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CIA Director William Burns discusses recent developments in the war in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensified this week, with Russia attacking Ukrainian port cities that ship grain around the world and Ukraine starting to use U.S.-supplied cluster bombs. That's something our colleague and All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly asked CIA director William Burns about last night at the Aspen Security Forum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: You were just in Ukraine. How is the big counteroffensive going? What's your assessment?

WILLIAM BURNS: I'm a pretty regular traveler to Ukraine, you know, over the course of the last 18 months. And that's a reflection of the significance that the president, everyone in the U.S. government, attaches to our support for what has been an incredibly courageous and tenacious Ukrainian effort to fight back against Putin and against Russia. 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.

I am, however, an optimist. And I think the thing sometimes that it's easy to forget is that behind those considerable fixed defenses that the Russians have built, you know, there still lies some pretty significant structural weaknesses - poor morale, uneven generalship, to put it mildly, on the Russian side. I think it is going to be a tough slog, but we're going to do everything we can as an intelligence agency to provide the kind of intelligence support and sharing that's going to help the Ukrainians to make progress.

KELLY: One thing that feels important to ask about, because we seem to be talking about it less - it's less in the news - is the possibility of a nuclear weapon being introduced in the war zone. I know that late last year you met with your Russian counterpart, Sergey Naryshkin, and you have described that your orders were - from President Biden - to make very clear what the consequences would be if Russia were to go down that path. Are you more or less worried about that now than a year ago?

BURNS: Well, I mean, I'd say several things. First, you know, 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.

KELLY: How much more instability has it just introduced to have Russia pull out of the grain deal and increasingly expanding its attacks on the Black Sea?

BURNS: Well, it's deeply troubling. I mean, first for Ukrainians, where, you know, 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. And, you know, we see some very concerning signs of the Russians considering the kind of false flag operations...

KELLY: Yeah.

BURNS: ...That, you know, we highlighted in the run-up to the war as well. In other words, looking at ways in which, you know, they might make attacks against shipping in the Black Sea and then blaming it, or trying to blame it, on the Ukrainians.

FADEL: All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly speaking with CIA director William Burns. You can hear more of that interview this afternoon on All Things Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.