Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have succumbed to his own mythmaking and hyperbole, unable to let go of his desire to conquer Ukraine, no matter what the costs, according to a public assessment by America’s top spymaster.
CIA Director William Burns, the last U.S. official to meet with Putin before he ordered Russian forces into Ukraine in February, warned late Wednesday that the Russian leader truly believes he must conquer Ukraine to fulfill his destiny.
“Putin really does believe his rhetoric, and I’ve heard him say it privately over the years, that Ukraine's not a real country. … He really thought he could take Kyiv in less than a week,” Burns told an audience at the annual Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.
“He is convinced that his destiny as Russia's leader is to restore Russia as a great power … and he does not believe you can do that without controlling Ukraine and its choices,” Burns added. "He believes it’s his entitlement, it’s Russia's entitlement to dominate Ukraine."
Previous U.S, intelligence assessments have suggested that while Putin had no intention of forsaking his effort to conquer all of Ukraine, it was possible he might be willing to officially pause the fighting to give his forces time to reorganize following substantial losses since the invasion began.
“It is entirely plausible, from our perspective, that depending on how things develop over the coming months and so on that he [Putin] is convinced that there is value in effect, coming to some sort of agreement,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said last month.
U.S. intelligence estimates say approximately 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine, with another 45,000 wounded.
Ukrainian defense officials put the number of Russian soldiers killed at about 38,000.
Burns seemed to cast doubt on the idea a deal of some sort could be in play, describing it as inconsistent with Putin’s world view.
Putin is “a big believer in control and intimidation and getting even," Burns said, calling the Russian leader “an apostle of payback."
"As his grip on power has tightened, as his circle of advisers has narrowed, his own personal sense of destiny and his appetite for risk has grown," Burns said. “Putin's bet ... is that he can succeed in a grinding war of attrition, that they can wear down the Ukrainian military, that winter's coming and so he can strangle the Ukrainian economy, he can wear down European publics and leadership, and he can wear down the United States."
“My own strong view is that Putin was wrong in his assumptions about breaking the [NATO] alliance and breaking Ukrainian will before the war began and I think he's just as wrong now," Burns said.
There are some indications that Russia has learned lessons from its early failures in Ukraine, limiting its objectives to those in the Donbas region and by increasing its use of long-range artillery, an area in which Moscow maintains an advantage over Kyiv.
At the same time, however, there are signs Putin’s ambitions are reemerging.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday warned that Russian forces could soon expand their “special operation” due to the provision of U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Ukraine.
“Now the geography has changed. It's not just Donetsk and Luhansk, it's Kherson, Zaporizhia, and several other territories,” Lavrov told state-run media Wednesday.
“We cannot allow the part of Ukraine that will be controlled by [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, or whoever replaces him, to contain weapons that will pose a direct threat to our territory and the territory of the republics that have declared independence, those that want to determine their own future."
Two hundred Ukrainian troops have been trained on the HIMARS and at least eight units have seen action so far, according to U.S. military officials, targeting and destroying Russian weapon depots and command-and-control centers.
U.S. defense officials have said four more HIMARS are being sent to the Ukrainian military and promised the delivery of yet another four systems in a security package set to be announced later this week.
“We're not working just to provide security assistance in the short term,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday. “[We're] also looking ahead to provide Ukraine with the capabilities that it will need for deterrence and defense over the longer term.”
Other Ukrainian allies also see the war grinding on.
“We don't see any signs that the war will end soon,” NATO Assistant Secretary General for Intelligence and Security David Cattler told an online forum Tuesday.
“In fact, there are even more signs that this war will be a very long one," he said.
Russia and Iran
U.S. defense and intelligence officials are warning Iran not to get involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
A day after Putin met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters at the Pentagon it would be a “really, really bad idea” for Iran to provide Russia with armed drones.
“On the issue of Iranian support to Russia, we would advise Iran to not do that,” Austin said.
Asked about Austin’s comments, Burns called Austin, “very good at understatement.”
"The reality is Russians and Iranians need each other right now, both heavily sanctioned countries, both looking to break out of political isolation,” Burns added. “But I think as troubling as some of the steps between those two parties are, and we focus on them very sharply at CIA, there are limits I think, to the ways in which they're going to be able to help one another right now.”
Lessons for China
Burns said Moscow is getting some help from China, with Beijing stepping up purchases of energy products to help support the Russian economy. But he cautioned the Chinese have been very cautious about lending Russia any military support.
“It seems to me that President Xi [Jinping] and the Chinese leadership has been unsettled to some extent, especially in the first phase of Putin's war in Ukraine … unsettled by the military performance of the Russians early on and the performance of Russian weaponry, unsettled by the economic uncertainties that the war has unleashed,” he said.
However, Burns said Russia’s struggles are unlikely to change China’s calculus about using force to take Taiwan.
“Our sense is that it probably affects less the question of whether the Chinese leadership might choose some years down the road to use force to control Taiwan but how and when they will do it,” he said.
“If there's one lesson I think they may be drawing from Putin's experience in Ukraine, is you don't achieve quick decisive victories with underwhelming force,” Burns said.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum earlier Wednesday, China’s ambassador to the United States played down the likelihood Beijing would use force against Taiwan.
“The last thing we wish to do is to fight with our compatriots [in Taiwan]," Ambassador Qin Gang said, accusing the U.S. of sending sophisticated weapons to support the Taiwanese military.
“We will try our best in our great sincerity to achieve the peaceful reunification," Qin added. “The ‘One China’ principle is the political foundation for China-U.S. relations, and is the bedrock for the peace and stability across Taiwan Strait … but we urge the United States to honor its commitments with actions."