Biden's national security team earns praise for handling of Ukraine crisis — for now

Long-term plans are important, CIA Director William Burns has said, but the success or failure of a nation’s leaders often depends on how they react to surprises.

“Playing the long game is essential,” Burns wrote in his 2019 book “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.” “But it’s the short game — coping with stuff that happens unexpectedly — that preoccupies policymakers and often shapes their legacies.”

CIA Director William Burns, seated at a desk in a hearing, addresses the Senate Intelligence Committee.
CIA Director William Burns testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 10. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

When President Biden took office last year, national security experts could rattle off a list of problems his administration would have to deal with on the world stage, from aggressive Chinese moves in the Pacific to the ongoing threat of terrorist groups. But it is an unexpected event — a land war in Europe — that has become a defining moment for Biden and his team.

The scope and brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unthinkable to many, even as President Vladimir Putin massed troops and tanks on the border in the months preceding their attack on Feb. 24. Germany’s spy chief was so caught off guard that he reportedly had to be evacuated from Ukraine.

And so far, the Biden administration has won praise for its handling of the crisis in Ukraine. Starting in December, the president and his team shared U.S. intelligence with the world that accurately predicted Putin’s actions, including attempts by Moscow to create a false pretext for war.

This unorthodox approach to intelligence sharing also helped the U.S. galvanize an international coalition that has acted with surprising speed and unity to impose sanctions on Putin’s regime and to aid the Ukrainians.

“We’re calling out Russia’s plans loudly and repeatedly, not because we want a conflict, but because we’re doing everything in our power to remove any reason that Russia may give to justify invading Ukraine and prevent them from moving,” Biden said on Feb. 18.

He also said that day he was “convinced” Putin had made the decision to invade. When questioned how he knew, Biden replied that the U.S. has “a significant intelligence capability.” Russia invaded Ukraine less than a week later.

President Biden speaks at a podium marked with the presidential seal.
President Biden addresses the National League of Cities' Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

A core team of Biden’s advisers has shaped the American response to this crisis. Burns, who was a career diplomat for more than three decades and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, is one of the key players. He and other top national security officials have watched Russia wreak havoc around the world for years through cyberattacks, email hacks and disinformation.

In 2014, Russia promoted false stories of atrocities in western Ukraine to justify its violent annexation of Crimea, a strategically vital peninsula on the Black Sea. In 2016, Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election, hacking and releasing Democratic emails and sowing discord between Americans on social media.

In the weeks leading up to Biden’s comments on Feb. 18, the U.S. government began to warn that the Russians were going to create a false pretext for an act of aggression. In mid-January, government officials said U.S. intelligence had evidence that Russia was sending saboteurs into Ukraine to stage a fake attack on Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

In early February, the Pentagon, State Department and White House all told the press that U.S. intelligence had discovered a Russian plot to produce fake video footage that Moscow would claim showed evidence of “genocide” by the Ukrainians against Russians. The day after Biden’s remarks predicting Russia’s invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken presented similar arguments at the United Nations.

Sure enough, when announcing his invasion, Putin declared that he was launching the war to, among other reasons, protect Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine from Kyiv’s supposed aggression against its own people. But thanks in part to U.S. intelligence and diplomacy, Putin’s message gathered little traction beyond Russia’s borders.

President Vladimir Putin, looking weary, at the end of a long table with a heraldic Russian flag behind him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of his government via teleconference in Moscow on March 10. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

“In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians,” Burns said in an appearance before the Senate last week. “In this case, I think we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression, built on a body of lies and false narratives.

“This is one information war I think Putin is losing,” Burns said.

Elizabeth Hoffman, a foreign policy expert who worked for Republicans on the House Committee on Homeland Security, told Yahoo News that the intelligence community is “usually so reticent” to share any information.

“I don’t think [the Biden administration has] gotten enough credit for their intel sharing,” said Hoffman, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "It’s a very inside-Washington thing to notice how that’s different from how things have played out before. I don’t know that the broader American public understands really what a big deal that was, and what a big shift that is from how the U.S. government has ever operated in situations like this before.”

A burned tank in front of a building bearing a yellow-and-gold Ukrainian insignia, with a bombed apartment building behind.
A burned tank in the city of Volnovakha, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on March 12. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Burns, 65, is no stranger to Russian tactics. He was first posted to Moscow as a junior diplomatic officer in the mid-1990s, and returned as the U.S. ambassador a decade later.

He became deputy secretary of state in 2011 and was praised by one commentator as the United States' "secret diplomatic weapon.” In addition to his work with Russia, Burns led the Obama administration’s secret negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.

Burns is the first career diplomat to head the CIA, and is known for his trenchant analysis and skillful writing on geopolitics. In 2006, he sent a colorful dispatch back to Washington about a wild, alcohol-soaked three-day wedding in Russia’s Caucasus region. One of the wedding’s other guests of honor was Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman and Putin ally who has been sending his own troops to fight in Ukraine.

