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CIA director meets in Moscow with top Russian official amid heightened tensions

CIA Director William Burns met with a top Russian security official on Tuesday, a spokesperson from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow confirmed. At President Biden's request, Burns was leading a delegation of senior American officials on a two-day trip to Moscow.

"They are meeting with members of the Russian government to discuss a range of issues in the bilateral relationship," the spokesperson said.  

The interaction comes amid simmering tensions with the Kremlin, although at the same time, the Biden administration is trying to foster a more stable and predictable relationship after issuing a raft of sanctions for past offenses in April.  

Mr. Biden met in June with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva to discuss areas of potential cooperation, including arms control and cybersecurity, among other topics.   

But U.S.-Russia relations have continued to be turbulent; Kremlin-linked hackers are still launching ransomware attacks on U.S. companies, and Moscow persists in its efforts to meddle in U.S. elections.  

And earlier this week, satellite imagery showed Russian armored units, soldiers and artillery nearing Ukraine's border, renewing concerns about a potential military incursion. 

Moscow's diplomatic engagements with the West have been souring on several fronts. Last month, NATO announced it was expelling eight Russian diplomats it alleged were undeclared Russian intelligence officers and reduced Russia's delegation to the alliance, prompting Moscow to shut down NATO's outpost there.  

The Kremlin has also banned the American embassy from employing local Russian staff, virtually eliminating its ability to issue visas or provide other consular services, U.S. officials said last week.   

On Tuesday, Russia's Security Council posted a photograph of Burns meeting with its Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, a former director of Russia's domestic intelligence service and close associate of President Vladimir Putin.  

"The parties discussed Russian-American relations," its one-sentence caption said.  

The CIA declined to comment on Burns' travel, and a spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to elaborate on the agenda for the American delegation in Moscow or why Burns was tapped to lead it.  

Since he became CIA director, Burns has spoken publicly about health incidents known as "Havana Syndrome" that have befallen more than 200 American officials — including 100 intelligence officers. He has said Russia "could be" behind the incidents, which can cause dizziness, nausea and debilitating headaches, but he and other senior intelligence officials have stressed that agencies have not determined their cause.  

It was not clear whether Burns would address the health incidents while he's in Moscow — they were raised briefly by the president during his June summit with Putin, a senior administration official said.  

A former deputy secretary of state who, over a three-decade career in diplomacy, served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Burns has engaged numerous times in recent months with counterparts in fraught diplomatic and security situations.  

In August, he met with leading Taliban officials in Kabul as the U.S. scrambled to complete its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Before that, Burns met with then-president Ashraf Ghani at CIA headquarters, where the two discussed the embattled leader's handling of a potential political transition. 

At a recent appearance at Stanford University, Burns discussed making the transition from career diplomat to director of the country's leading spy agency, which, he said, had required him to present an "oftentimes…grim intelligence landscape."   

"I'd like to think – at least I hope – that my experience as an ambassador, as a policymaker, will make me a better director of CIA," Burns said, "In other words, better able to connect the work that we do at CIA to what matters most to policymakers."  

"I think part of the obligation for CIA, for an intelligence agency, is to be very mindful of the ways in which policymakers are going to have to wrestle with choices," he said.  

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