William Burns

William Burns on Russia

September 19, 2023
Daniel Shapiro and RM Staff

This compilation of observations and policy ideas related to Russia by William Burns is part of Russia Matters’ “Competing Views” rubric, where we share prominent American thinkers’ takes on issues pertaining to Russia, U.S.-Russian relations and broader U.S. policies affecting Russia.

On January 11, President-elect Joe Biden selected William Burns to serve as his CIA director. Prior to his appointment, Burns served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 33 years, including in such roles as Deputy Secretary of State and as U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Following his retirement from the State Department in 2014, Burns was appointed president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Burns is also the author of "The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal," published in 2019.

This compilation is meant as a sampling of Burns’ views. All sections may be updated with new or past statements. The quotes below are divided into categories similar to those in Russia Matters’ news and analysis digests, reflecting the most pertinent topic areas for U.S.-Russian relations broadly and for drivers of the two countries’ policies toward one another.


I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Nuclear security:

  • There was also shared interest in a variety of initiatives to ensure the safety and security of nuclear materials. Putin was eager to widen the lens and show cooperation in dealing with third-party challenges. We saw value in that too. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:

  • I think what we have seen over the last year is… quite troubling, more than 50 launches of North Korean missiles of various ranges, and clearly preparations for what would be the seventh nuclear test by the North Korean regime. (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • We are not going to talk for the sake of talks or respond to North Korean provocations with inducements and concessions. While we will maintain our pressure on North Korea, we also continue testing the potential for diplomacy. Coordination with our allies, who share our deep concern about the growing North Korean threat, is a top priority. This is why the trilateral summit in The Hague with President Obama, President Park, and Prime Minister Abe was so important. It sent a clear message that we have a united approach toward North Korea, and that North Korea will not succeed in driving a wedge between us and our allies. Also central to our approach is active coordination with China – a country with significant political and economic influence over North Korea. Despite its concerns about Kim Jong Un, China remains reluctant to push North Korea too hard due to longstanding fears of possible instability. (Asia Society Policy Institute, 04.08.14)

Iran and its nuclear program:

  • Historically there has been a lot of mistrust between the Russians and the Iranians, but they need each other right now. What’s beginning to emerge is at least the beginnings of a full-fledged defense partnership…with the Iranians supplying drones to the Russians and the Russians beginning to look at ways in which, technologically or technically, they can support the Iranians, which poses real threats to Iran's own neighborhood, to many of our friends and partners in Iran's neighborhood as well. (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • I think it's [Russia-Iran drone partnership] already having an impact on the battlefield in Ukraine, again, costing the lives of a lot of innocent Ukrainians. (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • We don't believe that the Supreme Leader in Iran has yet made a decision to resume the weaponization program that we judge that they suspended or stopped at the end of 2003. But the other two legs of the stool, meaning enrichment programs, they've obviously advanced very far… They've advanced very far to the point where it would only be a matter of weeks before they can enrich to 90 percent, if they chose to cross that line. And also in terms of their missile systems, their ability to deliver a nuclear weapon, once they developed it, has also been advancing as well…We don't see evidence that they made a decision to resume that weaponization program. But the other dimensions of this challenge, I think, are growing at a worrisome pace too. (Interview with CBS’ "Face the Nation," 02.26.2023)
  • I think there are at least two dimensions of Iran's nuclear program that are particularly concerning right now. The first is, is the amount of time it takes them to produce the fissile material, the highly enriched uranium you need for a single nuclear weapon. Under the terms of the JCPOA, the Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, which the last administration pulled out of several years ago, that breakout time to produce that amount of fissile material was a little more than a year. Today, after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and Iran, moving away from you know, its compliance with the agreement, enriching to 60 percent, resuming enrichment activities…expanding the amount of the stockpile of enriched uranium that they have well beyond the constraints in the Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, beginning to work again on advanced centrifuges which speed up their ability to enrich especially to higher levels as well… The second dimension…is how long it would take if the Iranians resumed an effort to build a…nuclear device…our best intelligence judgment is that the Iranians have not resumed the weaponization effort that they had underway up until 2004 and then suspended… (Interview with NBC, 07.20.22)
  • The Trump administration … will continue to pretend that the United States can participate in only the punitive parts of the Iran nuclear deal that it likes and opt out of all the others. The U.S. tried—and spectacularly failed at—that strategy earlier this month, when it sought to trigger the nuclear agreement’s “snapback” of multilateral sanctions against Iran, despite having already abandoned the deal. That effort is not only silly, but guaranteed to further embarrass and isolate the U.S., further alienate our closest allies, and further risk collisions with Tehran. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 08.29.20)
  • This month, six years ago, we were in the midst of secret talks with Iran that led to the comprehensive nuclear agreement. It was a moment when diplomacy carried considerable risk, and considerable promise. Today, the promise has faded, and the risk is accelerating. The consequences of the Trump administration’s foolish decision to abandon that nuclear deal last year, with no evidence of Iranian noncompliance, were predictable—and predicted. We are now at a very dangerous point. The story of how we got here is one of faulty expectations on both sides. (The New York Times, 10.14.19)
  • We’re isolating ourselves instead of isolating the Iranian regime. Withdrawal makes it harder, not easier, to deal with Iran’s threatening behavior throughout the Middle East, and it further erodes international confidence in America’s willingness to hold up our end of diplomatic bargains. It creates even more fissures in relations with our closest European allies—in effect doing Vladimir Putin’s work for him. (Interview with American Foreign Service Association, May 2019)
  • In Iran, for example, when Obama came into office at the beginning of 2009, Obama and Clinton recognized that if we were going to get anywhere in building leverage against the Iranians on the nuclear issue and building a solid international coalition in negotiations, we had to work with the Russians, because we could be pretty confident that we’d work well with the Germans, the French and the British. The Chinese weren't playing a particularly active role in that period. So the key was preventing the Iranians from driving a wedge between us and the Russians. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • What was striking to me was the sense in which the P5+1 partners had a strong sense of shared purpose and a willingness to extend considerable effort—this despite pretty significant and serious differences among some of the P5+1, most notably with Russia over Ukraine. On the Iran issue, the Russians were constructive partners throughout. (Interview with Columbia University, 06.06.16)
  • It would make no sense for a new U.S. president to walk away from the nuclear agreement. People forget that this is not an agreement between just the United States and Iran. If the United States had walked away from that agreement last summer or fall, we would have walked away alone, and you would likely have seen a disintegration of the international coalition that had so painstakingly been built up, and the disintegration of the sanctions regime, with an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program. (Interview with Columbia University, 06.06.16)

