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By John Helmer, Moscow

O dear! O dear me! O dearie, dearie me!

William Burns is the man who might have been US Secretary of State if Hillary Clinton had been elected President in November 2016. Since then he has been composing an apologia pro vita sua — a book of religious convictions describing what went wrong through no fault of his own or of God’s, explaining what a victim Burns and the United States have been of bad luck; bad timing; President Donald Trump’s “narcissism”, “erratic leadership” and “active sabotage”; and Russian malevolence.

To the ex-Ambassador to Russia and ex-Deputy Secretary of State, the Russian evil is a motiveless, psychopathological crime. Russians, especially the few high-ranking ones Burns met as a State Department apparatchik, can’t help themselves. There is no cause and effect between action and reaction, between US offence and Russian defence. Nothing Christian Brothers alumni and missionary Americans like Burns have done explains (in Burns’s tract) why the Russians behave so badly, and why their souls must forever burn in hell unless they repent. Five hundred pages of holier-than-thou, confessor to the wicked Russians — that’s been the Burns mission.

The book starts with a misnomer. The Back Channel is Burns’s title. Click to read.  The Russian chapters of the book, one on Yeltsin and one and a bit on Putin, have been compacted in this magazine publication.

The back-of-the-book index is large, but revealingly,  there are very few of the Russians Burns has met – Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, Sergei Ivanov,  Sergei Lavrov, Vladislav Surkov, and Anna Politkovskaya on her funeral bier.  There is no sign at all of the back channel Burns and his counterparts at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operated to their Russian targets – oligarchs, cabinet ministers, Kremlin advisors, journalists – in their campaign to bend Russian policy to US interests. If there was a “back channel”, and there was, Burns has kept it out of his book.  

Burns mentions just two Russian oligarchs – Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, both oppositionists in jail or in exile and haplessly committed to Russian regime change. The only cabinet minister he identifies,   also approvingly, is Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. About him, Burns confirms US planning to ply him with inducements – an “economic basket” was one — on a visit to Washington. When Putin told Burns, according to Burns’s record, “outside interference in our elections will not be tolerated,” Burns replied, trying to contain his indignation and apparently expecting Putin to believe him: “With the most even tone I could manage, I said that his accusations were baseless, and that the outcome of Russia’s elections was for Russians alone to decide. Putin listened, offered a tight-lipped smile, and replied, ‘Don’t think we won’t react to outside interference.’”

There is another incident which in the retelling, reveals how Burns’s righteous indignation turned   into holy war against Putin. It was at a meeting in October 2006 at the presidential dacha near Moscow between then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Putin. According to Burns,  “the discussion meandered, until she [Rice]  began to make a case against Russia’s escalation of tension with Georgia and its pro-NATO, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Like most of the Russian political elite, Putin expected deference from smaller neighbors, and Saakashvili was passionately undeferential. Putin’s intimidating aura is often reinforced by his controlled mannerisms, modulated tone, and steady gaze. But he can get quite animated if he wants to drive home a point, his eyes flashing and his voice rising in pitch. Standing before the fire, Putin wagged his index finger and warned, ‘If Saakashvili starts something, we will finish it.’ Rice stood at that point too, looming several inches taller than Putin in her heels. Having to look up at the secretary did not improve his disposition. ‘Saakashvili is nothing more than a puppet of the United States,’ Putin said sharply. ‘You need to pull back on the strings before there’s trouble.’ The fireplace exchange eventually ratcheted down, but tensions over Georgia and Ukraine never did. Putin kept up the pressure.”

To understand the psychopathology in this story, you need to disregard, as Burns means you to disregard, all the evidence on the Russia-Georgia War of August 2008 from US, Georgian, European Union and United Nations sources about who did what to whom, and in what sequence.   What Burns wants you to know instead is that Rice is 1.69 metres tall; Putin 1.7 metres. 


The 1-centimetre tete-a-tete. Left: Secretary Rice meets President Putin at the Novo-Ogarevo dacha, October 15, 2005; official Russian agency picture; Rice is not wearing high heels. Right: Putin and Rice at the Novo-Ogarevo meeting of October 6, 2006; State Department picture, high heels invisible.  

Burns remembers, he wants everybody to understand that when Putin warned the US, two years in advance of the war,  against preparing Saakashvili for his attack in the Russian Caucasus – a war which ended in Saakshvili’s defeat — the US Secretary of State used her high heels to try to intimidate the President of Russia. Were the high heels pre-planned by Burns and Rice so that she could “loom several inches taller than Putin”?

The answer to that question is Burns’s secret. What Burns can’t help but reveal is that this is how he and the female Secretary of State believed they should conduct the preliminaries to war against Russia. And the cause of the war of August 2008? “Putin had baited Saakashvili into conflict, and Russia had invaded Georgia.”

