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CIA Director William Burns on Thursday said Chinese President Xi Jinping is “a silent partner” in Russia President Vladimir Putin’s “aggression” in Ukraine, warning that China poses the “greatest challenge” and “most profound test” that the agency has ever faced.
Burns, speaking at Georgia Tech University Thursday, in his first public speech as CIA director, laid out a “new era” for the agency, and an international landscape that is “vastly different” from the inception of the Central Intelligence Agency.
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“It’s a more complicated and contested world, featuring the rise of an increasingly adversarial China and a pugnacious and revisionist Russia,” Burns said, noting that the agency will “have to reimagine itself to compete successfully in this new age.”
Burns pointed to the “immediate threat posed by renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine,” and to the “longer term problem posed by China’s ambitious leadership,” calling it “the single most important geopolitical challenge” of the 21st century.
“A silent partner in Putin’s aggression, Xi Jinping’s China is our greatest challenge, in many ways the most profound test the CIA has ever faced,” Burns warned, calling the People’s Republic of China a “formidable competitor lacking in neither ambition nor capability.”
“It seeks to overtake us in literally every domain, from economic strength to military power, and from space to cyber space,” he said, adding that China is “intent” on replacing the United States as “the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific.”
“As an intelligence service, we have never had to deal with an adversary with more reach in more domain,” Burns said.
The Biden administration has voiced “deep concerns” about Russia’s “alignment” with China. Intelligence officials said that the Kremlin had turned to Beijing for economic and military aid after its invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24.
Last month, President Biden held a secure video call with Xi for nearly two hours in which he warned of the “consequences” should China “provide material support” to Russia amid its multi-front war on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as for Russia’s war on Ukraine, Burns reflected on his career, having previously served as the U.S. ambassador in Moscow and his experience with Putin.
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“His risk appetite has grown, as his grip on Russia has tightened,” Burns said. “His circle of advisers has narrowed, and in that small circle, it has never been career enhancing to question his judgement or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s sphere of influence.”
Burns said the CIA, early last fall, began gathering intelligence about Putin’s plans for an invasion of Ukraine.
“In November, President Biden asked me to travel to Russia to convey directly to Putin and several of his closest advisors the depth of our concern about his planning for war, and the consequences for Russia of attempting to execute that plan,” Burns said, noting he was “troubled” by what he heard.
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“While it did not yet seem that he had made an irreversible decision to invade Ukraine, Putin was defiantly leaning in that direction, apparently convinced that his window was closing for shaping Ukraine’s orientation,” Burns said, adding that he “seemed convinced” that winter “offered a favorable landscape.”
Burns said Putin, at the time, thought it was “unlikely” that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainians would “mount effective resistance.”
Burns said that upon launching his multi-front war in February, Putin was “proven wrong.”
As for U.S. intelligence amid Russia’s war on Ukraine, Burns said the administration has been “committed to rapid and effective intelligence sharing with our Ukrainian partners throughout the fighting and for months beforehand.”
“As allied leaders and counterparts have emphasized directly in my travels to Europe, the credibility of US intelligence helped cement the solidarity of the alliance at President Biden’s direction,” Burns said, adding that the US government has also “taken unprecedented steps to declassify intelligence and use it publicly to preempt false narratives and false flag operations, which Putin has used so often in the past.”
“By being open with some of our secrets, we made it harder for Putin to obscure the truth of his unprovoked and vicious aggression,” Burns said. “Those decisions can never be taken lightly given the importance of protecting sources and methods, but, in this case, they have made a crucial contribution to a successful whole of government strategy.”
Burns said it reflects “the need for new thinking and new tactics in this new and demanding era for intelligence.”
“The last chapter in Putin’s war has yet to be written as he grinds away in Ukraine,” Burns warned, saying that he has “no doubt about the cruel pain and damage that Putin can continue to inflict on Ukraine, or the raw brutality with which Russian force is being applied.”
