CIA Director Bill Burns is leading a delegation of senior US officials in Moscow for a two-day series of meetings with Russian officials, a US embassy spokesperson said on Tuesday.
“They are meeting with members of the Russian government to discuss a range of issues in the bilateral relationship,” the spokesman said, but did not offer details.
Among those meetings, Burns met with the head of Russia’s national security council, Nikolai Patrushev. A terse statement from Russia’s powerful Security Council said that the two sides discussed “Russian-American relations.” The meeting was not previously announced and the CIA, which as a matter of policy does not discuss the director’s schedule, declined to comment.
The rare – but not unheard of – meetings between the head of the CIA and senior Russian security officials comes amid persistent tensions between the Washington and Moscow.
The Biden administration has imposed sanctions on Russia related to election interference, the poisoning of dissident critic Alexi Navalny, and cyberattacks on US interests. Officials have been warily watching recent Russian troop movements on the border of Ukraine. Russia also remains under sanctions for its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Still, the US does see opportunities for cooperation with Russia, in particular on arms control, and the intelligence community under past administrations has sought points of mutual interest with Moscow.
“We periodically meet with our Russian intelligence counterparts for the same reason our predecessors did — to keep Americans safe,” former President Trump’s first CIA director, Mike Pompeo, wrote in a letter defending a meeting with top Russian intelligence officials in Washington in 2018. That meeting garnered attention primarily because it took place on American soil with officials who were under US sanction.
Burns, a veteran diplomat, has deep experience in Russia. He served as the US ambassador there from 2005 to 2008.
The Biden administration has maintained ongoing “open, direct and candid dialogue” with Russia on the issue of cyberattacks, Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technologies, said at a Washington think tank event last week.
Biden has put pressure on Putin to crack down on a spate of damaging ransomware attacks on US organizations – including critical infrastructure – emanating out of Russia and announced the beginning of US-Russia cybersecurity talks at the end of a summit meeting with Putin in Switzerland in June.
The US government has “shared information with Russia regarding criminal ransomware activity being conducted from its territory,” a senior administration official told reporters last month, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules that the White House set for the call.
It’s not clear that the talks have yielded any substantive results, however. Nobelium, the Russian hacking group responsible for the SolarWinds hack, has compromised as many as 14 technology firms since May as part of another apparent espionage campaign, Microsoft said last week.