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CIA Director William Burns: Putin is 'the apostle of payback'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A prominent Russian nationalist, who argues that President Vladimir Putin is losing the war in Ukraine because the Kremlin leader hasn't been ruthless enough, was detained in Moscow today. His name is not Yevgeny Prigozhin. It's Igor Girkin, better known as Igor Strelkov. The arrest of the retired security officer comes nearly a month after the Wagner Group chief gathered his mercenaries and launched a failed mutiny against the Russian military leadership. Strelkov's detention stands in marked contrast to an amnesty deal offered to Prigozhin and his fighters despite the uprising. Our co-host, Mary Louise Kelly, asked CIA Director William Burns about the rebellion and what it signals about Putin's strength and future in Ukraine last night at the Aspen Security Forum.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: When you were watching events Saturday, June 24, what was your understanding of what was unfolding?

WILLIAM BURNS: Well, I mean, I've seen over the last three decades since the end of the Cold War, you know, a lot of fascinating episodes in Russia, but none more fascinating than Prigozhin's mutiny, which was the most direct assault on the Russian state in Vladimir Putin's 23 years in power. In many ways, it exposed some of the significant weaknesses in the system that Putin has built - weaknesses that already had been laid bare by the disastrous and deeply destructive war that Putin launched 18 months ago in Ukraine.

It began with a 30-minute video that Yevgeny Prigozhin put on Telegram. And that video was the most scathing indictment of Putin's rationale for war, of the conduct of the war, of the corruption at the core of Putin's regime that I've heard from a Russian or a non-Russian. It was bitterly critical of the conduct of the war by the Russian military leadership, by the defense minister, Shoigu, and General Gerasimov, the chief of military staff. It took head-on Putin's rationale for war. It said it was built on lies, that there was no imminent threat to the Russian homeland or the Russian people from Ukraine or from NATO. And it was scathing in its description of the corruption which animates the Russian elite today, which is, you know, richly ironic given the fact that Prigozhin himself had profited as much as anyone from that corruption.

KELLY: You just called it a mutiny. Was it an attempted coup? Do we know what Prigozhin was trying to do?

BURNS: You know, I mean, we had - President Biden put it succinctly when he said that we knew things ahead of time. And I'm not going to go into any more detail than that. But, you know, Prigozhin, I think, was making some of this up as he went along. Clearly, his main targets were Shoigu and Gerasimov. And a lot of this had been hiding in plain sight, too, because he had been scathing in his public criticisms of both of them. So it didn't come as any real surprise when he decided to take action.

KELLY: How wounded is Putin?

BURNS: Well, I think, you know, if you think about, you know, the comment I made before about exposing the weaknesses in Putin's system, what I meant by that is that, you know, Putin, in many ways, I think, has constructed his image around the notion and the image that he's the arbiter of order in the Russian system. And what that has meant with the wider Russian public is a kind of social contract in which his message is, you stay out of politics. That's my business. What I will offer in return are rising standards of living, and by and large, I won't get into your personal lives. With the Russian elite, it's been a variant on that social contract, which is, you follow my lead in politics. What I will ensure in return is protection from external threats, protection from one another and also that everyone gets to feed at the trough, that everybody gets to share in the spoils in what is a deeply corrupt system.

And I think, you know, what we've seen, especially in those 36 hours as this mutiny was unfolding and you had the spectacle of, you know, the Wagner forces, Prigozhin's mercenaries, advancing unopposed into Rostov which is a city of a million people in southern Russia, also the military headquarters of the Russian command in Ukraine, seized control of that, you know, significant city and then, over the following day, get two-thirds of the way up the road to Moscow as well.

And so, you know, as you think of those two social contracts, what was going through the minds, I think, of a lot of Russians - and what we saw was a - Russian security services, Russian military, Russian decision-makers which were adrift or appeared to be adrift for those 36 hours. So for a lot of Russians watching this, used to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was - does the emperor have no clothes? Or, at least, why is it taking so long for him to get dressed?

And for the elite, I think, what it resurrected was some deeper questions which, again, you know, have - you've seen circulate within the Russian elite since the war in Ukraine began - asking questions about Putin's judgment, about his relative detachment from events, and from - about his indecisiveness.

KELLY: Are you seeing fissures?

BURNS: Well, I think you're seeing signs of weaknesses in that system, as I put it. And I think, you know, those weaknesses have been exposed by Prigozhin's mutiny. But I think, even more deeply than that, they've been exposed by Putin's misjudgment since he launched this invasion as well. And I think there's a relationship between the battleground in Ukraine and what's going on inside Russia in the sense that if and when the Ukrainians make further advances on the battlefield, I think what that's going to do is cause more and more Russians in the elite and outside the elite to pay attention to Prigozhin's critique of the war.

KELLY: President Biden recently said of Prigozhin, if I were he, I'd be careful what I ate. He also said, we're not even sure where he is. Do you know where he is? You saw this video that emerged that seemed to show him in Belarus. Is it real?

BURNS: Yeah, no, he's moved around a bit.

KELLY: Yeah.

BURNS: I think he's been in Minsk lately. I'm not sure he has any plans to retire in the suburbs of Minsk. But he's - but he spent time in Russia as well. And I think, you know, what we're seeing is a very complicated dance between Prigozhin and Putin. I think Putin is someone who generally thinks that revenge is a dish best served cold. So he's going to try to settle the situation to the extent he can. But again, in my experience, Putin is the ultimate apostle of payback. So I would be surprised if Prigozhin escapes further retribution for this. So in that sense, the president's right. If I were Prigozhin, I wouldn't fire my food taster.

KELLY: The CIA has taken this opportunity to make your first video post to Telegram to let brave Russians know how to contact us safely on the dark web. Have they?

BURNS: We had 2 1/2 million views of that Telegram video in the first week it was on. So the truth is, there's a lot of disaffection in Russia in the elite and outside it in Russia right now. And we're not wasting the opportunity as an intelligence service to try to take advantage of it.

KELLY: And is part of the objective, whether people - whether that leads to useful intelligence streams for you, to make Putin look over his shoulder, uneasy about who he can trust?

BURNS: Well, I think Putin is already a little bit uneasy as he looks over his shoulder. I think that's true - and the debate that goes on within the Russian elite right now. And so it would be crazy for us not to take advantage of what is, in effect, a once-in-a-generation opportunity as a human intelligence service to take advantage of that.

CHANG: Our co-host, Mary Louise Kelly, speaking with CIA director William Burns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.