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Burns said the “crimes in Bucha are horrific,” but said the “Ukrainian will is unbroken.”
“Putin’s Russia has inflicted massive material and reputational damage on itself,” Burns said. “American intelligence has been vital throughout and offers valuable lessons for the future of our profession, how to develop good intelligence, use it as the basis for good policy, share it systematically as the basis for good alliances and partnerships, and deploy it openly and creatively to discredit the false narratives on which adversaries so often thrive.”
President Biden, this week, has classified actions by Russian forces in Bucha and throughout Ukraine as a “genocide,” saying it has become “clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out even the idea of being Ukrainian.”
“The evidence is mounting,” Biden told reporters.
Biden’s comments drew praise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Tuesday, calling the comments “true words of a true leader.”
“Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil,” Zelenskyy said on Twitter. “We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities.”
Russia, on Wednesday, though, said Biden’s comments were “unacceptable.”
“We consider this kind of effort to distort the situation unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, according to Reuters.
“This is hardly acceptable from a president of the United States, a country that has committed well-known crimes in recent times,” he added.
Human Rights Watch has documented evidence of summary executions, unlawful violence and threats against civilians, and repeated rapes between Feb. 27 and March 14. A report from the organization also implicates Russian soldiers in looting civilian property, including food, clothing and firewood.
The Senate, last month, approved a resolution that will investigate Putin for war crimes, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. findings will be used to help international efforts to hold the Kremlin accountable.
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Since the onslaught of the war on Feb. 24, Russian forces have hit apartment buildings, children’s and maternity hospitals, bread lines and most recently a theater that was sheltering roughly 1,000 men, women and children in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Russian forces have also been accused of using cluster munitions and vacuum bombs in the war, which violate international law when used indiscriminately against civilians.
The International Criminal Court said earlier this month that it is opening an investigation into potential war crimes by Putin in his invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as for China, last year, Burns announced the formation of the CIA’s China Mission Center to counter Beijing. He also warned, then, that China poses “the most important geopolitical threat” to the United States in the 21st century.
The CMC addresses the challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China and emphasized last year, and again Thursday, that the CIA’s concern about the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China, the PRC, is “not about the people of China, let alone fellow Americans of Chinese or Asian descent.”
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“It is a profound mistake to conflate the two,” he said Thursday. “At CIA, we will stay sharply focused on the PRC challenge.”
Last month, the intelligence community annual threat assessment was released, with data only through January, but which warned that China is increasingly a “near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas—especially economically, militarily, and technologically—and is pushing to change global norms and potentially threatening its neighbors.”
And as many have said Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has emboldened China with regard to its ambition to take Taiwan, the intelligence community warned that Beijing is using a coordinated approach to compel neighbors to “acquiesce” to its preferences, “including its territorial and maritime claims and assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan.”
“Beijing will press Taiwan to move toward unification and will react to what it views as increased U.S.– Taiwan engagement,” the IC states. “We expect that friction will grow as China continues to increase military activity around the island, and Taiwan’s leaders resist Beijing’s pressure for progress toward unification.”
The IC also assessed that China presents “the broadest, most active, and persistent cyber espionage threat to U.S. Government and private sector networks.”
“China’s cyber pursuits and export of related technologies increase the threats of attacks against the U.S. homeland, suppression of U.S. web content that Beijing views as threatening to its control, and the expansion of technology-driven authoritarianism globally,” the report states.
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Beyond Russia and China, Burns said the CIA is looking at the “revolution in technology,” which he said is transforming “the way we live, work, compete, and fight.”
Burns said technology—like quantum computing and synthetic biology—is “coming at a dizzying speed,” while warning of “familiar threats” like terrorism and nuclear proliferation “demand our attention.”
But further committing to the mission of the CIA, Burns declared that “politics truly must stop where intelligence work begins.”
“In all that we do, we have an obligation to follow the law, which we take very seriously,” Burns said. “We only get ourselves in trouble as a nation and make bad policy choices when we forget those basic truths.”