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CIA Director Says Ukraine War ‘Corroding’ Putin’s Grip On Power

By Mike Eckel, alumnus of The Fletcher School and Senior News Correspondent

Russia’s war against Ukraine has eroded President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power, hollowed out the Russian military, and stoked an “undercurrent of disaffection” within the country, according to the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In an essay published on January 30, William Burns, who also served as ambassador to Russia and in top State Department positions, urged U.S. lawmakers to pass a new package of weapons and equipment for Ukraine, calling it a “relatively modest investment with significant geopolitical returns for the United States and notable returns for American industry.”

“Putin’s war has already been a failure for Russia on many levels,” Burns wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs.

“His original goal of seizing Kyiv and subjugating Ukraine proved foolish and illusory. His military has suffered immense damage. At least 315,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded, two-thirds of Russia’s prewar tank inventory has been destroyed, and Putin’s vaunted decades-long military modernization program has been hollowed out.”

“His war in Ukraine is quietly corroding his power at home,” he said.

Burns’ remarks come as Russia’s mass invasion of Ukraine nears its second anniversary, with no end in sight to the conflict.

Putin, who is expected to be resoundingly reelected in a March presidential vote, has framed the “special military operation” — the Kremlin’s euphemism for the war — as a fundamental fight for Russia’s historical identity.

The Russian economy has been put on a war footing, hundreds of thousands of people have been mobilized, and many more Russians have fled the country, either to avoid military service or out of protest of internal repression.

“One thing I have learned is that it is always a mistake to underestimate his [Putin’s] fixation on controlling Ukraine and its choices,” Burns wrote.

“Without that control, he believes it is impossible for Russia to be a great power or for him to be a great Russian leader. That tragic and brutish fixation has already brought shame to Russia and exposed its weaknesses, from its one-dimensional economy to its inflated military prowess to its corrupt political system.”

Ukraine, meanwhile, has struggled to hold its battlefield positions after a failed counteroffensive last year. Western and Ukrainian officials had had high hopes for the effort, in part due to NATO training and powerful new Western weaponry.

Both Russia and Ukraine are now dug in to established positions across the 1,200-kilometer front line as winter blankets the country. Some experts fear that Russia will retrench and replenish its forces, and be in a position to launch its own offensive as early as this summer.

Domestically, Ukraine’s leadership is facing growing impatience with the status of the war.

News reports this week said that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is considering pushing out the country’s top military officer, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, a popular figure seen as a possible political rival to Zelenskiy.

“This year is likely to be a tough one on the battlefield in Ukraine, a test of staying power whose consequences will go well beyond the country’s heroic struggle to sustain its freedom and independence,” Burns said.

Putin “continues to bet that time is on his side, that he can grind down Ukraine and wear down its Western supporters,” he added.

Western aid to Ukraine has buoyed its fight against Russia, but enthusiasm for that has waned in Washington and other Western capitals.

In the United States — the biggest single supplier of arms and equipment to Ukraine — Republican lawmakers have balked at authorizing President Joe Biden’s new $61 billion aid package, insisting it should be tied to a broader reform of U.S. immigration laws. 

Burns argued that the U.S. funds were being well-spent by Ukraine, which is wearing down Russia.

“The key to success lies in preserving Western aid for Ukraine,” he wrote.

“At less than 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget, it is a relatively modest investment with significant geopolitical returns for the United States and notable returns for American industry,” Burns wrote.

“Keeping the arms…offers a chance to ensure a long-term win for Ukraine and a strategic loss for Russia; Ukraine could safeguard its sovereignty and rebuild, while Russia would be left to deal with the enduring costs of Putin’s folly,” he added.

The Kremlin had not responded to Burns’ essay as of January 31.

(This post is republished from RFERL.)

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