membership, with much of the ethnic-Russian community against membership, could lead to a major split, involving violence or at worst, civil war. In that eventuality, Russia would have to decide whether to intervene—a decision Russia does not want to have to face.
Six years later, the uprising in Maidan, supported by the United States, acted as the catalyst for the civil war, a scenario that Russian experts had previously anticipated.
According to Burns, Lavrov emphasized that while nations have the freedom to decide on their security measures and political-military affiliations, they should consider the impact on neighboring countries. Lavrov referred to the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Russia and Ukraine, where both parties committed to avoiding actions that could compromise each other’s security.
Burns highlighted that a shift by Ukraine towards the Western sphere would adversely affect defense industry cooperation between Russia and Ukraine. This cooperation included several factories producing Russian weaponry. Additionally, it would have negative consequences for the large number of Ukrainians working and residing in Russia, and vice versa. Burns quoted Aleksandr Konovalov, the director of the Institute for Strategic Assessment, predicting that such a move would generate significant anger and resentment among the local population.
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Russian officials, as conveyed by Burns, indicated that NATO expansion would have wide-ranging consequences in the region, extending into Central and Western Europe. It might even prompt Russia to reconsider its arms control agreements with Western nations.
In a rare personal meeting with Putin just before concluding his term as ambassador in 2008, Burns recounted Putin warning him that any steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine would not be tolerated by the Russian leadership. Putin asserted that such actions would be deemed hostile toward Russia, and they would exert all efforts to prevent it.
Good counsel that went unheeded
Despite numerous warnings, the Bush administration pressed forward during the 2008 Summit in Bucharest. Despite objections from several key European countries, NATO, while not setting a date for membership, issued a provocative statement declaring, “We agreed today that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.”
This move left Burns dissatisfied. He expressed his discontent, stating that in many ways, Bucharest left them with the worst of both worlds. The indulgence of Ukrainians and Georgians in hopes of NATO membership, unlikely to be fulfilled, reinforced Putin’s perception that they were committed to a course he deemed an existential threat.
Although Ukraine still aspires to formal NATO membership, former Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov argues that Ukraine has, in practice, become a de facto NATO member. Ukraine receives NATO weapons, training, and comprehensive military and intelligence cooperation, with CIA leadership overseeing intelligence sharing through meetings with Ukrainian counterparts.
Burns’s expertise might be better utilized shuttling between Moscow to help negotiate an end to the ongoing brutal and unwinnable war. Whether this role would label him a Putin apologist or a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize is open to interpretation. What are your thoughts?