As CIA sees it: Where Russia went wrong, what lies ahead

CIA director William J Burns said the Russian military casualties had been far in excess of what Putin had assumed
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (REUTERS Photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (REUTERS Photo)
Published on Mar 09, 2022 08:38 AM IST
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WASHINGTON: All of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assumptions – about Ukraine, Europe, efficacy of sanctions and his own military strength – have turned out to be “profoundly flawed”, he has no “sustainable political end-game”, but he will double down and the next few weeks will be even more “ugly”, William J Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has said.

Testifying before a House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Burns, who is among America’s top Russia experts and has served as ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary of State before his current role, said that Putin was determined to “dominate and control Ukraine, to shape its orientation”. “This is a matter of deep personal conviction for him. He has been stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for many years.” Burns added that this mattered a lot more than ever in the Russian system, with Putin’s circle of advisors getting narrower and narrower, and few willing to question or challenge his judgment.

Burns, who went to Moscow in early November to warn Russia that the US was aware of its invasion plans and gave the green signal for the novel use of releasing intelligence in the public domain in the run-up to the invasion, said that Putin had made four assumptions. “First, in his view, Ukraine was weak and easily intimidated. Second, Europeans, especially French and Germans, were distracted with elections in France and leadership succession in Germany and risk-averse. Third, he believed he had sanctions-proofed his economy in the sense of creating a large war chest of foreign currency reserves. Fourth, he was confident he had modernised his military and they were capable of a quick, decisive victory at every count.”

Each of these assumptions, Burns claimed, had proven false. On the first, the CIA director said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had “risen to the moment” and Ukrainians had resisted fiercely. Putin had come to believe that Ukraine was not a real country. “He was dead wrong. Real countries fight back. And that’s what the Ukrainians have done quite heroically.” Second, Burns said that Europeans, especially the Germans, had shown remarkable resolve. Germany recently reversed its traditional policy, and ramped up defence spending and sent arms to Ukraine.

“Third, the economic consequences of the sanctions which have been enacted so far have proven to be devastating for Russia, especially against the Russian Central Bank, depriving Putin of the ability that he had assumed he would have to defend the ruble.” And finally, Burns claimed, the Russian military’s performance had been “largely ineffective”. “Instead of seizing Kyiv within the first two days of the campaign, which was what his plan was premised upon, after nearly 12 days, they still have not been able to fully encircle the city.” He added that Russian military casualties had been far in excess of what Putin had assumed.

Looking ahead, Burns said Putin was “angry and frustrated”. “He is likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties. The challenge that he faces – and this is the biggest question that has hung over our analysis of his planning for months now – is that he has no sustainable political end-game in the face what is going to continue to be fierce resistance from Ukrainians.”

The CIA director said they failed to see how Putin could “sustain a puppet regime, a pro-Russian leadership” that he tried to install in face of opposition from the Ukrainian people. This would, Burns said, lead to “an ugly next few weeks” where Putin would double down, with scant regard for civilian casualties, where urban warfare can get even uglier. “One thing I am convinced of is that Ukrainians will continue to resist fiercely and effectively.”


    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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