New Cold War/sabre rattling:

  • I think there was a certain extent to which it was always going to be difficult for Russians, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, to accept what was, in effect, junior-partner status to a then singularly dominant United States. I think they were always going to chafe at that. … There was bound to be a time when they were going to push back. (Interview with The New Yorker, 03.19.19)
  • In the end, there proved to be no avoiding the sense of loss and humiliation that came with defeat in the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, no matter how many times we and the Russians told each other that the outcome had no losers, only winners. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)

NATO-Russia relations:

  • Stressing the attachment of Yeltsin and the country’s political elite to Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, I emphasized mounting Russian concern about expansion of NATO. I noted that Yeltsin’s tough public statements in the fall of 1994 about NATO expansion “were an unsubtle reminder of Russian angst about neglect of its interests in the process of restructuring European security institutions.” … Before thinking seriously about extending offers of formal NATO membership to Poland and other Central European states, we recommended considering other forms of cooperation with former Warsaw Pact members, and perhaps a new “treaty relationship” between NATO and Russia. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • For the Russians, the war in Bosnia served as another painful reminder of their weakness. While often frustrated by the brutality and venality of the Serbian leadership, Yeltsin couldn’t ignore the natural affinity of Russians for Slavic kinsmen in Belgrade and among the Bosnian Serbs. As NATO stepped up its air campaign, and as Holbrooke accelerated American diplomacy, the Russians resented their secondary role. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • After his reelection in November 1996, Clinton followed through on NATO expansion … As Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage, a gathering storm of “stab in the back” theories slowly swirled, leaving a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Sitting at the embassy in Moscow in the mid-1990s, it seemed to me that NATO expansion was premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)

Missile defense:

  • Completing the trifecta of troubles was the vexing issue of missile defense. Anxious about American superiority in missile defense technology since the Soviet era, the Russians were always nervous that U.S. advances in the field, whatever their stated purposes, would put Moscow at a serious strategic disadvantage. … Their longer-term concern was not so much about the particular technologies that might be deployed in new NATO states in Central Europe as it was about what those technologies might mean as apart of a future, globalized American missile defense system. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • I knew how hard it was to break the post-Cold War habit of assuming that we could eventually maneuver over or around Moscow when it suited us, and I knew that was especially difficult as an administration looked to cement its legacy on issues like European security and missile defense. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)

Arms control:

