Dissatisfaction over Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, underlined by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed mutiny, has created a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity for the US to recruit spies, the director of the CIA has said.
Speaking at a lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – a charity focused on British-American relations – Mr Burns said dissatisfaction with the war was creating a rare opportunity to recruit spies, which the CIA was capitalising on.
“Disaffection with the war will continue to gnaw away at the Russian leadership beneath the steady diet of state propaganda and practiced repression,” Mr Burns said.
“That disaffection creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us at the CIA – at our core a human intelligence service. We’re not letting it go to waste.”
In May, the Kremlin said its agencies were tracking Western spy activity after the CIA published a video encouraging Russians to make contact via a secure internet channel.
The video in Russian was accompanied by text saying the agency wanted to hear from military officers, intelligence specialists, diplomats, scientists and people with information about Russia’s economy and leadership.
Mr Burns said it was “striking” that Mr Prigozhin’s mutiny was preceded by months of open attacks on Mr Putin’s most senior military officers in videos in which he used a colourful variety of crude expletives and prison slang, which the Russian president did not answer in public.
“It is striking that Prigozhin preceded his actions with a scathing indictment of the Kremlin’s mendacious rationale for the invasion of Ukraine and of the Russian military leadership’s conduct of the war,” said Mr Burns, who served as US ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008 and was appointed CIA director in 2021.
“The impact of those words and those actions will play out for some time – a vivid reminder of the corrosive effect of Putin’s war on his own society and his own regime.”
Mr Burns said the mutiny was an “internal Russian affair in which the United States has had and will have no part”.
Russia’s future ‘as junior partner and economic colony of China’
Earlier this week, Mr Putin thanked army and security forces for averting what he said could have turned into a civil war and has compared the mutiny to the chaos that ignited two revolutions in Russia in 1917.
The Kremlin has sought to project an image of calm stability since a deal was struck last weekend to end the mutiny, with Mr Putin discussing tourism, greeting crowds in Dagestan and discussing ideas for economic development.
But Mr Burns said the war has already been a strategic failure for Russia by laying bare its military weakness and damaging the Russian economy for years to come, while the NATO military alliance grows larger and stronger.
He said Russia’s “future as a junior partner and economic colony of China” was being shaped “by Putin’s mistakes”.