China ‘trying to ‘study’ Russia’s failures; The CIA director would “not rule out” an early invasion of Taiwan.

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CIA Director William Burns suggested that China would carefully examine Russia’s many failures in Ukraine, which could shed light on “how and when” Beijing might invade Taiwan.

“I think our feeling is that it’s probably less about whether the Chinese leadership will use force to control Taiwan a few years from now and more about how and when they would do it,” Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum. “If there’s one lesson I think they can take from Putin’s experience in Ukraine, it’s that you don’t win quick, decisive victories with overwhelming force.”

Burns provided a wide-ranging interview at the forum, addressing issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear capabilities to the Russian jailing of American basketball player Brittney Griner. But he spent most of his time debating the United States’ two biggest rivals.

He paid particular attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including Putin’s mentality and the possible factors that contributed to Russia’s swift and decisive failure to win the conflict, and what lessons China could learn from the experience when facing a possible invasion of Taiwan.

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CIA Director William Burns speaks during an event at the Georgia Institute of Technology Thursday in Atlanta.
(AP/Bryn Anderson)

“I would not underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert China’s control over Taiwan,” Burns said. “He is determined to ensure his military is capable of conducting such an action should he decide to move in that direction.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine proved to be a “strategic failure” for Putin, with Burns revealing that he believed the latest US intelligence estimates would show about 15,000 Russian troops killed and “maybe three times” that many troops wounded. It was the first update in months from any intelligence source on possible Russian casualties.

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“The Ukrainians have also suffered, probably a little less, but significant casualties are the bigger picture,” Burns said, adding that he believes “Russia plans to dig in and keep pounding Ukraine and believe that when the winter is coming and the fuel costs in Europe are so high that NATO solidarity is weakening.”

According to Burns, Putin’s failure to “break up NATO” would be his greatest misstep. The alliance will add Finland and Sweden to “step up its operations”.

Instead, with its focus shifted to the Donbass region, Russia has now “retired to a convenient mode of war” and instead relied on “long-range firepower” to create a stalemate and make up for personnel weaknesses.

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This may have led China to be more “cautious” about its military after seeing Putin round Europeans and Americans closer together. It has “unnerved the Chinese … as they have been betting on their ability to pit some Europeans against the Americans as well,” Burns said.

“The Chinese leadership was to some extent unsettled – particularly in the early days of Putin’s war in Ukraine – by what they were seeing. Unnerved by the Russian military performance at the beginning and the performance of the Russian weapons. Unnerved by the economic uncertainties, the war will be unleashed across the world in a year.

“I think Xi Jinping’s main concern is to get through a very important party congress in the fall and have a relatively predictable global economic landscape.”

Burns also discussed the threat of global warming, saying it is a challenge comparable to that of China.

“If you assume, as I do, that the People’s Republic of China is the biggest geopolitical challenge facing our country in the 21st century, the biggest existential threat in many ways is climate change,” he said.

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the global threat on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC April 15, 2021.

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on the global threat on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC April 15, 2021.
(Al Drago/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The CIA director also repeated warnings about Iran’s increasing speed in acquiring a nuclear device, a point echoed by France’s foreign minister earlier this month.

He noted that according to the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Nuclear Agreement, “which the last government canceled a few years ago, the breakout time to produce this amount of fissile material was just over a year.”

He said today that “the same breakout time cannot be measured in a year or more, but in weeks”.

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Burns also told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum that he was in Afghanistan the week before the US withdrawal.

“I would say, as the President has said publicly, none of us expected that the Afghan government would flee so quickly or that the Afghan military would collapse so quickly.

“Nonetheless, I think that at least the CIA has always been on the more pessimistic end of the spectrum in highlighting over the spring and summer the obvious way the Taliban were rapidly advancing that has eroded in many ways, not just the political leadership, but also the military.”

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