The United States is seizing the opportunity of a weakened Vladimir Putin to recruit spies inside Russia, the CIA chief has said.
William Burns, the director of the CIA, said the shame inside Russia over Putin’s regime and its invasion of Ukraine had created a “once in a generation” opening.
Mr Burns made the comments during the annual lecture at the Ditchley Park Foundation in Oxfordshire, a global affairs think tank based in the country house Winston Churchill used as a retreat during World War II.
In his speech, he said the war in Ukraine had been a “strategic failure for Russia” and that Putin had made Russia a “junior partner and colony” of China.
“Disaffection with the war will continue to eat away at Russian leaders,” he said of the spy opportunities that had been created.
“We’re not going to let it go to waste.”
Europe has severed diplomatic and economic ties with Russia since Putin ordered its full-scale invasion in February last year, forcing the Kremlin to become dependent on Iran for supplies of missiles and drones, as well as China for gas sales.
In March, Chinese leader Xi Jinping flew to Moscow and promised to back Putin in Ukraine, a move analysts said showed his determination to challenge the US-led world order.
Mr Burns said that although the immediate danger came from Russia and Putin, the long-term threat to global stability came from China.
“China is the only country with both the intention to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological might to do so,” he said.
Last week, just before a rebellion by the Wagner mercenary group in Russia, Mr Burns traveled to Kiev to meet senior Ukrainian officials to reassure them of support for Joe Biden, despite some criticism of the slowness of their counteroffensive.
He described the failure of Wagner’s rebellion as an “internal affair” of Russia, but also said that the criticism of the Russian military by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader, “would go on for some time”.
Commentators said US and UK intelligence had restored their reputations, which had been tainted by failures to prepare for the 2003 Iraq war, by correctly predicting Putin’s attack.
Always a dangerous man
Mr Burns also said the occasional wartime declassification of secrets and their release to the media caught Putin wrong.
“It deprived Putin of the false narratives I’ve seen him invent so often in the past, putting him in the awkward and unusual position of being on his back,” he said.
But despite his humiliation in Ukraine and the failures of domestic politics in Russia, Mr Burns said Putin was still a dangerous man who “nurtures great grievances, ambitions and insecurities”.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a mistake to underestimate Putin’s fixation on controlling Ukraine and his choices,” he said.
Mr Burns, a former US ambassador to Russia and head of the CIA since March 2021, added that a recruiting campaign had been successfully rolled out on social media.
“We recently used social media, our first video post on Telegram in fact, to let brave Russians know how to contact us safely via the Dark Web,” he told the conference.
“We had 2.5 million views in the first week and are very open for business.”
Telegram is by far the most popular Russian language messaging and news app.
It is also seen as a much freer place for Russians to exchange information than the country’s internet, which the Kremlin tightly controls.
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