  • …The nuclear saber-rattling that Putin and some of those around him have engaged in is reckless and deeply irresponsible. It is, however, not something we can take lightly. We do not see today any concrete preparations for the potential use of nuclear weapons. We have made absolutely clear in that conversation with Sergey Naryshkin, one of my Russian counterparts, and through other channels the depth of our concern. So it’s something that we obviously monitor very, very carefully. But as I said, we don’t see any immediate signs of preparations for nuclear use. (Interview with NBC, 07.21.23)
  • Extending the New START agreement with Russia, which is due to expire early next year, would be important. Without it, what remains of nuclear-arms-control architecture will collapse in a dangerous heap. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 08.29.20)
  • However profound our differences … the United States and Russia have unique capabilities and unique responsibilities to reduce global nuclear threats. It’s cold-bloodedly in both our interests to do so, and certainly in the interests of the wider international community. Russia had been violating the INF Treaty for a number of years. We may ultimately have had no alternative but to leave the treaty; I just wish we had worked more creatively to lay out our case for Russian violations, reassure our allies and explore ways to fix the problem. My broader hope is that the collapse of INF doesn’t foreshadow the demise of what’s left of the U.S.-Russia arms control architecture. It would be especially dangerous to let the New START Treaty lapse in 2021. We ought to be engaging the Russians now on New START, and in serious strategic stability talks, particularly given the increasingly uncertain entanglement of nuclear systems with advanced conventional weaponry, missile defense and cyber tools. (Interview with American Foreign Service Association, 05.2019)
  • President Obama was also interested in trying to take nuclear arms reduction to another level. That was one of the big priorities in his campaign, and there again, Russia is the only nuclear power in the world comparable to the United States—had a both huge capacity and huge responsibility. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)


  • Putin … saw an opening through which Russia could become a partner in the Global War on Terrorism. He thought the war on terror would give Russia a better frame in which to operate than the “new world order” that had dominated U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War. The implicit terms of the deal Putin sought included a common front against terrorism, with Russia backing the United States against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Washington backing Moscow’s tough tactics against Chechen rebels. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Russia does not consider the U.S. a friend in the Caucasus, and our capacity to influence Russia, whether by pressure, persuasion or assistance, is small. What we can do is continue to try to push the senior tier of Russian officials towards the realization that current policies are conducive to Jihadism, which threatens broader stability as well; and that shifting the responsibility for victimizing and looting the people from a corrupt, brutal military to corrupt, brutal locals is not a long-term solution. (U.S. Embassy Cable, 05.30.06)

Conflict in Syria:

  • I think there are several motives which have animated President Putin in Syria recently. First and most straightforward was to bolster the Assad regime, which last August was losing altitude and losing ground. Second, it was to reassert Russia’s role as a significant international player in the Middle East and more broadly as a major power in the world. Third, I think it was to try to provide a counterpoint to what Putin often sees as a naïve American interest in regime change in the region which doesn’t take into account the second and third order consequences—a way to  assert a contrary Russian view. Fourth, I think he was certainly interested at the time in changing the subject a little bit from Ukraine, given the sanctions which had been enacted against Russia in the course of the Ukraine crisis. And fifth, but not least, it’s sometimes particularly satisfying to Putin and the Russian leadership to stick a thumb in the eyes of the Americans. (Interview with Columbia University, 06.06.16)
  • Obviously ISIS is a significant and serious threat. ISIS is only going to be marginalized—and defeated—through a combination of security and political means. The security steps are pretty obvious: you can punish ISIS from the air, but ultimately it’s going to be, in my view, local ground forces that are able to roll back its gains. You can see more clearly how to do that in Iraq with rebuilt Iraqi security forces than you can today in Syria, but ultimately that’s the challenge in Syria. But it’s got to be political as well in the sense that you’ve got to mobilize the 20 percent Sunni Arab minority in Iraq against ISIS, a Sunni extremist group, so that that 20 percent minority feels a stake, a political future, in Iraq. In Syria, the challenge is to mobilize the 65 to 70 percent of the population that is Sunni Arab against ISIS, because that’s ultimately the only way to defeat them. And that has clear implications for the need for some form of political transition to new leadership in Syria as well. (Interview with Columbia University, 06.06.16)

Cyber security:

  • I was ambassador in Moscow when the cyber conflict that the Russians waged against Estonia was mounted. … You could see the Russians investing in this instrument of state power. It was, from their point of view, a perfect asymmetric tool, a way in which they couldn’t compete in terms of conventional military power or in many other measures of national power with the United States or NATO, but here was one area where they could punch above their weight and take advantage of the human capital in Russia. And you could see it building all the way through the Ukraine crisis, which came some years later. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)

