William Arkin: CIA Is Playing “Outsize Role” in Ukraine Despite Biden Pledge Not to Send U.S. Forces
Written by GRB on 20/07/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the role of the CIA in the war in Ukraine. A recent cover story of Newsweek revealed the CIA is shuttling weapons into Ukraine using a, quote, “gray fleet” of commercial aircraft that crisscrosses Central and Eastern Europe. CIA personnel are also going into Ukraine on secret missions. According to one source, CIA agents are assisting Ukrainians with new weapons and systems. One senior military intelligence official told Newsweek, quote, “The CIA has been operating inside Ukraine, under strict rules, and with a cap on how many personnel can be in country at any one time,” unquote.
The CIA is also using Poland as its clandestine hub to coordinate its operations inside Ukraine. After the September 11th attacks, the CIA also used Poland to house one of its secret black sites, where prisoners were tortured.
We’re joined now by William Arkin, senior editor at Newsweek. His investigation for the magazine is headlined “The CIA’s Blind Spot about the Ukraine War.” Today William Arkin is joining us from Sweden. He’s a prize-winning national security reporter. His books include Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.
Bill Arkin, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you start off by telling us, in this many-month investigation, what you did? What surprised you most? And don’t speak in soundbites.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Thank you, Amy, for having me on again.
You know, I worked on this question of what the role of the CIA was in Ukraine, and I wanted to know particularly whether or not all of the Hollywood rumors surrounding the agency — its possible involvement in the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines, its possible involvement in other sabotage attacks inside Russia, a lot of the news that I was hearing about the presence of the CIA on the ground and its covert assistance — I wanted to know how much of it was true. And I went down this path to try to get to the truth.
What I came up with, most importantly — and, really, this is most importantly — is that the CIA is an intelligence agency, and so its number one mission in Ukraine is to collect intelligence, collect intelligence not just on what the Russians are doing, but also on what the Ukrainians are doing. And that’s the biggest blind spot, as I identified, which is that the United States knows as little about what Zelensky is up to and what he’s thinking and what his views are about the future as it does about Vladimir Putin and his future plans and intentions.
And so, this might come as a surprise to some people, but, as my sources explained it to me, the reality is that Ukraine is not an ally of the United States. We have no treaty obligations towards Ukraine. And the United States is not at war with Russia. So this is a particularly unique battlefield in which the CIA is playing an outsize role, but it is playing an outsize role because the Biden administration has been firm in saying that the U.S. military will not be involved in any direct way in the fighting or on the battlefield or, indeed, inside Ukraine.
So you have this situation where the CIA’s primary mission, which is to figure out what it is that the Russians and the Ukrainians are doing, as well as now its augmented mission, which is to play a greater role in the provision of arms to Ukraine, a greater role in counterintelligence, a greater role in corralling all of the neighbor states to Ukraine so that they stay firmly engaged in the war, some countries of which the domestic population is not as enthusiastic about war with Russia as is, say, for instance, Poland, that this role really stretches the CIA quite thin in terms of what it’s doing, but also it’s got its hand in a little bit of everything.
And I would say that I would give it low marks on understanding the intentions of Putin or Zelensky, very high marks on understanding what’s going on on the battlefield, but the most high marks are in moving the billions of dollars’ worth of weapons that the United States and NATO has pledged to Kyiv.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But now, William Arkin, the CIA is no stranger to Ukraine. Clearly, in the post-World War II period, it was involved in developing right-wing groups within Ukraine that were opposing the Soviet Union, a lot of them former neo-Nazis. And as you write, the CIA has been central to the war, this war, even before it began, when Biden tapped Director William Burns as his global troubleshooter. Could you talk about Burns’s role and this historic connection between the CIA and groups in Ukraine?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, when Joe Biden became president, he appointed a number of his close associates — Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan — to be his main national security actors. But the person that was appointed to be the director of the CIA, former Ambassador to Russia William Burns and a Foreign Service officer in his career, was somebody who was much more considered to be the senior statesman of the administration, if you will, the person with the most experience. And so, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it was no surprise that Burns became the central figure in this war and that he had both the superior knowledge of Putin and of Russia, but also he had had a long career specializing in Eastern Europe.
