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In rare public speech, the CIA director spoke about the spy agency's role in Ukraine


The CIA director, William Burns, delivered a rare public speech today and pulled back the curtain just a bit on the spy agency's role in the war in Ukraine. He also addressed some of the unusual ways the spy agency has been sharing intelligence both before and since the Russian invasion. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us with the details. Hi, Greg.


ESTRIN: What did the CIA director say? What's he been up to?

MYRE: Well, we should remember William Burns was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, so he studied Vladimir Putin very closely for years. He likes to joke he got his gray hair - most of it, at least - dealing with Putin. And last fall, the CIA began seeing developments that did suggest Russia was planning an invasion of Ukraine. So in November, President Biden sent Burns to Moscow to speak with Putin, and Burns said the visit was not encouraging.


WILLIAM BURNS: I was troubled by what I heard. 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.

ESTRIN: OK. So Burns meets Putin in November. He's convinced Putin is leaning towards war. How did that shape the response from the U.S. intelligence community?

MYRE: Really, in two key ways - first, Biden took the very unusual step of authorizing the declassification of intelligence and making it public. Now, this was to show the threat of a Russian invasion was real. It was also to debunk false narratives that Russia was putting out and to help convince U.S. allies and the larger international community to prepare for a war. And then second, the CIA has worked very closely with Ukraine, and this wasn't a given. Russian intelligence is very active in Ukraine, and anything the U.S. shared with Ukraine that was sensitive might get picked up by the Russians. But Burns says he believes this information the U.S. has provided has been very beneficial.


BURNS: We have been equally committed to rapid and effective intelligence sharing with our Ukrainian partners throughout the fighting and for months beforehand.

ESTRIN: Greg, let me just ask you - there's this long-standing belief that Russia's intelligence service is one of the best in the world. So how did it get Ukraine so wrong?

MYRE: Excellent question - no clear answer. Putin is a former intelligence officer. He's put a lot of effort and resources into Russia's intelligence community, and yet they completely miscalculated on Ukraine. The Russians thought Zelenskyy - President Zelenskyy would be a pushover. They thought the Ukrainians would actually welcome the Russians, and they never expected such a tough fight. Now, we should add, many analysts in the U.S. have been surprised by how well the Ukrainians have fought, also. But Burns said he thinks that over time, Putin has really just stopped taking advice, and this has led him to make some very bad decisions.


BURNS: His circle of advisers has narrowed, and in that small circle, it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia's sphere of influence.

ESTRIN: Wow. So if that is what he thinks Putin wants, what does the CIA director think lies ahead in the war?

MYRE: Well, Burns says everyone should be prepared for a protracted conflict. Putin has gone all-in in this war - no sign he's ready for a negotiated solution. And Burns said the kind of raw brutality, as he put it, that we've seen in Ukraine reminds him of when he was a diplomat in Russia way back in the mid-'90s. At that time, Russia was waging war against its own citizens, the Chechens, and absolutely reduced Chechen cities and towns to rubble and killed thousands of civilians in the process.

ESTRIN: NPR's Greg Myre, thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.