Elections interference:

  • Having invited Vladimir Putin to undermine his last Democratic rival, Trump is entirely capable of doing it again—and incapable of the kind of firm, consistent approach, and careful coordination with allies, that could be essential to limiting Russian overreach in crises in Belarus or elsewhere. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 08.29.20
  • For a number of years, Putin had challenged the West in places such as Georgia and Ukraine, where Russia had a meaningful stake and a high appetite for risk. In 2016, a year after I left government, he saw an opportunity for a more direct challenge to the West—an attack on the integrity of its democracies. (The Atlantic, April 2019)
  • He’s [Putin] demonstrated that even if you're, objectively speaking, a declining power, you can be quite disruptive, and you can sow chaos. I'm convinced that's exactly what he intended to do in the U.S. elections in 2016 and has succeeded so far beyond his wildest imagination in sowing chaos, in some respects in making president Trump an instrument of that chaos. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • I wasn’t entirely surprised because you had seen the Russians developing this capability for some years. I was a little bit surprised by the brazenness of it as well. Putin didn't go to great lengths to try to cover his tracks on this. And I was struck, like so many other Americans, by the seriousness of this—a direct challenge to the democratic system in the United States. I think that’s something that has to be taken really seriously. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)

Energy exports from CIS:

  • I think he missed the moment when he could have begun to diversify the economy beyond what comes out of the ground, beyond hydrocarbons, when he was surfing on a-hundred-and-thirty-dollar-a-barrel oil, and he missed because economic diversification took second place to political order. I think that’s going to make it increasingly hard for Russia to compete as a major power in a very competitive twenty-first century. (Interview with The New Yorker, 03.19.19)

U.S.-Russian economic ties:

  • We continued to work hard to enlarge two-way trade and investment. I spent considerable time with American business representatives … trying to get a foothold in the elusive Russian market. Doing business in Russia was not for the fainthearted … Despite the risk, there were profits to be made and markets to be opened, and I lobbied everyone … on behalf of a level playing field for American companies. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • I think Putin was actually to some extent surprised by the solidarity of the U.S. and our principal European allies. I think he was surprised by the sharpness of the sanctions, especially after the first wave of sanctions, the next waves, and the impact that they had on the Russian elite, the people around him, and also Russia’s ability to access capital and to access the kind of technology that it needs in developing hydrocarbon reserves, too. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)

U.S.-Russian relations in general:

  • With Medvedev in the Kremlin, Obama struggled to stay connected to Putin, whose suspicions never really eased, and who was still inclined to paint the U.S. as a threat in order to legitimize his repressive bent at home. We managed a string of tangible accomplishments: a new nuclear-arms-reduction treaty; a military transit agreement for Afghanistan; a partnership on the Iranian nuclear issue. (The Atlantic, April 2019)
  • Managing relations with Russia will be a long game, conducted within a relatively narrow band of possibilities. Navigating such a great-power rivalry requires tactful diplomacy—maneuvering in the gray area between peace and war; demonstrating a grasp of the limits of the possible; building leverage; exploring common ground where we can find it; and pushing back firmly and persistently where we can’t. The path ahead with Russia will get rockier before it gets easier. We ought to traverse it without illusions, mindful of Russia’s interests and sensibilities, unapologetic about our values and confident in our own enduring strengths. We should not give in to Putin—or give up on the Russia beyond him. (The Atlantic, April 2019)
  • The list of irritants between us continued to grow, but several stood out. One was Kosovo, where the United States had championed a UN-led process to organize Kosovar independence from Serbia. … For Putin, Kosovo’s independence brought back bad memories of Russian impotence, and loomed as a test of how different his Russia was from Yeltsin’s. He also had worries, not entirely unfounded, that Kosovo’s independence would set off a chain reaction of pressures. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Surfing on historically high oil prices and nursing fifteen years of grievances, convinced that the United States had taken advantage of Russia’s moment of historical weakness and was bent on keeping it down, Putin was determined to show that he was making Russia great again and we better get used to it. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • The Orange Revolution in Ukraine … and the Rose Revolution in Georgia before that, led Putin to conclude that the Americans were not only undercutting Russia’s interest in its sphere of influence, but might eventually aim the same kind of color revolution at his regime. These disappointments were piled on top of his anger over the Iraq War, a symbol of America’s predilection for unilateral action in a unipolar world, and President Bush’s second inaugural address and its “freedom agenda”—which Putin believed included Russia near the top of the administration’s “to-do” list. Democracy promotion, in his eyes, was a Trojan horse designed to further American geopolitical interests at Russia’s expense, and ultimately to erode his grip on power in Russia itself. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • From the outset of my tenure as ambassador, I urged realism about the unlikely prospects for broad partnership with Putin’s Russia, and pragmatism in our strategy. Realism demanded that we come to terms with the fact that relations were going to be uneasy, at best, for some time to come. We should shed the illusions that had lingered since the end of the Cold War, recognize that we were bound to have significant differences with a resurgent Russia, and seek a durable mix of competition and cooperation in our relationship. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Despite the sustained efforts of Bill Clinton to cultivate relations with the new Russia and accommodate the post-traumatic stress of the post-Soviet world, the limitations of U.S.-Russian partnership were also laid bare. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • I don't think Putin has had any great illusions about doing a grand bargain with the Trump administration. He tends to take a fairly cynical view of how you deal with the United States. But from his point of view, being able to sow chaos, being able to distract the United States, being able to, in his eyes, expose the hypocrisy of the American political system to the rest of the world is obviously a net plus that opens up a lot of room for maneuver in Russia and the world. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)

