In an exclusive interview with CBS News, CIA Director Bill Burns confirmed the possibility that China may send lethal aid to Russia in its war against Ukraine.
“We’re confident that the Chinese leadership is considering the provision of lethal equipment,” Burns told “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan on Friday.
The revelation that China’s President Xi Jinping is mulling this escalation is a dramatic change from past Biden administration assessments. Earlier this month, Burns told students at Georgetown University that Xi had been “very reluctant to provide the kind of lethal weapons to Russia to use in Ukraine that the Russians are very much interested in.”
Burns emphasized that China has not yet made the decision to transfer lethal aid to Russia, and shed light on the logic behind the Biden administration’s decision to make this intelligence public.
“We also don’t see that a final decision has been made yet, and we don’t see evidence of actual shipments of lethal equipment,” Burns said. “And that’s why, I think, Secretary Blinken and the president have thought it important to make very clear what the consequences of that would be as well.”
Brennan asked if the administration’s goal — by sharing the CIA’s intelligence — is to deter China from making the decision to transfer lethal aid. Burns confirmed that this is the plan, adding that for Xi to provide it, “would be a very risky and unwise bet.”
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Face the Nationreaffirmed their partnership. The US has already sanctioned Chinese companies that have provided non-lethal support to Russian mercenaries, including satellite imagery to help target weapons in combat.
“I think the Chinese are also trying to weigh the consequences of, you know, what the concerns we’ve expressed are, you know, about providing lethal equipment,” Burns said, when asked if the CIA knew where Xi stands. “Where’s the point at which, you know, they would run into some pretty serious consequences. And that’s what we’ve tried to make clear.”
Burns noted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the ensuing worldwide response, has been of particular interest to Xi.
“There’s no foreign leader who’s watched more carefully Vladimir Putin’s experience in Ukraine, the evolution of the war, than Xi Jinping has,” said Burns. “I think, in many ways, he’s been unsettled and sobered by what he’s seen.”
Last month, Taiwan’s top envoy to the U.S. said that the island nation is learning important lessons from Russia’s invasion. Burns said the CIA does not believe that Xi has yet made a decision on whether to invade Taiwan.
“I think we need to take very seriously Xi’s ambitions with regard to ultimately controlling Taiwan. That doesn’t, however, in our view, mean that a military conflict is inevitable,” Burns said. “I think our judgment at least is that President Xi and his military leadership have doubts today about whether they could accomplish that invasion.”
President Biden has repeatedly dispatched Burns, a Russian-speaker and former ambassador to Russia, to speak with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as Russia’s top spy chief. He described to Brennan a secret trip he took to Kyiv in the days prior to the Russian invasion.
“President Biden had asked me to go to Kyiv to lay out for President Zelenskyy the most recent intelligence we had, which suggested that what Vladimir Putin was planning was what he thought would be a lightning strike from the Belarus border to seize Kyiv in a matter of a few days,” Burns said. “I think President Zelenskyy understood what was at stake and what he was up against.”
Burns made particular note of how the intelligence provided by the U.S. helped Ukraine to strengthen its resolve.
“Our Ukrainian intelligence partners also had good intelligence about what was coming as well. But I do think that the role of intelligence in this instance, what we’re able to provide to President Zelenskyy, not just on that trip, but you know, throughout the course of the war, have helped him to defend his country with such courage and tenacity,” Burns said. “And I think that made a contribution early, you know, just before the war started.”
Three months ago, Mr. Biden sent Burns to meet with Sergey Naryshkin, his Russian counterpart, and to deliver a warning not to use nuclear weapons. Burns described the meeting as “pretty dispiriting.”
“There was a very defiant attitude on the part of Mr. Naryshkin as well. A sense of cockiness and hubris,” Burns said. “A sense, I think, reflecting Putin’s own view, his own belief today, that he can make time work for him, that he believes he can grind down the Ukrainians, that he can wear down our European allies, that political fatigue will eventually set in.”