The CIA was central to the war even before it started. At the beginning of his administration, Biden tapped director William Burns as his global trouble shooter—a clandestine operator able to communicate with foreign leaders outside normal channels, someone who could occupy important geopolitical space between overt and covert, and an official who could organize work in the arena that exists between what is strictly military and what is strictly civilian.
As former Ambassador to Russia, Burns has been particularly influential with regard to Ukraine. The CIA had been monitoring Russia’s buildup and in November 2021, three months before the invasion, Biden dispatched Burns to Moscow to warn the Kremlin of the consequences of any attack. Though the Russian president snubbed Biden’s emissary by staying at his retreat in Sochi on the Black Sea, 800 miles away, he did agree to speak with Burns via a Kremlin secure phone.
“In some ironic ways though, the meeting was highly successful,” says the second senior intelligence official, who was briefed on it. Even though Russia invaded, the two countries were able to accept tried and true rules of the road. The United States would not fight directly nor seek regime change, the Biden administration pledged. Russia would limit its assault to Ukraine and act in accordance with unstated but well-understood guidelines for secret operations.
“There are clandestine rules of the road,” says the senior defense intelligence official, “even if they are not codified on paper, particularly when one isn’t engaged in a war of annihilation.” This includes staying within day-to-day boundaries of spying, not crossing certain borders and not attacking each other’s leadership or diplomats. “Generally the Russians have respected these global red lines, even if those lines are invisible,” the official says.
Once Russian forces poured into Ukraine, the United States had to quickly shift gears. The CIA, like the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, had misread Russia’s military capacity and Ukraine’s resilience as Russia failed to take Kyiv and withdrew from the north.
By last July, both sides settled in for a long war. As the war shifted, Washington’s focus changed from very public and symbolic troop deployments to Europe to “deter” further Russian moves, to providing weapons to sustain Ukraine’s ability to fight. In the face of Zelensky’s masterful public lobbying, the United States slowly and reluctantly agreed to supply better and longer-range weapons, weapons that in theory could threaten Russian territory and thus flirt with the feared escalation.
“Zelensky has certainly outdone everyone else in getting what he wants, but Kyiv has had to agree to obey certain invisible lines as well,” says the senior defense intelligence official. In secret diplomacy largely led by the CIA, Kyiv pledged not to use the weapons to attack Russia itself. Zelensky has said openly that Ukraine will not attack Russia.