II. Russia’s domestic policies

Domestic politics, economy and energy:

  • …I’ve seen over the last three decades since the end of the Cold War…a lot of fascinating episodes in Russia but none more fascinating than Prigozhin’s mutiny, which was the most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin’s 23 years in power. I think, in many ways, it exposed some of the significant weaknesses in the system that Putin has built. Weaknesses that had already been laid bare by the disastrous and deeply destructive war that Putin launched 18 months ago in Ukraine. (Aspen Security Forum, 07.21.23)
  • …Russian security services, Russian military, Russian decision makers which were adrift or appeared to be adrift for those 36 hours [Prigozhin’s June 22 mutiny]. For a lot of Russians watching this, used to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was, does the emperor have no clothes? Or at least, why is it taking so long for him to get dressed? (Interview with NBC, 07.21.23)
  • I think there is a relationship between the battleground in Ukraine and what’s going on inside Russia in the sense that if and when the Ukrainians make further advances on the battlefield, I think what that’s going to do is cause more and more Russians in the elite and outside the elite to pay attention to Prigozhin’s critique of the war as well. (Fireside Chat at the Aspen Security Forum, 07.21.23)
  • President Putin has worked methodically over the last two decades to turn the Russian into a kind of propaganda bubble. He’s used financial pressures, he’s used lethal actions. He’s intensified his domination of the state-run media and his strangulation of independent media in particularly since the invasion of Ukraine began. I don’t believe he’s going to be able to seal Russians off entirely from the truth. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • When I left Moscow after my first tour in 1996, I was worried about the resurgence of a Russia at once cocky, cranky, aggrieved and insecure. I had no idea it would happen so quickly, or that Vladimir Putin would emerge over the next decade as the extreme embodiment of that peculiarly Russian combination of qualities. … Putin’s most striking characteristic was his passion for control—founded on an abiding distrust of most of those around him. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Basically, we’re facing a Russia that’s too big a player on too many important issues to ignore. It’s a Russia whose backsliding on political modernization is likely to get worse before it gets better, and whose leadership is neither overly concerned about its image nor much inclined to explain itself to the outside world. It’s a Russia whose assertiveness in its neighborhood and interest in playing a distinctive Great Power role beyond it will sometimes cause significant problems. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • In his rivalry with Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin had been the heroic destroyer of the old, calcified Soviet system. But he faltered in the next phase, the construction of an open political and economic system out of the rubble of Communism. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • I always thought there was a very significant likelihood that Putin was coming back, and it was always clear that he was calling the shots on big issues. He would give Medvedev some room to maneuver on some issues; for example, on the Libya issue. But in most cases, he was calling the shots both strategically and tactically as well. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • President Putin in his first two terms as president … had established a kind of rough social contract, where the deal was: I’ll ensure that economic growth picks up and standards of living rise if everyone else stays out of politics. I think that began to slow down, and then stagnate, as a result of everything from falling oil prices to corruption, to the sanctions that were produced by aggression in Ukraine. And so, in his third term he’s looked for a different way to mobilize people and nationalism was the answer. But not just any kind of nationalism, a chauvinism which is very much us against them, which has just gotten more and more aggravated and sharpened as a result of the war in Ukraine. And so you create an atmosphere … where that kind of unpredictability and violence becomes more and more common. And that’s a dangerous thing for Russia. (Interview with Politico, 03.15.15)
  • President Putin has pursued a two-pronged strategy to extricate Russia from the war in Chechnya and establish a viable long-term modus vivendi preserving Moscow's role as the ultimate arbiter of Chechen affairs. The first prong was to gain control of the Russian military deployed there, which had long operated without real central control and was intent on staying as long as its officers could profit from the war. The second prong was "Chechenization," which in effect means turning Chechnya over to former nationalist separatists willing to profess loyalty to Russia. (U.S. Embassy Cable, 05.30.06)

