CIA chief Burns says that without aid, Ukraine “could lose on the battlefield”

CIA Director William Burns acknowledged Thursday that without military assistance from the U.S., Ukraine could experience significant setbacks in its war with Russia.  

Ukrainians are “at a tough moment on the battlefield right now,” Burns said during a Q&A session at the Bush Center Forum on Leadership in Dallas.

With supplemental assistance from the U.S., Burns said, Ukrainian forces “can hold their own on the battlefield in 2024 and continue to do damage with deeper strikes in Crimea…and against the Black Sea fleet.”

Burns added that “with the boost that would come from military assistance, both practically and psychologically…the Ukrainians are entirely capable of holding their own through 2024 and puncture Putin’s arrogant view that time is on his side.”

His comments come as a deadlocked Congress continues to stall on Ukraine aid. On Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson unveiled three bills to provide military assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, including $60.4 billion for Ukraine.

“Without supplemental assistance, the picture is a lot more dire,” Burns said. “I think there is a very real risk that the Ukrainians could lose on the battlefield by the end of 2024, or at least put Putin in a position where he could essentially dictate the terms of a political settlement.” 

Burns Thursday also addressed the Middle East, China and other pressing national security topics. He alluded to far-reaching implications of the war in Ukraine, including in the Indo-Pacific. While initially, Western solidarity in the face of Russia’s aggression was sobering for Chinese President Xi Jinping as he considered making a move on Taiwan, Burns said, “the surest way to undo that impact is for us to be seen to be walking away from the Ukrainians right now.”

Of the Middle East, Burns said he had “rarely seen a moment more combustible than it is today” over his 40 years in public service. 

He called Iran’s direct attack on Israel last Saturday a “spectacular failure” because of integrated air defense, good intelligence, Israel’s military prowess and help from the U.S. and regional partners. 

Burns comments came hours before multiple sources confirmed to CBS News that Israel launched a missile strike early Friday morning on Iran.

He said the “broad hope” of President Biden and his administration was “that we’ll all find a way to deescalate this situation, especially at a moment when…the Israelis have demonstrated so clearly their superiority.” 

Burns acknowledged his personal engagement over the past six months in cease-fire and hostage-release talks in the Israel-Hamas war.

American officials have been pressing for a six-week cease-fire that would allow for a phased release of hostages and an accompanying release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. Israeli officials said that around 240 people were believed to have been taken hostage amid the Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7. Six months later, less than half of those captured have been returned.

Burns noted that he has met with hostage families, and that striking a deal had “proven very difficult.”

“It’s a big rock to push up a very steep hill right now,” he said, adding it was a “deep disappointment” to get a negative reaction from Hamas to the most recent proposal. 

“I cannot honestly say that I’m certain that we’re going to succeed, but it’s not going to be for lack of trying,” Burns said. “And I do know that the alternatives are worse.”

He said U.S. competition with China was broad and crossed many domains, including space, technology and cybersecurity.

Speaking Wednesday to steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Mr. Biden said he would urge U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai to triple Chinese steel and aluminum tariffs from their current rate of 7.5%.

Burns said he believed Xi was “determined in the course of his political lifetime to control Taiwan.”

“[That] doesn’t mean that he’s planning to invade tomorrow or next month or next year, but it means we have to take very seriously that ambition,” he said. 

Burns warned that China and Russia were working “most closely together now than any time in my memory,” adding that the deepening partnership was a “significant challenge” for the U.S. 

The phenomenon of transnational repression from autocratic nations like Russia, China and Iran reaching out to “kill or intimidate” activists outside of their own borders was a significant problem, he said.

“It’s a growing challenge and it’s one as an intelligence service that we take very seriously,” Burns said. 

Burns also addressed the challenges from technological advancements, including ubiquitous surveillance, as well as the benefits of strategic declassification of intelligence. He addressed the “Duty to Warn” responsibilities biding intelligence agencies to provide warnings when civilian lives are at stake, mentioning the recent terror attacks in Russia and Iran. 

“We, the U.S. government, did provide quite accurate intelligence to the Russian services about what we could see was an impending terrorist attack by ISIS against, you know, a pretty big entertainment center in Moscow. And, you know, you’d have to ask the Russian services…why they didn’t pay more attention to that, why they didn’t act on it.”

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