There is more cliché, innuendo, cheap shot psychology, and abiding hatred for Putin, all presented as if he were the only decision-maker in the country;  and as if Burns had failed to engage with any other. In substantiation of this method of analysis, Burns quotes liberally from his own embassy cables and secret memoranda as if they are evidence; a selection of these papers, which Burns has had declassified, are at the back of the book. Otherwise, no evidence, no explanation, no Russian interpretation, not even a contrary American one has warranted a second thought by Burns. In five hundred pages, there is no mention of the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the US Treasury’s Office of Financial Intelligence.  

“The collapse of Communism represents an historic triumph for democracy and free markets”, is the line with which Burns started his briefing for the new Secretary of State Warren Christopher in January 1993.  In October of that year, President Yeltsin’s artillery bombardment of the Russian parliament was “a failed revolt” whose principal casualty “Yeltsin himself was a wounded figure. .. here was Boris Yeltsin, who had so courageously defied the hard-liners in August 1991 and buried the Communist system for good, exposed as an infirm leader unable to restore order.”

Quoting old papers he had written, Burns says that “when I left Moscow after my first tour, in early 1996, I worried about the eventual resurgence of a Russia stewing in its own grievances and insecurities. I just had no idea that this would happen so quickly, or that Vladimir Putin—then an obscure bureaucrat—would emerge as the embodiment of that peculiarly Russian combination of qualities.”

When Putin did emerge (brimming with grievance stew), Burns has no explanation for the Russian forces which have kept him in power despite every American effort to do him in. “ ‘You Americans need to listen more,’ President Putin said as I handed him my credentials as ambassador [December 2005],  before I had gotten a word out of my mouth. ‘You can’t have everything your way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms.’ It was 2005, and in the ensuing years I would hear that message again and again, as unsubtle and defiantly charmless as the man himself.”


Ambassador Burns presented his credentials to President Putin on November 5, 2005. The photographic record shows no movement of their mouths during the handover.  

Putin is also psycho-analyzed by Burns as simultaneously puerile and macho.  In a meeting with President Barack Obama, Putin was “slouching a little in his chair, his legs spread wide, he looked every bit the sullen and surly kid in the back of the classroom”. With Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, he showed off the “ bare-chested persona he obsessively cultivated.”

That semi-psychotic episode leads to more of the same.  Watch as Burns accuses Putin of plotting the defeat of Clinton in November 2016, and the end of Burns’s career. Is this his own grievance stew Burns is serving up as reason of state? “Putin has a remarkable capacity for storing up slights and grievances, and assembling them to fit his narrative of the West trying to keep Russia down. Clinton’s criticism would rank high in his litany—and help generate an animus that led directly to his meddling against her candidacy in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

Burns also uses innuendo to accuse Putin of ordering the murder of Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006: “Some suspected it was no coincidence that the murder happened on Putin’s birthday [October 7, 1952].”


Burns at a memorial service in Moscow in 2009 to mark the 5th anniversary of the assassination of US reporter Paul Khlebnikov (beside Burns, Khlebnikov’s  brother and widow Musa). Months later Burns ordered the US Embassies in Moscow and London to stop their investigations of the attempted assassination in December 2009 of US reporter, John Helmer. 

Burns also claims Putin is fearful of being assassinated himself. “The upheavals of the Arab Spring unnerved Putin; he reportedly watched the grisly video of the demise of the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi—caught hiding in a drainage pipe and killed by Western-backed rebels—over and over again.”  Burns wants the reader, Russian and American, to believe  he has no idea who in the US Government had been trying to arrange Qaddafi’s assassination for the twenty-five years during which Burns was Executive Secretary of the State Department, Ambassador to Jordan, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Natch.  

On the fundamental security issue of NATO’s advance towards the Russian frontier, Burns blames Putin for “misreading”, not the President of the US for misleading. Putin, he claims, “imagined a common front in the post-9/11 War on Terror, in return for acceptance of Russia’s special influence in the former Soviet Union, with no encroachment by NATO beyond the Baltics and no interference in Russia’s domestic politics. But this kind of transaction was never in the cards. Putin fundamentally misread American interests and politics. The Bush administration had no desire—and saw no reason—to trade anything for a Russian partnership against al‑Qaeda. It had little inclination to concede much to a declining power.”

This is a statement of the US strategy of permanent warmaking to ensure that all adversaries remain “declining powers”.  The reason for war on the Ukraine front since 2014, according to Burns?  “After the pro-Russian president of Ukraine fled during widespread protests, Putin annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbass, in eastern Ukraine. If he couldn’t have a deferential government in Kiev, he wanted to engineer the next best thing: a dysfunctional Ukraine.”

