CIA director held covert meeting with Zelensky on Russia’s next steps

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CIA Director William J. Burns secretly traveled to the Ukrainian capital late last week to brief President Volodymyr Zelensky on his expectations for what Russia plans militarily in the coming weeks and months, a US official and others with knowledge of the visit said.

Burns’ travel comes at a critical point in the 11-month war. Russian forces are launching a massive offensive near the eastern city of Bakhmut that is causing heavy casualties on both sides and forcing Ukraine to weigh its resources as it prepares for a counteroffensive elsewhere in the country.

Zelensky and his senior intelligence officials discussed during the meeting how long Ukraine could expect US and Western aid to continue after Republicans take over the House and decline in support for Ukraine’s aid among parts of the US electorate, it was said. people familiar with the meeting. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the high-level private involvement.

Burns emphasized the urgency of the battlefield and acknowledged that at some point help would be harder to come by, the people said.

Zelensky and his aides emerged from last week’s meeting with the understanding that the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv remains strong and that the $45 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine passed by Congress in December through July or August would last at least, those who know about the discussion. said. Kyiv is not as confident about the prospects of Congress passing another multibillion-dollar supplemental aid package as it did last spring, they said.

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“Director Burns traveled to Kyiv where he met with Ukrainian intelligence colleagues as well as President Zelensky and reaffirmed our continued support for Ukraine to defend it against Russian aggression,” the US official said.

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Burns respects Zelensky’s inner circle for his accurate warning in January 2022 that Russian forces would try to seize Ukraine’s Antonov Airport in the early stages of the February 24 invasion. His message, delivered in person, was based on a US intelligence assessment and is credited with helping Ukraine prepare to defend the airport and deny Russia the base it needed to capture Kyiv .

Burns’ skeptical view of Russia’s willingness to negotiate also endeared him to Zelensky’s aides, who bristled at suggestions Ukraine should consider talking to the Russians to end the conflict.

“Most conflicts end in negotiation, but that requires a seriousness from the Russians in this situation that I don’t think we’re seeing,” Burns told PBS last month. “At least it’s not our assessment that the Russians are serious at this point about real negotiations.”

A CIA spokesman declined to characterize what Burns told Zelensky about Russian military planning. Any insights he could offer in Civ would be greatly appreciated.

Currently, Ukrainian and Russian forces are locked in a pitched war in eastern Ukraine around Bakhmut. The city has little strategic value but is of symbolic importance to both sides, especially Russia, which has not captured a major Ukrainian city since last summer.

Military analysts expect that a peak in the fighting this spring could determine the course of the war.

The United States and Western countries are rushing armored vehicles, artillery and missiles to Ukraine in an effort to bolster its military’s firepower, hoping the extra equipment will enable Zelensky’s army to break through Russian-controlled areas. , such as Zaporizhzhia in attacks that are expected to start in. the coming months.

The bloody siege of Bakhmut poses risks for Ukraine

Meanwhile, Russia is looking to launch its own offensive in the spring, hoping to draft more troops after mobilizing 300,000 men last September. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu unveiled a proposal in December to increase the country’s military personnel to 1.5 million by 2026, up from 1.1 million now.

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Moscow, which has recruited convicted felons in the war effort, has shown its willingness to suffer heavy casualties. Last year, many of the recruits were very experienced, with only two weeks of training before being sent to the front lines. But in recent months, Russia has improved its training, according to Western intelligence officials.

Burns, a former ambassador to Russia and a senior State Department official, is one of the US government’s leading experts on Russia. He has thought a lot about the place Ukraine occupies in the Russian psyche.

During the George W. Bush administration, when the topic of NATO membership for Ukraine was discussed, Burns emphasized the depth of Russian opposition to the idea in a memo to then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

“Ukraine’s entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not only [Vladimir] Putin), ” he wrote. “I have yet to find anyone who sees Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

More recently, Burns has linked the Russian President’s decision to invade Ukraine as a key step in his goal of returning Moscow to its former glory.

“He is convinced that his destiny as the leader of Russia is to restore Russia as a great power,” he told an audience at a security forum in Aspen in July. “He believes the key to doing that is recreating a sphere of influence in Russia’s neighborhood and he doesn’t believe you can do that without controlling Ukraine and its options. And that, I think, is what created this terrible war.”

The CIA director met with Zelensky in Kyiv as the capital targeted by Russian missiles

Burns also visited Ukraine in November. The trips allow the top spy to build trust with his intelligence colleagues and gain a better understanding of the conflict, people familiar with his travels said.

Burns’ latest trip comes ahead of a busy week of engagements in Ukraine.

On Tuesday, the Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, with his Ukrainian counterpart in Poland for their first face-to-face interaction since the war began.

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On Wednesday, Zelensky urged supporters of Ukraine to send tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, and criticized Germany for refusing to supply its modern Leopard tanks unless the United States sends the more advanced Abrams tanks.

“There are times when we should not hesitate,” Zelensky told an audience in Davos, Switzerland, via video feed.

On the same day, NATO defense ministers began a two-day meeting in Brussels to discuss the issue of allied Leopard tanks, with Poland threatening to send 14 tanks regardless of whether Germany approves. Technically, German approval is needed because it is the manufacturer of the Leopard 2.

“Either we will get this consent, or we will do the right thing ourselves,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a local broadcaster.

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