Defense and aerospace:

  • It was no coincidence that Vladimir Putin would ride a ruthlessly successful prosecution of the second Chechen war several years alter to become Yeltsin’s unlikely successor. If you wanted to understand the grievances, mistrust, and smoldering aggressiveness of Putin’s Russia, you first had to appreciate the sense of humiliation, wounded pride, and disorder that was often inescapable in Yeltsin’s. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Yeltsin was anxious for an opportunity to show people that he was still capable of decisive and effective action, a political step around which Russians could unite. Reasserting Moscow’s authority over Russia’s increasingly disconnected regions was one obvious possibility, and the most obstreperous and defiant region of all, Chechnya, was a tempting target. With a rebellious history and an especially dark and foreboding presence in the Russian psyche, Chechnya seemed to Yeltsin to be overdue for the application of a strong hand. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)

Security, law-enforcement and justice:

  • Ahead of the uncertain 2008 transition … structural problems—corruption, the absence of institutionalized checks and balances, pressure on the media and civil society—were getting worse. … Murders of dissidents and prominent journalists were, sadly, not uncommon in Russia in this era. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Chechnya’s lawlessness differed only in degree from what was going on across much of Russia in the early 1990s. In many tangible respects, Chechnya remained a part of the Russian Federation, its borders open and its oil and gas flowing out of the republic, its meager pensions paid out of the Russian budget. Dudayev himself gradually lost popularity in Chechnya. While his thugs enriched themselves, local government services atrophied. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)

III. Russia’s relations with other countries

Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:

  • His [Putin’s] view was that Russia was entitled to a sphere of influence. That's what major powers got to assert, and other major powers should stay out of his business in Russia in terms of how the economic order and the political order was organized as well. He gradually came to the conviction, as he moved into his second term as president, that that wasn't going to work. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • For Putin, the Arab Spring and the revolutions and upheavals that unfolded from the beginning of 2011 on were of a piece with the color revolutions in the former Soviet Union. He saw this, again, wrongly, as part of a pattern of American behavior in which what we were bound and determined to do was to undermine regimes that didn't fit our model of what government should look like in a U.S.-led international order. He thought that we were naive about the way the Middle East worked and that we didn't understand the consequences of contributing to the undermining of regimes, autocratic regimes that had been there for a long time. … From Putin’s point of view, this was all part of a pattern of undermining existing governments, usually authoritarian governments which bore some similarities to his own, and that ultimately that could threaten his own control in the Kremlin. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • The Munich speech … was the self-absorbed product of fifteen years of accumulated Russian frustrations and grievances, amplified by Putin’s own sense that Russia’s concerns are still often taken for granted or ignored. … For Russians nothing is more satisfying than poking at Americans, with whom they have tried to compare themselves for so long. (Email to Condoleeza Rice, 02.16.07)

China-Russia: Allied or Aligned?

