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US-Russia engagement deepens as CIA head travels to Moscow


William Burns, the C.I.A. director, in February. His trip to Moscow was at least the fourth such trip since July by a senior American official.

By Anton Troianovski and Julian E. Barnes


William Burns, the CIA director, met with a top adviser to President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this week, leading a delegation of American officials on a two-day visit to the Russian capital that served as the latest evidence of heightened engagement between two global adversaries.


Burns was traveling at President Joe Biden’s request, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said in a statement. The surprise visit was something of a merger of Burns’ current role as intelligence chief and his past jobs as a senior American diplomat and state department official. Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, joined Burns in his meeting with the adviser to Putin, Nikolai Patrushev.


“They are meeting with members of the Russian government to discuss a range of issues in the bilateral relationship,” an embassy spokesperson said of the U.S. delegation’s visit, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.


It was at least the fourth trip to Moscow since July by a senior American official, a sharp uptick in contact that has come in the wake of the summit meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva in June. Officials on both sides say the talks have so far yielded no breakthroughs and are aimed primarily at stabilizing the relationship between two nuclear-armed adversaries increasingly competing in cyberspace as well as geopolitics.


The talks include a serious conversation on arms control and another on cybersecurity. The United States, for example, has turned over the names and other details of a few hackers actively launching attacks on America from Russia, and is waiting to see if the information results in arrests, The New York Times has reported.


The two sides are also discussing other matters of mutual interest, including North Korea, Afghanistan and climate policy.


American officials have also said that Moscow has been helpful in ongoing talks with Iran about its nuclear program. Burns was one of the diplomats who began the back-channel talks with Iran that ultimately led to the international agreement in 2015 to limit its nuclear program. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018.


“While the number of issues that we have reached agreement on is not great, we are on the right path,” Putin said last month, praising the White House as “interested in building ties.”


Burns’ visit — and the decision to immediately disclose it — underlined the efforts by both sides to telegraph that they were working to manage a volatile relationship.


Biden has argued that even as the United States and Russia compete on the world stage, they should be able to cooperate “where it’s in our mutual interests.” But his stance has opened him up to criticism that he is too willing to engage with a country that is undermining U.S. interests globally and repressing dissent at home.


After landing Tuesday, Burns sat down with Patrushev, who is the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council and is widely seen as the most powerful figure among the intelligence officials in Putin’s inner circle. In a brief video of the start of the meeting posted online by Russian media, Patrushev tells Burns, seated across from him at a conference table, “I am glad to greet you in Moscow.”


The CIA declined to comment.


Russian officials have publicly floated the possibility of a second meeting between Putin and Biden before the end of the year, although the White House has not confirmed that another summit is under consideration. American officials would likely want to see some further progress on the issues discussed in Geneva before agreeing to another meeting.


Asked Tuesday about the possibility of another Putin-Biden meeting, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that there was “a mutual interest in holding such contacts.”


“The timetable will be determined,” Peskov said.


The White House has used Burns as something of a roving diplomat, sending him, for example, to Afghanistan to talk with Taliban leaders during the evacuation of the Kabul airport in August. He also met with senior Israeli leaders in Israel before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Washington.


A former U.S. ambassador to Moscow who has twice been stationed as a diplomat in Russia, he is one of the Biden administration’s senior officials most experienced in Russian affairs.


The range of intelligence issues between the United States and Russia includes Moscow’s election interference, pushing of disinformation globally, and ransomware attacks by Russian criminal groups.


It is not clear if Burns was going to raise the issue of the anomalous health incidents known as “Havana syndrome,’’ a growing number of episodes where CIA officers and other officials have suffered traumatic brain injuries after experiencing strange pressure, heat or sounds.


Some American officials say privately that they believe Russia is responsible for those health incidents.


However, CIA analysts and other U.S. intelligence agencies have not yet drawn any formal conclusions about what has caused them. Russia has dismissed speculation that it could be responsible as “unhealthy fantasies.”

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