February 3, 2023

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CIA director Burns visited Ukraine to meet Zelenskyy

According to two US officials, William J. Burns, the CIA director, traveled to Kyiv last week for secret consultations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Since shortly before the invasion, Mr. Burns has been visiting Ukraine regularly to meet with intelligence officials and pass information to Mr. Zelensky.

Mr Burns, whose trip was confirmed by US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, is only the latest senior US official to visit Ukraine. A delegation including Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Monday; Jon Finer, Principal Assistant National Security Advisor; and Colin H. Kahl, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy, met with President Zelensky.

The CIA tries to keep Mr. Burns’ travels secret, and the agency never comments on the subject. But a US official confirmed Mr Burns’ visit, saying it was intended to “bolster our continued support for Ukraine and its defense against Russian aggression”.

The visit was previously reported by the Washington Post.

A second American official said Mr Burns’ visit was an intelligence mission designed to “ensure information continues to flow in both directions”.

The US government has regularly complained that it knows more about Russian military movements and plans than Ukraine’s. Kyiv has often been tight-lipped about its operational plans. But ahead of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in September, its officials began to reveal more about their intentions, allowing the US to provide intelligence that helped the Kiev military reshape its plans to attack weak points in Russian lines.

Mr. Burns, a career diplomat, emerged early in the Biden administration as an emergency officer and troubleshooter for the White House. And intelligence ties between Washington and Kyiv have been vital to the war effort. Ukraine is heavily dependent on intelligence from the CIA and other intelligence agencies about Russian planning.

Just before the invasion, Mr. Burns traveled to Ukraine to warn Mr. Zelensky and urged him to reinforce the defenses around Kyiv. The information provided on this trip helped Ukraine repel the first attack by Russian airborne troops on Hostomel Airport north of Kyiv.

During the last trip, Mr. Burns also met with senior Ukrainian intelligence officials, although US officials declined to discuss the nature of those talks.

The visit comes at a crucial time in the war. Ukraine is pushing for more Western heavy weaponry, the Russian military has changed its commander, and the war has descended into a stalemate over the winter, apart from fighting in and around Bakhmut.