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CIA Director William Burns: Putin is a “combustible mix of grievance, ambition, and insecurity”

CIA Director William J. Burns stated at the Aspen Security Forum that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “combustible mix of grievance, ambition, and insecurity”.

According to Burns, Putin is “professionally trained to be a cynic about human nature” and is always on the lookout for other people's weaknesses to exploit them.

“He's not a big believer in the better angels in the human spirit; he's a big believer in control and intimidation and getting even. ...In my view, all of those qualities have hardened over the course of the last decade as his grip on power has tightened, his circle of advisors has narrowed, and his personal sense of destiny and his appetite for risk have grown significantly as well.”

Burns reminded that, during his tenure as the US ambassador to Moscow over a decade ago, Putin had a large circle of associates he listened to. Many disagreed with him back then, but it’s history now: he has a closed group of advisors who either second him in everything or advocate even harsher methods. The war in Ukraine is where the hard line manifests the most vividly, Burns says:

“Nowhere are those views harder than on Ukraine. He is convinced that his destiny as Russia's leader is to restore Russia as a great power. He believes the key to doing that is to recreate a sphere of influence in Russia's neighborhood, and he does not believe you can do that without controlling Ukraine and its choices. That's what produced, I think, this horrible war.”

He also stated that MI6 began sharing intelligence data on Putin's plans to invade Ukraine in October 2021. On behalf of Joe Biden, Burns paid a visit to Moscow, but Putin denied having any plans of invasion.

The CIA Director cited US intelligence data about Russia losing around 15,000 dead and three times as many wounded in the war with Ukraine. He remarked that Ukrainian armed forces have shown professionalism in using the weapons supplied by the US and their allies, especially the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. Nevertheless, Putin is sincerely convinced that his objective is to bring Ukraine to boot and that the “landscape” is “favorable”.

“Putin really does believe...that Ukraine's not a real country. He was wrong to think he could fracture the NATO alliance, and now he faces an alliance that's just about to add Finland and Sweden, which has strengthened its deployments closer to his borders. He really thought he could take Kyiv in less than a week and establish his dominance over Ukraine very quickly. It's hard not to see this as a strategic failure at this point for Putin and Russia.”

According to Burns, Russia has bounced back after the catastrophic failures in the first phase of the war and narrowed down its objectives for a while, focusing on the Donbas. Russian troops have switched to a “more comfortable” method of war, using long-range weapons to destroy Ukrainian targets at a distance and compensate for personnel shortages. Burns also drew parallels between the current situation in Ukraine and what he saw as a diplomat in Russia during the first Chechen war in the 1990s:

“In many ways, it reminded me of what I saw in Chechnya when the Russians leveled forty square blocks in the center of Grozny. As you look at the terrible scenes across Ukrainian towns and villages in the Donbas you see what looks like a moonscape. The Russians are able to make very slow progress in those areas now, while the Ukrainians’ will remains quite strong. I heard this directly from them.”

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