CIA Chief: Putin Is Betting on Attrition in Ukraine But Will Lose His Bet (Again)
When it comes to reading Vladimir Putin’s mind, one American statesman stood out even before President Joe Biden put him in charge of the nation’s premier intelligence service in March 2021. Having become CIA director less than a year before Russia’s war in Ukraine, William Burns has continued to excel—as he did in his days as ambassador to Russia—in putting together “a very troubling picture” of what is happening behind the Kremlin walls and why.
This week, Burns—who, by his own count, has dealt with Putin for over 20 years and was the last top U.S. official to see the Russian president (last November), in an effort to dissuade him from (re-)invading Ukraine—reaffirmed his reputation as one of the best Russia hands in or outside the Beltway. Speaking on July 20 at this year’s Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Burns—who, prior to joining the CIA, served five presidents and 10 secretaries of state over 33 years and rose to become the No. 2 official in the State Department—shared the following insights:
- Grievance, ambition and insecurity form the mindset of a “too healthy” Putin;
- Putin sees controlling Ukraine as part of his destiny;
- Putin is betting on attrition in Ukraine, but will lose his bet (again);
- Russian casualties in Ukraine are significant, unlike its recent advances;
- China treads carefully in its support for Russia even as Xi learns Putin’s lessons in Ukraine with Taiwain in mind;
- Russia and Iran are not natural partners.
A more detailed description of these and other insights from Burns are below.
- Three components form Putin’s mindset: “The mindset that animates Putin… I have watched him stew in what is a very combustible mix of grievance and ambition and insecurity. He is professionally trained to be a cynic about human nature. He is relentlessly suspicious and always attuned to our vulnerabilities [which] he can take advantage of. He is not a big believer in the better angels, in the human spirit. He’s a big believer in control and intimidation… He really is an apostle of payback in a lot of ways. All these qualities have hardened over the course of the last decade as his grip on power has tightened, as his circle of advisors has narrowed. … Putin really does believe his [own] rhetoric and I have heard him say this privately over the years—that Ukraine is not a real country.”
- Ukraine as Putin’s destiny: “His own personal sense of destiny and his appetite for risk has grown significantly over that time as well… He has a very constrained circle of advisors who either agree strongly with him or have even harder views… Nowhere are those views harder than on Ukraine and that’s how I think we need to understand Putin’s decision-making in the run-up to the war. He is convinced that his destiny as Russia’s leader is to restore … a great power. He believes the key to doing that is to recreate a sphere of influence in Russia’s neighborhood. He doesn’t believe you can do that without controlling Ukraine and its choices and so that’s what has produced this horrible war.”
- Why Putin’s refusal to heed Burns’s warning on Ukraine in Fall 2022 was a mistake: “We had building from at least October of 2021 a very troubling picture of what were quite detailed plans on Putin’s part for a major new invasion of Ukraine… So the president asked me to go to Moscow [in November 2021] and lay those concerns out in an unusual amount of detail to President Putin and some of his closest advisors and then to lay out the serious consequences that would unfold if he chose to execute that plan. I must admit I came away from these conversations even more troubled than when I arrived… Putin himself made no effort to deny the planning… My impression, which I conveyed to the president when I got home, was that Putin had not yet made an irreversible decision to launch that invasion; he was clearly leaning hard in that direction at that point, too. My further impression was that he had convinced himself strategically that the window was closing for his ability to control Ukraine and its choices, [and] that it was not so much a function of Ukraine and NATO1—because he was smart enough to understand that formal Ukrainian membership in NATO at that time was at best a distant aspiration. It was more in a way about NATO in Ukraine. The movement that he could see that Ukrainians were undertaking toward the West in economic, political and security terms… He believes it is his, Russia’s, entitlement to dominate Ukraine, so that was the sort of strategic impression I took away and, then, tactically Putin and the people closest to him clearly believed they had a favorable landscape over this past winter:”
- “A Ukraine that they judged to be weak and divided that would fold quickly”;
- “A Russian military modernized to a point where they could win, in his view, a quick and decisive victory at minimal cost”;
- “European leaders whom he saw to be distracted by their own political transitions”;
- “And he believed he had built a sanctions-proofed economy with a big war chest of hard-currency reserves”;
- “Each of those four assumptions were profoundly flawed [and] that helped to produce that catastrophic performance of the Russian military in the first phase of the war, in the first seven or eight weeks.”
- Russian casualties are significant in Ukraine, unlike its recent advances: “It’s always a range and you know there is no perfect number. I think the latest estimates from the U.S. intelligence community would be something in the vicinity of 15,000 killed and, maybe three times that wounded… The Ukrainians have suffered as well—probably, a little less than that… After those catastrophic failures in the first phase of the war, the Russians, the Russian military have adapted… certainly… Putin has shrunk his objectives at least for the time being; he has concentrated the forces in Donbas and they are grinding down right now, making, as I think General Milley pointed out today, over the 90 days of this refocused effort in Donbas they have advanced something between like six and 10 miles on a fairly narrow front.2 So it’s come at a great cost and it’s been very painful to both sides… The Russians have retreated to a more comfortable way of war in a sense by using their advantages in long-range firepower… The Russians are able to make very slow progress in those areas… But the Ukrainians will remains quite strong.”
