Former US Ambassador to Russia, now CIA Director, Called Out US Policy on Ukraine/NATO when still a Diplomat

(Caption for 2008 photo at top of the post, from Putin’s Office of the President: “Meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns. On the right from President, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.” Boy, do they have foreign policy continuity, reminds one of 19th century.)

Further to this post,

Russia vs Ukraine, or, US Hyperpower (formerly) Over-Stretch (note UPPESTDATE)

some excellent and intriguing points at this piece at The Beinart Notebook:

Biden’s CIA Director Doesn’t Believe Biden’s Story about Ukraine

Peter Beinart

If you’ve followed the diplomacy over Ukraine closely, you may have noticed that the Biden administration has relied heavily on CIA Director William J. (Bill) Burns. In November it dispatched him to Moscow where, according to CNN, he served as a “key intermediary” between the US and Vladimir Putin. In January he flew to Germany to discuss Ukraine with the new government in Berlin. This all makes sense. Burns is the Biden administration’s highest-ranking Russia expert. He’s a fluent Russian speaker who has served twice in the US embassy in Moscow, the second time as ambassador [emphasis added]. Which makes it all the more striking that Burns, in his memoir, flatly contradicts the Biden administration’s narrative about how this crisis came to be. Remarkably, one of the most trenchant critics of official US discourse on Russia and Ukraine is the sitting director of the CIA.

…To hear the Biden administration tell it, the Ukraine crisis is the product of one man: Vladimir Putin. Putin fears that if Ukraine joins NATO and becomes a pro-Western democracy, Russians will want the same for themselves and thus rise up against his tyrannical rule. The idea that Russians genuinely think NATO poses a security threat is transparent bunk.

The Biden narrative isn’t entirely false. Putin surely does fear that a democratic, pro-Western Ukraine could inspire popular uprisings in his country. But it is partially false because it suggests that were Putin not in power, Russia’s government would have no problem with Ukraine joining NATO. And it implies that the US bears no responsibility for the current standoff. According to Bill Burns, Biden’s own CIA Director, neither of those claims are true.

Two years ago, Burns wrote a memoir entitled, The Back Channel. It directly contradicts the argument being proffered by the administration he now serves. In his book, Burns says over and over that Russians of all ideological stripes—not just Putin—loathed and feared NATO expansion [emphasis added]. He quotes a memo he wrote while serving as counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Moscow in 1995. ‘Hostility to early NATO expansion,” it declares, “is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.” On the question of extending NATO membership to Ukraine, Burns’ warnings about the breadth of Russian opposition are even more emphatic. “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin),” he wrote in a 2008 memo to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice [emphasis added]. “In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

While the Biden administration claims that Putin bears all the blame for the current Ukraine crisis, Burns makes clear that the US helped lay its foundations. By taking advantage of Russian weakness, he argues, Washington fueled the nationalist resentment that Putin exploits today. Burns calls the Clinton administration’s decision to expand NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst [emphasis added].” And he describes the appetite for revenge it fostered among many in Moscow during Boris Yeltsin’s final years as Russia’s president. “As Russians stewed in their grievance and sense of disadvantage,” Burns writes, “a gathering storm of ‘stab in the back’ theories slowly swirled, leaving a mark on Russia’s relations with the West that would linger for decades.”

As the Bush administration moved toward opening NATO’s doors to Ukraine, Burns’ warnings about a Russian backlash grew even starker. He told Rice it was “hard to overstate the strategic consequences” of offering NATO membership to Ukraine and predicted that “it will create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine [emphasis added].” Although Burns couldn’t have predicted the specific kind of meddling Putin would employ—either in 2014 when he seized Crimea and fomented a rebellion in Ukraine’s east or today—he warned that the US was helping set in motion the kind of crisis that America faces today. Promise Ukraine membership in NATO, he wrote, and “There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard.”

Were a reporter to read Burns’ quotes to White House press secretary Jen Psaki today, she’d likely accuse them of “parroting Russian talking points.” But Burns is hardly alone. From inside the US government, many officials warned that US policy toward Russia might bring disaster…

Burns’ criticisms of past US policy toward Russia and Ukraine don’t mean he opposes Biden’s policy today. He may believe that while pushing NATO expansion helped bring about the current standoff, it would be a mistake to pull back from it now—at the point of a Russian gun. Until his next memoir, we’ll likely never know. But Burns’ criticisms are crucial nonetheless because they expose a fallacy in the current debate. Hawks say that if you criticize US policy toward Russia you’re whitewashing Putin’s aggression. What Burns shows is that it’s possible to recognize Putin’s malevolence while also recognizing that the US, by repeatedly humiliating Russia when it was weak, made it more likely that a figure like him would arise and seek to settle old scores [emphasis added]

The Biden White House must be relieved that as head of the CIA director Burns is supposed to be policy-neutral.

Very relevant recent posts:

Ukraine and NATO: If not Finlandization, then an Austrian solution?

Russia vs Ukraine: Liberal Hubris and Realism

Poem by Robert Burns sums matters up nicely:


O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:..

And a very pointed tweet by Prof. Justin Massie:

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

2 thoughts on “Former US Ambassador to Russia, now CIA Director, Called Out US Policy on Ukraine/NATO when still a Diplomat”

  1. Surely a reasonable deal (of whatever sort, and however publicly presented)–if Putin has any willingness to compromise–would have two fundamental elements as its essence:

    1) No NATO membership for Ukraine without Russia acquiescence; and

    2) No Russian efforts,including covert, to prevent Ukraine’s eventually joining the EU if and when the Union agrees to that.

    What the US administration, and far too many Americans, seem incapable of grasping (processing as one says these days?) is that what for a great number of Russians is a matter of fundamental national interest (as for the US are the foreign alignments of Canada and Mexico) is at root not equivalent to the US stance of defending a “principle” of pretty recent standing that a state must be able to join any alliance it wishes. That principle to my mind is no fundamental “international norm” (horrid and in reality fairly empty phrase) that one should defend defiantly and without concessions–yet not to the death as Prof. Massie highlighted.

    Mark Collins


  2. Thread based on piece by eminent historian of Eastern Europe Timothy Snyder (and a very liberal fellow)


    Mark Collins


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