  • I don’t think any foreign leader has paid more careful attention to that war and Russia’s poor military performance as Xi Jinping has as he thinks about his own ambitions in Taiwan and elsewhere. (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • He [Putin] may be overestimating the extent to which the Chinese leadership will be able or willing to help him deal with quite severe economic consequences of his invasion of Ukraine. … I recall after the sanctions that were levied against Russia after his prior aggression in Crimea…the Chinese drove a very hard bargain over pipelines that the Russians were trying to negotiate. There weren’t particularly flexible or sympathetic during that period. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • The Chinese leadership…has invested a lot in partnership in partnership with Russia and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. I do, however, believe that the Chinese leadership and president Xi in particular is unsettled by what he’s seen partly because his own intelligence doesn’t appear to have told him what was going to happen. Second, because of the reputational damage that China suffers by association with the ugliness of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Third by the economic consequences at the time when the growth rates in China…are lower than they’ve been in thirty years. The fourth is because president Xi is probably a little bit unsettled as he watches the way president Putin has driven Americans and Europeans more closely together and strengthened the transatlantic alliance in ways that would have been a little hard to imagine before the invasion began. I think the Chinese leadership looks at Europe not just as a market but as a kind of payer with whom they can have an independent relationship and try to look for ways in which they can drive wedges between us and our European allies. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • The joint statement that president Xi and president Putin issued on the fourth of February…was the most sweeping expression of their commitment to partnership we’ve seen. What’s unfolded in Ukraine, the ugliness of it…have unsettled the Chinese leadership. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • They [the Chinese leadership] are worried about…the wider economic consequences. Especially in 22 when the Chinese leadership is preoccupied with the Party Congress in November, they are looking for a relative stability and predictability in the global economy. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • The overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy today, it seems to me, is to adapt to an international landscape in which American dominance is fading. … We can’t turn the clock back to the post–Cold War unipolar moment. But over at least the next few decades, we can remain the world’s pivotal power—best placed among our friends and rivals to navigate a more crowded, complicated and competitive world. We still have a better hand to play than any of our main competitors, if we play it wisely. That means doing a better job managing the return of great power rivalry, as a rising China asserts itself and Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be even more disruptive than rising ones. (Interview with American Foreign Service Association, May 2019)
  • Demographic decline was not an abstract problem if you were one of the lonely thirty million Russians east of the Urals—distributed sparsely over a vast swath of the earth, sitting on vast natural resources, and staring across a long border at nearly a billion and a half Chinese. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • If Putin’s goal, like lots of people in the Russian political elite, is to restore Russia as a major power, rebuild it after a period of historic weakness in the ’90s, there are at least two different ways of doing that. … The second alternative in an international order led by the United States is to chip away at the U.S. position in that order. Make common cause where you can, whether it’s with China or Iran in the Middle East or other places, other states that may not have an identical view of the world as Putin does, but where you can make common cause at chipping away at the American role. That's the path essentially that he’s chosen. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)


  • Most conflicts end in negotiations. But that requires seriousness on the part of the Russians…that I don’t think we see. At least it’s not our assessment that the Russians are serious at this point about a real negotiation (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • …What Putin is trying to do is wreck the Ukrainian economy. It obviously also does deep damage to some of the most vulnerable societies on Earth—in Africa and the Middle East—that depend on those grain shipments (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • I don't think it should come as a surprise to anyone that the counteroffensive is a hard slog. The Russians have had months to prepare not only fixed defenses in Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine, but also quite thick and extensive minefields as well. (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • …It’s also been very useful that Xi Jinping and prime minister Modi in India have voiced their concerns about the use of nuclear weapons. That’s also having an impact on the Russians (Interview with NPR, 07.21.23)
  • Putin’s war has already been a strategic failure for Russia — its military weaknesses laid bare; its economy badly damaged for years to come; its future as a junior partner and economic colony of China being shaped by Putin’s mistakes; its revanchist ambitions blunted by a NATO that has only grown bigger and stronger. (Ditchley Foundation, 07.01.23)
  • The potential for the use of chemical weapons either as a false flag operation or against Ukrainians, this is something…that is very much a part of Russia’s playbook. They’ve used these weapons against their own citizens, they’ve at least encouraged their use in Syria and elsewhere. … Our efforts at selective declassification to preempt those kind of false flag efforts and the creation of false narratives have been so important. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • President Putin does not have a sustainable end game in Ukraine. The question is he simply going to continue to double-down and grind-down the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian population or at some point does he recognize that reality and look for ways to end the bloodshed, to cut his losses and to reaffirm the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine … that’s probably a long shot. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • Among the many profoundly flawed assumption that president Putin made in launching this invasion is the assumption that he had built a sanctions-proof economy…that by building a very large warchest of foreign currency reserves and gold reserves and by not anticipating there’d be sanctions against the Russian Central Bank, by not anticipating that the German leadership would show such resolve…he deeply underestimated the economic consequences…they are just now being felt in Russia and it’s going to intensify. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • One of the most striking unintended consequences from Putin’s point of view is the extent to which a number of leading European governments seem to be belatedly realizing the threat…that they face by overdependence on Russian energy resources. It could have a quite significant long-term strategic effect as well. (Testimony Before the Senate Intelligence Committee, 03.10.22)
  • After the pro-Russian president of Ukraine fled during widespread protests, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. If he couldn’t have a deferential government in Kiev, he wanted to engineer the next best thing: a dysfunctional Ukraine. (The Atlantic, April 2019)
  • By swallowing up a couple of million Crimeans, he’s [Putin] insured that there are forty-two million other Ukrainians who never again want to accept a deferential role toward Russia. (Interview with The New Yorker, 03.19.19)
  • Where we made a serious strategic mistake … was in later letting inertia to drive us to push for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, despite Russia’s deep historical attachments to both states and even stronger protestations. That did indelible damage, and fed the appetite of a future Russian leadership for getting even. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • I think he [Putin] was surprised by the pace of events, the speed with which Yanukovych abandoned the scene. He responded in the only way I think that he knew how, and the only way he thought would work in support of Russia’s interests were, if you talk about Russia’s sphere of influence, Ukraine was the reddest of red lines from Putin’s point of view. I'm sure in the Kremlin, there were contingency plans that had already been developed for retaking Crimea. Not that I think Putin was planning on that happening at that moment in history, but you can see quickly how he came to the conclusion that Russia [should] attack decisively to assert its interests, and swallowing up Crimea in a blatant act of Russian aggression was the obvious conclusion for him. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has violated basic international norms and posed a direct challenge to the rules of the road which have shaped the global order. (Asia Society Policy Institute, 04.08.14)