- Putin is betting on attrition in Ukraine but will lose his bet (again): “Putin’s bet is that he can succeed in the grinding war of attrition. That they can wear down the Ukrainian military, that winter is coming and so he can strangle the Ukrainian economy, he can wear down European publics and leaderships and he can wear down the United States because … Putin’s view of Americans is that we always suffer from attention deficit disorder and … we will get distracted by something else… I think Putin was wrong in his assumptions about breaking the alliance and breaking the Ukrainian will before the war began and I think he is just as wrong now. He insists Ukraine is not a real country; well, real countries fight back and that’s what Ukrainians have done so long as we continue to support them… Now he faces an alliance that is just about to add Finland and Sweden… Against the backdrop of his original war aims in this conflict, where he really thought he could take Kyiv in less than a week and he thought he could establish his dominance over Ukraine very quickly, it is hard not to see this as a strategic failure for Putin and Russia.”
- China treads carefully in its support for Russia: China’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has two sides. 1. On economic side, the Chinese have stepped up purchases of Russian energy and generally been very careful to not run across sanctions against them. 2. On military side, they have been very cautious “from what we can tell.” More broadly, Xi and Chinese leadership have been unsettled, especially in first phase of Putin’s war in Ukraine, by what they saw: unsettled by Russia’s military performance and by the performance of Russian weaponry; unsettled by economic uncertainties the war has unleashed around the war in 2022 when Xi’s biggest concern was getting through an important Party Congress in the autumn; and unsettled by the fact that Putin has driven Europeans and Americans closer together, which also unsettles the Chinese a little bit, as they had banked on playing some Europeans off America. It’s good that Xi and Biden will be meeting. Even in the most complicated and dangerous rivalries, it’s important to talk to one another to try to reduce dangers of inadvertent collisions and try to create the kind of processes and habits of talking to one another to help reduce at least some dangers of escalation… China is the biggest geopolitical challenge to the U.S. “as far into the 21st century as I can see.”
- Xi learns Putin’s lessons in Ukraine with Taiwan in mind: “I would not underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert China’s control over Taiwan. Right now, he’s trying to ensure his military has the capability to do so. The risks [of military action] are higher further into this decade. The Chinese leadership is trying to study the lessons of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It less affects the question of whether but how and when. One lesson they may be drawing: You don’t achieve quick decisive victories with underwhelming force. 190,000 Russian troops are going to occupy and control 40-some million Ukrainians who are bound to fiercely resist—it doesn’t make any sense, it’s not a sustainable political endgame. The Chinese are learning the lesson that you have to use overwhelming force. You have to control the information space, you have to do everything you can to shore up the economy against the potential for sanctions and … to try to drive wedges between the U.S. and its Indo-Pacific allies.”
- Russia and Iran (which is weeks away from fissile materials, by the way) are not natural partners: “Russians and Iranians [who are discussing deliveries of Iranian UAVs to be used by Russia in Ukraine] need each other right now … [but] they don’t trust each other, given that they’re energy rivals and historical competitors… There are limits to the ways in which they are going to be able to help each other…” On Iran’s nuclear program: “Two dimensions of their nuclear program are concerning: 1. The amount of time it takes to produce fissile material. Before, it took just over a year; today, after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA … [it’s] measured not in a year and some but in weeks. The second dimension is how long it would take if Iranians resumed attempts to build a weapon. There, our best intelligence judgement is that the Iranians have not resumed the effort, but trend lines are troubling. They have the biggest arsenal of missiles … [of] anyone in the Middle East.”
- U.S. will not let Russia fill the vacuum in Middle East: In terms of the U.S. normalizing relations with Arab States, “this is … a moment when the temptation to hedge in the direction of Russia has been eroded a little bit due to Putin’s performance in Ukraine and at least the early performance of the Russian military and its weapons systems is not a great advertisement for Russian arms sales. The U.S. is not going to leave vacuums the Chinese, Russians will seek to fill.”
- Russian-American prison swaps are not easy to arrange: On Olympic basketball star Brittney Griner and others: “These are awful and shameful steps to hold American citizens for political leverage… The Russians are quite cold-blooded about this right now…” The White House is working very hard on her release and the release of Paul Whelan.
- No, Putin isn't ill: “As far as we can tell, he’s entirely too healthy… It is not a formal intelligence judgement… He has got his own way of looking at the reality and, as we could see in the first stages of the war, it’s based on some profoundly flawed assumptions and some real illusions, especially about Ukraine, the will to resist in Ukraine, which he’s helped to create in many ways … since 2014.”
- Burns warned in a diplomatic cable in 2008 that a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine could lead to a “potential trainwreck” in U.S.-Russian relations.
- Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley sees a slow Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine: “For 90 days, the Russian advances have amounted to maybe six to 10 miles… [which] is not very much,” Miley said after attending a Ukraine Defense Contact Group along with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Austin said he believes the war has entered a “critical phase,” while Milley sees “a grinding war of attrition” continuing