Bill Burns knows Russia inside out — and that will be critical to Biden

Bill Burns knows Russia inside out — and that will be critical to Biden
© Getty Images

In June 2010, I was working with my CIA and FBI colleagues on what would become known as the “spy swap,” the exchange of the Russian “illegals,” foreign intelligence service (SVR) officers operating undercover in the U.S., whom the FBI arrested in Operation Ghost Stories, in return for four Russians detained in Siberian labor camps.  

There was a good deal of justifiable concern in the Obama administration about the impact of the arrests on the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship. When my colleagues and I learned that Ambassador Bill BurnsWilliam BurnsCIA director says there will be consequences if Russia is behind 'Havana Syndrome' attacks Senior-level engagement with Russia is good — if it's realistic Is Russia about to make a 'serious mistake' in Ukraine? MORE, then serving as under secretary for political affairs at the State Department, would be on point for engaging on policy issues, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. A deep, substantive expert on Russia who returned from a tour as ambassador to Russia in 2008, Burns partnered smoothly with former CIA Director Leon Panetta to guide interagency coordination that was so vitally important to the operation’s success. 

Last week, President-elect BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE nominated Burns to be his director of the CIA. An accomplished career diplomat, Burns served as deputy secretary of State from 2011-2014, as ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs. 


As CIA director, Burns will be responsible for recruiting spies, stealing secrets and producing the all-source analysis on the myriad of wickedly challenging worldwide threats to our national security, on which Biden and his team will rely to make key foreign policy decisions.   

But it is Burns’s sophisticated understanding of Russia that should be of particular value to the Biden administration — especially in light of Russia’s recent SolarWinds cyber attack, its interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, its annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, its attempted murder of Sergey Skripal, and its alliance with Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad, as well as Iran.    

Distrust and animosity between the U.S. and Russia have risen to levels unprecedented since the Cold War. Expect Burns to be on the hook for three key priorities relating to Russia. 

First, the CIA is responsible for collecting intelligence on threats to our national security “left of boom,” so that they can be preempted before they are visited on our shores. Having long considered the U.S. as Russia’s “Main Enemy,” Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress More than 50 dead, one rescued in Russian mine explosion NATO to discuss ways to deter Russia: Lithuanian official MORE is ruthlessly focused on destabilizing the U.S. internally, driving a wedge between the U.S. and its NATO allies, and dominating Russia’s regional sphere of influence. Collecting intelligence on Putin’s plans and intentions is of the highest priority. Having long been a consumer of CIA source-based human intelligence, Burns is ideally prepared to drive this mission. 

Second, CIA officers and diplomats learn firsthand to appreciate cross-cultural differences. They develop an aptitude for seeing the world through the eyes of foreign state and non-state actors.   This refined sense of empathy is the basis for the most effective intelligence collection, analysis  and diplomacy. Burns is an expert at seeing the world through Putin’s eyes — or, as Russians are fond of saying, “chem chelovek dyshit” (“what a person breathes”).   

The July 2020 referendum brought sweeping changes to Russia’s constitution, the most notable of which was to extend presidential term limits, enabling Putin to hold presidential office until 2036. Burns will be a valuable consigliere to Biden as the U.S. contends with Putin in the years ahead.

Third, U.S.-Russia relations resemble a Venn diagram, with shaded space of shared interests, unshaded space where our interests will never intersect, and a grey area where diplomacy can produce bilateral agreements. Nowhere is finding some common ground with Russia — the only country capable of destroying the U.S. — more consequential than in arms control. Limiting the number of Russian nuclear weapons, while enhancing transparency and predictability to minimize the risk of a first-use scenario, takes on the greatest importance when bilateral relations between our nations are as contentious as they are today. The first step is to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) beyond its expiration next month, after which negotiators should seek to tackle a new Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  

Under Burns’s leadership, the CIA will play a key role in collecting the intelligence that supports arms control negotiations and exposes any duplicity on the Kremlin’s part.

Russians are fond of saying, “V chuzhoi monastir so svoyim ustavom ne khodyat” — that is, “No one goes to another monastery with their own charter,” or the equivalent of, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Burns has been to the Russian monastery and immersed himself in Russian language, culture and history. U.S. national security should benefit considerably as a result.

Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.