What Russians Are Saying about Biden's Pick for CIA Director
When William Burns's candidacy for head of the CIA was announced in February, Director Sergei Naryshkin of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, had this to say: "William Burns is a person with quite a deep knowledge and experience in the field of international relations, international politics, and he has a very worthy CV. There are no odious moments in his résumé — [unlike] his predecessor." In January, when Burns emerged as the likely successor to Gina Haspel, TASS published a detailed biography of William Burns by reporter Igor Gashkov, focusing on his language skills, distinguished diplomatic career, and writings in order to assess what his appointment might mean for Russia. In the article, TASS also hinted that the actual motivation for his selection was likely the fact that over the past four years, Burns has been a firm and indefatigable critic of Donald Trump.
TASS identifies one major point of disagreement between Burns and Trump as their attitudes toward Russia. Literate Russians are quite familiar with William Burns's view of American diplomacy vis-à-vis the Russian Federation. His January 2017 opinion piece for the New York Times, "How We Fool Ourselves on Russia," was widely read and discussed in Russia. At present, Russians are reading and discussing Burns's memoirs as well. His 2019 book The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, was translated into Russian by one Valeria Bashkirova. In 2020, it was released as Uil'yam Byorns's (an awkward attempt to render the untransliterable "William Burns" into Cyrillic) Nevidimaya Sila: Kak Rabotayet Amerikanskaya Diplomatiya (Invisible Power: How American Diplomacy Works), unmistakable for its identical cover art. Several chapters of The Back Channel are dedicated to Russia.
TASS's biography clearly establishes William Burns's consummate background regarding Russia. He is fluent in Russian as well as Arabic, unusual for the American State Department. Beginning his career as the U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, he turned his focus on the nascent Russian Federation upon his return to the United States. He served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Burns was an undersecretary of state in George W. Bush's administration. In 2009, he became the acting secretary of state for a single day, from January 20 to 21, before Hillary Clinton took office, whereupon Burns served as her deputy secretary of state. Biden is the fifth U.S. president under whom he has served.
In his memoirs, Burns describes the "hard lessons" of working at the American Mission to Russia in the shadow of the Kremlin. The Russians see Burns's message as based upon confrontation. During his stay in Moscow, according TASS reporter Igor Gashkov, he gained the conviction that the Kremlin intends to restore Russian prestige "at the expense of the American-led world order." TASS quotes Burns's 2017 NYT editorial as follows: "Our relationship with Russia will remain competitive and often hostile — for the foreseeable future. At the heart of this is a fundamental divergence of both countries over what role each should play in the modern world." Gashkov interprets this to mean that Burns considers rapprochement between Russia and the United States unlikely and that Burns maintains that the American elites should not consider it. According to TASS, Burns's picture is that Russia and the United States have almost nothing to offer each other, except for cardinal concessions, which Burns maintains must be made by Moscow, not Washington.
The TASS article also mentions the leaked U.S. intelligence communiqué published in the Washington Post in summer 2020, according to which Russia offered money to the Taliban in exchange for the murder of U.S. soldiers. "Since then, Moscow has denied this information as entirely unreliable." TASS observes that the NSA found the report untrue, while "the CIA, on the other hand, backed the press." Congress's investigation into the alleged Russian bounty program is said to be ongoing. TASS is apparently waiting on its outcome as a reflection of the new CIA director. "When its results are announced, the CIA will have to say its word as America's main intelligence agency, and therefore Burns." TASS adds, "Biden has no doubts that the Russian-Taliban conspiracy is a reality and threatens Moscow with sanctions. In this, the Democrat is supported by the speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. If the loud accusations sound again, the president will wait for the CIA to confirm his words with facts in hand. How ready is Burns for this?"
The TASS article segues in predictable fashion to accusations of CIA torture conducted "in territories where U.S. law does not apply," notably at the Thai "Cat's Eye" prison complex, identified as under Washington's control. The author speculates that Gina Haspel's personal involvement in the approval of this torture explains her "tarnished reputation."
The Russian take on Biden's selection of William Burns to be his CIA director is that it represents "a positive signal to Beijing." Though well versed in Russia and the Middle East, TASS observes, "Burns did not ever deal with China." Therefore, concludes TASS, Burns's appointment reflects the "prioritization" of the new White House administration.
Lynn Corum is a translator of Russian who studies developments in the Russian press that affect America's national interests. She has been researching and writing on Putin's stated plans since 2009 and is a world expert on Project Russia, the Kremlin's published state ideology.