So, when he was appointed sort of the Biden administration’s back-channel negotiator, diplomat and main spy, it fell to him to handle relations with Kyiv. Remember, the U.S. Embassy was closed for a long time. It fell to the CIA to handle the clandestine relations that existed with Poland and other countries, relationships which had been built up since 9/11 and since even the end of the Cold War. So the CIA has played an extremely important role in the modern era, and I would say that the legacy of what the CIA may have done in the Soviet era just is not represented by those who work in the CIA today, nor is it part of what the CIA thinks its main purpose is.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of why the Biden administration has not insisted on more openness on the part of Ukraine’s government, given the enormous amount of aid that the U.S. is giving, why hasn’t it pressed President Zelensky to be more forthcoming about what Ukraine is doing?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, I think that the CIA and the U.S. government has pressed the Ukrainians. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have full control over them. The reality is that the U.S.’s main objective and the Biden administration’s supreme objective has always been to see that the war not be escalated, that the United States not be put into a situation where it’s fighting against Russia directly. And part of that was to urge Ukraine not to attack Russia, not to attack Belarus, where Russian forces were deployed.
And that really pretty much worked, up until about September or October of last year, first when the Nord Stream bombings occurred and then, second, when the attack on the Kerch Bridge occurred, in which case the United States, U.S. intelligence, believed that Ukraine was behind both of them. And though it believed that Ukrainian factions were behind both of those attacks, it wasn’t altogether clear to the CIA that Zelensky himself had foreknowledge or even had been read in on those operations, because Zelensky’s power — those powers are himself limited inside Ukraine.
And so, the CIA might have put a lot of pressure on Zelensky and his government in order to be more transparent or to deal with corruption or to deal with accountability, but it’s not altogether clear that Zelensky has full control over the Ukrainian military or the Ukrainian secret services, nor is it necessarily the case that the United States is in a position to really exert much leverage against Ukraine at this point. It’s like “too big to fail,” that the United States has invested so much in the Ukraine war that it can’t really credibly say to Zelensky, “If you don’t do X, we’re going to stop supplying you with arms.” It’s just not a tenable policy anymore.
So, the CIA represents these many interests, the interest not to escalate with Russia, the interest not to have Russia resort to the use of nuclear weapons, trying to understand what Putin’s position and Putin’s thinking is. But at the same time, it struggles with the question of whether or not it understands well enough what it is that Ukraine wants, and also what it is that Ukraine will accept, beyond its public rhetoric, in trying to end the war.
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned William Burns, now head of the CIA, very interesting key figure, former ambassador to Russia, and you talked about how he went to Russia before the war. He’s also the one who for years warned against the expansion of NATO, saying it’s going to provoke Russia. So, you talk about what the U.S. understands about Ukraine. What does the U.S. understand about Russia right now, and working with Russia before Russia invaded?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, I’m afraid that the Biden administration has really squandered the possibility of being a third actor in this war. The United States has aligned itself 100% with Ukraine. And as a result of that, I don’t see much movement or much interest even on the part of the U.S. government in Washington to be a third party, to actually be a negotiator, to find a peaceful resolution. So, really, no one is playing that role. The United Nations is not playing that role. Sweden is not playing that role anymore, now that it aspires to be a member of NATO. There is no neutral party that really is playing the role of trying to end the conflict between the two parties, who are essentially stalled right now in combat, where there’s not really much movement on either side, but the killing continues.