Another senior member of the intelligence community who has pushed the culture to evolve in the modern information era is the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

Haines, 52, has an idiosyncratic background for a high-ranking intelligence official. She studied judo in Japan after high school and ran an independent bookstore in Baltimore for most of her 20s, before joining the government in her 30s.

But Haines has ample experience with state secrets. She was deputy director of the CIA during the Obama administration and worked on the 2014 release of the CIA torture report. The report was heavily redacted.

Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, speaks into the microphone at a Senate hearing.
Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on March 10. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Haines has warned that the U.S. intelligence community is too secretive for its own good, and that relying too heavily on keeping things classified actually hurts national security “by impeding our ability to share information in a timely manner.”

Haines has a personal connection to Biden. She was deputy chief counsel on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2007 to 2008, when Biden chaired the panel as a senator from Delaware.

Others inside the Biden administration are even closer to Biden, chief among them Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

Hoffman, the CSIS expert, said Blinken had not been an obvious choice to be the next secretary of state, after a stint as a staffer to Biden rather than a principal in his own right. From 2002 to 2009, Blinken was staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a righthand man to Biden. He was Haines’s boss during her stint there on the committee staff.

But Blinken has proven adept at assembling an international coalition to act together in imposing financial penalties on Russia, said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Blinken and Burns share a strong belief in the importance of a close U.S. relationship with European democracies. Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was a Holocaust survivor who spent time in Nazi concentration camps and went on to become a legal adviser to French presidents. Blinken lived in Paris as a teenager and speaks fluent French.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken seated at a microphone.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens at a meeting at the State Department on Monday. (Elizabeth Frantz/AFP via Getty Images)

Burns, for his part, wrote in his 2019 book that “the trans-Atlantic alliance is growing more, not less, important to both of our interests.”

Blinken and Burns have also expressed disappointment in former President Barack Obama’s failure to use airstrikes to enforce his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad of Syria. Diplomacy is vital, they believe, but must also have the credible threat of force behind it.

Sullivan, 45, has been characterized as wise beyond his years, and already has extensive experience in high-stakes diplomacy. He worked closely with Burns in the Iran negotiations. Burns described Sullivan in his book as his “alter ego” and said the younger man was “the best of his generation of foreign policy thinkers and practitioners, strategically creative as well as tactically adept."

Sullivan is a graduate of both Yale (where he majored in philosophy) and Yale Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar and a champion debater in college. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, and eventually became a top aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2013 he became Vice President Biden’s national security adviser.

In 2016, Sullivan got his first experience with U.S. domestic politics as a key adviser to Clinton on her presidential campaign. There he got a close look at the impact of Russian cyber warfare, when Russian intelligence hacked into the Democratic National Committee and disseminated the party’s internal emails.

Sullivan issued some of the Clinton campaign’s public statements in response, and has been a punching bag for some on the right who believe Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign was exaggerated.

Rounding out this group is Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. Nuland is a veteran of the State Department, having worked there for both Republican and Democratic presidents. She is also descended from Ukrainian Jews.

Nuland was a top State Department staffer during the Clinton presidency, and then a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney during the Bush administration. She was deeply involved in the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, something her critics have not forgotten.

But Nuland is also well versed in the history and geopolitics of Eastern Europe. She was Bush’s last U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2005 to 2008, and then assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia under Obama. She was one of the top U.S. officials dealing with efforts in Ukraine to resist Russian aggression before, during and after Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

“I have a lot of respect for [Nuland], and I think she’s very savvy,” Hoffman, the CSIS expert, told Yahoo News. “She knows and understands how the Russians operate and has thought a lot about how to best counter that.”

Nuland also has firsthand experience with foreign intrusions into her private communications. A Russian government official in 2014 posted audio, according to Reuters, of a recorded conversation between Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in which they discussed their opinions of who should be in the new government in Kyiv. In that conversation, Nuland responded at one point, “F*** the EU.”

Nuland is perceived to be the most hawkish of Biden’s advisers, although diplomats have been busy trying to figure out an “off-ramp” for Putin, which could theoretically allow for the Russian strongman to save face at home while pulling his forces back.

A Ukrainian serviceman with a rifle and yellow armband surveys snowy fields.
A Ukrainian serviceman examining a destroyed military vehicle in a photograph released by Ukraine Armed Forces press on March 8. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden team has “done much better than we anticipated based upon what we saw in Afghanistan and the botched run-up on the deal to sell nuclear submarines to the Australians,” Stephen Kotkin, a historian of Russia, told the New Yorker. “They’ve learned from their mistakes. The problem now is … that it’s hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism.”


What happened this week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

Where are Russian forces attacking Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.