Russia's other post-Soviet neighbors:

  • Putin was determined to take Saakashvili down a peg, and perhaps also to show, in the wake of the Bucharest statement, that the Germans and French were right to see Georgia’s not-so-frozen conflicts as a long-term obstacle to NATO membership. He was clearly baiting the impulsive Georgian president, who may have wanted his own reasons after Bucharest to act in South Ossetia and force a resolution of the disputes there and in Abkhazia. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • Yeltsin’s foreign policy sought to mask national weakness and reassert Russian prerogatives. … Assertive policies abroad had become one of the few themes that united Russians amid continued bickering over domestic issues. Yeltsin was determined to reaffirm Russia’s great power status and independent interests in Russia’s so-called Near Abroad, the neighboring post-Soviet republics of Eurasia. (“The Back Channel,” 2019)
  • On the military side, again, what shaped Putin’s view is the Russian military in the ’90s, particularly in the First Chechen War in ’94 to ’96. Here you had what was once the vaunted Red Army that was supposed to be able to reach the English Channel in 48 hours that proved entirely ineffective in trying to deal with a small rebellion of Chechen irregular forces as well. So he was convinced that you had to rebuild Russian military might. What the Georgia war in August of 2008 exposed was that they had made some progress toward restoring a more modern Russian military, but they still had a long way to go as well. (Interview with PBS, 06.14.17)
  • The charge is often made that Russia's motive for keeping the conflicts frozen is geostrategic, or "neo-imperialism," or fear of NATO, or revenge against Georgia and Moldova, or a quest to preserve leverage. Indeed, the continued deployments may satisfy those Russians who think in such terms, and expand the domestic consensus for sending troops throughout the CIS. However, while one or another of those factors may have been the original impulse, each of the conflicts has gone through phases in which the conflict's perceived uses for the Russian state have changed. No one of these factors has been continuous over the life of any of the conflicts. (U.S. Embassy Cable, 05.30.06)

IV: Quoteworthy

  • In my experience, Putin is a very combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity, all wrapped up together. To understand the smoldering aggressiveness, which we have seen from Putin’s Russia in recent years, it helps to understand Boris Yeltsin’s Russia… (Lecture for the Foreign Policy Association, 04.13.22)
  • “Managing relations with Russia will be a long game, conducted within a relatively narrow band of possibilities. Navigating such a great-power rivalry requires tactful diplomacy—maneuvering in the gray area between peace and war; demonstrating a grasp of the limits of the possible; building leverage; exploring common ground where we can find it; and pushing back firmly and persistently where we can’t. The path ahead with Russia will get rockier before it gets easier. We ought to traverse it without illusions, mindful of Russia’s interests and sensibilities, unapologetic about our values and confident in our own enduring strengths. We should not give in to Putin—or give up on the Russia beyond him." (The Atlantic, April 2019).




This is an evolving product that may be periodically updated to reflect Burns' latest thoughts. It was originally published on Jan. 14, 2021, and most recently updated on Sept. 19, 2023. Mikael Pir-Budagyan, a student associate of RM and a graduate student at Georgetown University, contributed to the latest update. 

Photo by World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard shared under a Creative Commons license.


Daniel Shapiro

Daniel Shapiro is a graduate of Harvard University and a former associate with Russia Matters.