So, it was the case that in the minds of Russia, the expansion of NATO was provocative and may, in the theory of national security, been a strategic threat to Russia. And it is probably the case that when history is written, we will say that NATO was a little bit too greedy in its zeal to expand into Eastern Europe. But the reality is that that doesn’t excuse the Russian invasion, not in 2014 nor in 2022. And the reality for the CIA is that they need to understand what Putin’s intentions are, not only to understand the implications of Ukraine’s actions, particularly its increasing actions in Crimea and across the border in Russia, but also to understand what it is that Putin will settle for as part of a settlement and also what it is that Zelensky will settle for. So, it’s a tricky situation where I don’t really have a lot of confidence that the CIA is fully on top of what either of these two leaders think.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: William Arkin, I wanted to double back to a comment you just made a few moments ago in terms of Ukraine, that you said that it’s not clear that President Zelensky is fully in charge of his military. Do your sources indicate to you who — what the CIA believes who are the other potential forces that might have some control over the military?
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, in the structure of the Ukrainian government, you have the presidency and the office of the president. It’s a rather new democratic institution, so it only has so much power. And during a war, that power is somewhat diminished. Then there’s the military itself and its commander-in-chief, who is the most powerful actor in Ukrainian society today. But you also have the National Guard, and you have Ukrainian intelligence, and you have the Ukrainian secret agencies, including secret special operations forces, and it’s not clear who indeed is in charge of all of them. My guess is that the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is nominally in charge.
But there’s also a desire, which my sources particularly highlighted, sometimes for politicians, and even for generals, not to know what’s going on, because that gives them both plausible denial, but also allows them to speak honestly to U.S. leaders or to other NATO leaders, to be able to say that they are not clear as to what happened. So, if the general in Ukraine or President Zelensky himself says, “I don’t know who attacked the Nord Stream pipeline,” they want to be able to say it truthfully, and so sometimes they just don’t want to know. They intentionally don’t want to know.
But the structure of the government and how the decision-making is actually working and what the power of these secret agencies are and how much they have and have not done inside Ukraine, well, that in itself is a bit of a mystery. It’s not one that anyone has a clear understanding of. And that “anyone” might include the president himself, Zelensky himself.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, Bill Arkin, before we end, you write, “Now, more than a year after the invasion, the United States sustains two massive networks, one public and the other clandestine. Ships deliver goods to ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland, and those supplies are moved by truck, train and air to Ukraine. Clandestinely though, a fleet of commercial aircraft (the ‘grey fleet’) crisscrosses Central and Eastern Europe, moving arms and supporting CIA operations.” And you talk about the U.S.’s central base being in Poland. Now, the Biden administration asked you not to identify who the commercial airlines are and what exactly these networks are. And talk about their significance.
WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, I think that there’s an extraordinary amount of activity going on of moving arms and ammunition and materiel into Ukraine, and it’s happening mostly through these Eastern European neighbors of Ukraine — Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, etc. But the truth is that — and this is one thing that I did learn in my investigation that I hadn’t considered — U.S. intelligence also believes that the Russians, the FSB, the Russian intelligence services themselves, are not really privy to how the arms are moving into the country, that they don’t really have the intelligence ability to track arms as they’re coming into Ukraine. And as a result of that, the CIA insists that this is a secret, that it’s an actual secret, the divulgence of which would have a deleterious effect on national security.
We were willing to not mention the countries and not mention the name of the airline that’s involved, but the truth of the matter is that it’s quite interesting that the assessment of the agency is that the Russian intelligence is very limited in what it can see. And to some degree, that’s proven in Russian attacks and Russian reattacks, where it’s clear that despite all of the money that Russia spends on its FSB, on the ex-KGB and on satellites, etc., that it just isn’t up to the quality of NATO or the United States in its own intelligence collection.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, William Arkin, we want to thank you for being with us, senior editor at Newsweek. We’re going to link to your new investigation for the magazine, headlined “The CIA’s Blind Spot about the Ukraine War.” Bill Arkin was speaking to us from Sweden.
Coming up, as the war in Ukraine approaches its 17th month, we’ll speak to two reporters who have closely looked at the role played by neo-Nazis in the war, from the Azov Battalion in Ukraine to the anti-Putin Russian militia that attacked Russian targets in May. Back in a minute.