How Ukraine war 'unsettles' China - CIA chief
Director of the CIA, William Burns, tells Edward Luce, the FT's chief US commentator, how China's President Xi Jinping has been 'unsettled' by the war in Ukraine. Burns also warns FT conference delegates that it would be a mistake to underestimate Ukraine's intelligence capabilities and that Vladimir Putin remains determined to press on with the war.
Produced and filmed by Gregory Bobillot.
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We're here at the Kennedy Centre where the Weekend FT Festival is taking place in Washington DC. I've just spoken with Williams Burns, the CIA director, about the prospects of Putin's nuclear escalation, how China views the war in Ukraine, the future of CIA in the era of ubiquitous surveillance and a lot more.
A number of my colleagues were at the Munich Security Forum Conference a week before he actually invaded, so mid-February, and they were saying there was a lot of scepticism from Europeans that they thought well America is exaggerating again. So you took quite a risk in saying this is going to happen. What made you so confident over and above your meeting with him in November. Why were you so confident?
I mean, I think in many ways, it was the detail and precision of what we were seeing in terms of Russian planning combined with what I was trying to describe before, which was Vladimir Putin's absolute conviction that the window was closing for him to use force to try to shape Ukraine's orientation and his conviction that Ukrainian resistance would be weak and indecisive in some ways. And when the president has done that quite selectively, I think it's helped to deny Putin something that I watched over many years him do quite adeptly, which was to create false narratives to disarm what has been a useful weapon for him before.
It's been hard to open a newspaper this week in this town without hearing about much more specific American data provided to the Ukrainians enabling them to target Russian generals, 12 of whom are now dead, the Moskva, of course, the biggest naval sinking in 40 years. I know the president and the White House have said that this is irresponsible and dangerous, because it escalates America's perceived involvement in this war and pushes closer to Putin's red line. Could I ask you to comment on these stories? There have been quite a few.
It is irresponsible. It's very risky. It's dangerous when people talk too much, whether it's leaking in private or talking in public about specific intelligence issues. I mean, both the White House and the Department of Defence have spoken to this publicly. So I don't have anything to add to that.
I mean, the only thing, though, that I would say is that it's a big mistake to underestimate the significant intelligence capabilities that the Ukrainians themselves have. This is their country, they have a lot more information than we do and a lot more intelligence than we in the United States and amongst our allies do. It was a profound mistake. It was Putin's biggest mistake in planning for this invasion and then in launching it to underestimate Ukrainians, and I think it's equally a mistake for any of us to underestimate what they bring to the table in intelligence terms in defending their own country.
One of the things that, of course, is on everybody's mind is the escalatory risk of this situation. We've not seen a nuclear leader talk this often arguably at any time at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I mean, what I would stress at the start is we don't see as an intelligence community practical evidence at this point of Russian planning for deployment or even potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. But given the kind of sabre-rattling that you described we've heard from the Russian leadership, we can't take lightly those possibilities. And so we stay very sharply focused as an intelligence service, as I know our counterparts in allied countries do, on those possibilities. At a moment when, as I said before, the stakes are very high for Putin's Russia, and those risks I think in this second phase of the conflict are serious and shouldn't be underestimated. But again, we don't see practical evidence of preparations for that at this stage as well.
What lessons do you think China is drawing from the Ukraine situation for Taiwan, and what reappraisal, if any, do you think they're undergoing about Putin and his ability to calculate rationally based on good information.
I think what the experience, the bitter experience in many ways of Putin's Russia in Ukraine over the last 10 or 11 weeks has done is demonstrate that that friendship actually does have some limits. Because I think it strikes us anyway that Xi Jinping is a little bit unsettled by the reputational damage that can come to China by association with the brutishness of Russia's aggression against Ukrainians unsettled certainly by the economic uncertainty that's been produced by the war.
Clearly, the Chinese leadership is trying to look carefully at what lessons they should draw from Ukraine about their own ambitions in Taiwan. I don't for a minute think that it's eroded Xi's determination over time to gain control over Taiwan, but I think it's something that's affecting their calculation about how and when they go about doing that as well. I suspect that they've been surprised by Russian military performance. I suspect they've been struck by the ways in which Ukrainians through a kind of whole of society effort have resisted.
I think there have been struck by the way in which, particularly the Transatlantic Alliance has come together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of that aggression. So I think these are things that they're weighing very carefully right now.
I know you're not going to be able to answer, because you put people in danger about how you recruit Chinese assets in this environment. I know you can't. I know, I know how Daniel Craig would do it, but I suspect that's not, that's not amongst your options.
My wife and daughters constantly remind me I'm no Daniel Craig, so yeah.
In spite of everything that's going on and that we've mostly been discussing today, the big challenge is still China. Is that correct?
It is. I mean, as I said before and I profoundly believe this and, more importantly, I believe the president believes this, that the biggest geopolitical challenge we face over the long-term as a country is Xi Jinping's China. That's not to suggest that we should in any way underestimate the challenge posed by Putin's Russia. For example. I mean, he demonstrates in a very disturbing way that declining powers can be at least as disruptive as rising ones, but I think there's no question in my mind that over the long-term it's China that's the biggest geopolitical challenge.
Director, thanks for your time.