More can be learned from what Burns omits to explain. In a memo for Rice, Burns proposed “a bold package of understandings with Putin. The first would be a security framework and the second would be a renewed commitment to economic cooperation”. Burns quickly explained that by the first he meant a cynical “deal on regional missile defence cooperation that would allow us to move ahead on Polish and Czech deployments [of the Aegis-Ashore anti-missile missile system].  This was calculated cynicism on Burns’s part  because he knew the US deal offered nothing to the Russians, and would be rejected for that reason. Cynical too because Burns’s rationale was that “it’s still worth a try if only as a way to show the Allies that we’ve exhausted every avenue.”

The Burns idea for “renewed commitment to economic cooperation” was cynical in a fashion Burns doesn’t reveal because it is the key to understanding when and why Putin decided that Hillary Clinton was a corrupt liar, who would take bribes and then betray the promises she had made. This is one of many stories which were part of the Clinton-Burns campaign to cultivate the Russian oligarchs and turn them against Putin as US agents of regime change in Moscow. Khodorkovsky and Berezovsky had turned out to be failures, so Clinton and Burns tried with Oleg Deripaska, Mikhail Friedman, Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Prokhorov, and many others. They were the real back channel Burns tried to open in Moscow.

The story of Deripaska’s million-dollar bid to bribe Clinton through her family foundation, and retain her staff, along with Burns and his subordinates at State, in order to win US agreement to Deripaska’s acquisition of the Opel and Vauxhall divisions of then-bankrupt General Motors (GM), has been told here in retrospect.    The first reports were published as the action unfolded between July and November of 2009.  

At the time I was the only reporter in Russia and the US to break the story that Clinton and Burns had joined the CIA and the Treasury to stop the Opel deal. I also warned that Washington’s repudiation of Deripaska’s Opel takeover was a bad omen. While no US or GM official amplified their reasons in public, then or later, I reported it was increasingly doubtful that Deripaska would be able to achieve the international share listing for Rusal planned for January 2010. At that moment in the autumn of  2009, Deripaska was the biggest debtor in Russia, and his aluminium enterprise Rusal the most indebted company. Deripaska acknowledged his total indebtedness was then “slightly” under $20 billion. Read the book on what Deripaska did next — first the offer of a bribe, then an assassination attempt – in order to make sure his Rusal listing would go according to plan.  

In his memoir, Burns makes sure his readers know that in July 2009 he was at President Obama’s side when Obama met Putin in Moscow. He then conceals what happened.  According to Burns,  “Obama’s initial question produced an unbroken 55-minute monologue filled with grievances, sharp asides, and acerbic commentary. I sat wondering about the wisdom of my advice and my future in the new administration.”

“Obama listened patiently, and then delivered his own firm message on the possibilities of a “reset” of the relationship. He was matter-of-fact about the two countries’ differences, and didn’t gloss over the profound problems that Russia’s actions in Georgia had caused. He said it was in neither of our interests to let our disagreements obscure those areas where we could each benefit by working together, and where U.S.-Russian leadership could contribute to international order. We should explore the possibilities of cooperation, he explained, without inflating expectations. Putin was wary, but said he was willing to try.”

Mind the word “cooperation”, and Putin’s offer that he was “willing to try”. But Burns knew then what was not disclosed until later. That was the decision which Clinton had recommended to Obama, on Burns’s advice, that the “cooperation” between GM and the Russian car industry, which had been agreed earlier, was now prohibited.

When this became public several weeks later, Deripaska was explicit about where the blame lay: “in the Opel case, the US Department of State’s prejudices are also a problem,” he told the BBC.

Putin was more subtle; also more damning: “The last-minute refusal to complete the Opel deal is not harmful to our interests, but it shows that our American partners have a very original culture when dealing with counterparties. We will have to take into account this style of dealing with partners in the future, though this scornful approach toward partners mainly affects the Europeans, not us. GM did not warn anyone, did not speak to anyone… despite all the agreements reached and documents signed. Well, I think it is a good lesson.” That the Clinton family had trousered money, and then failed to deliver, was what Putin meant when he referred the “very original culture” of American dealmaking.

This was when Putin decided that Hillary Clinton was  contemptible. It was also the moment when the Russian Government concluded there was no trusting any undertaking, oral or written, which US officials like Burns would negotiate and sign.  Burns, a career liar in the Russian assessment and in a grievance stew of his own making,  is still covering this up. His hope is that after Election Day, November 3, 2020, at the age of 63 Burns will still be believable in Washington, and therefore a candidate, once again, to be Secretary of State.

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