Robert Bosch Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Former Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs, National Security Council (2017–2019); CFR Member
Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council; Former Deputy Secretary General of NATO (2012–2016); Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs (2009–2012); Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2001–2005); CFR Member
Staff Writer, New Yorker
Panelists discuss U.S. - Russia relations, including issues such as Ukraine, cybersecurity, and the domestic political outlook in both countries.
The Transition 2021 series examines the major issues confronting the administration in the foreign policy arena.
GLASSER: Thank you so much, Kayla, and thank you to everybody for joining us this morning. I'm delighted to be able to be hosting this conversation today because if you're thinking about a transition in 2021, and the new Biden administration, and Russia, this is exactly the group of people that I would turn to and call to try to understand what the next few years hold for our Russia policy because they've always been the very best guides for me over the last more than two decades, I guess, to say when it comes to thinking about Russia and the United States and our policy. So I'm really delighted to be having this conversation today with Dr. Fiona Hill, who has, as everyone here knows, a lot of experience over the last four years of dealing with Russia and the United States. And I think her perspective on what is even possible in the context of U.S.-Russian relations after her own experience in the Trump administration will be particular. So thank you, Fiona, for being with us. We have Steve Sestanovich, our host here, who not only has been a hands-on policymaker and is a great CFR expert on Russia but a professor at Columbia as well as an author. And Ambassador Sandy Vershbow, who was the ambassador to Russia when I was in Moscow as a correspondent covering the early years of Vladimir Putin. He went on to become the deputy secretary-general of NATO at a time when it was increasingly clear what kind of challenges Putin and his revisionist Russia would pose to NATO and the alliance going forward.
So, again, I'm just delighted to have this group of people with us today because I can't think of a set of folks who can help us navigate this moment even more. And I think that's really what it would be best to begin on, Steve, would be this question of what is our framework for thinking about Russia at this moment in time. We don't want to have this sort of endless cycle of reset- not reset. That seems like no longer a very useful policy framework. The bottom line is Vladimir Putin has been in power now for longer than any modern Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. He shows no signs of going anywhere despite enormous challenges inside Russia to his regime. We all woke up this morning to the grinning faces of two very smug and self-satisfied autocrats—Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko—having a nice ski vacation in Sochi. And in a way, that sort of tells us a lot about the challenges. So, Steve, I want to ask you, have we been using the right framework for thinking about what is possible anymore between the United States and Russia? President Biden gave his "America is Back" speech on Friday and suggested that he views Russia as a threat on par with China. How should we be thinking about this to start us off?
SESTANOVICH: Well, I think you're absolutely right, Susan, to talk about how long Putin has been in power because it shapes people's expectations of him. I like to point out that all the previous resets have involved not only new American presidents but new Russian leaders at the time: Clinton-Yeltsin, Bush-Putin, Obama-Medvedev. Even in an odd way, Trump, you know, was dealing with Putin, who had been more or less recently reelected and whose big crisis with the West had just come two years earlier over Ukraine. Now, when we look at Putin, we see somebody kind of different, who is very dug in, who doesn't show a lot of flexibility or interest in turning on a dime. But I think we also have to add one other thing, which is the change in his domestic circumstances when we think about what his approach is going to be. Because Putin, you know, while presenting himself as the ultimate pragmatist, has really, of late, taken an extremely ideological tone toward the West and really described the relationship in such conflictual terms in a way that I think is kind of new for him. He talked, you know, what's his big theme these days? No election meddling. Fiona, this will strike you as a familiar theme. He's taking the offensive on this, and he's sort of bashing American tech companies for de-platforming Trump. He's talking about the way in which the West's geopolitical project is leading to all kinds of pressures on Russia around the periphery, the closing of media outlets in Latvia and Ukraine. I mean, there's a kind of ideological ferocity to it that I haven't seen recently, and I think that is going to shape the agenda in a big way.
GLASSER: So Fiona, I want to ask you to pick up where Steve left off, you know, what is even possible for a new President Biden after the last few years? You know, did all of that sound and fury signify nothing in the end? You know, in some ways, right, many of the challenges we're talking about between the United States and Russia or Europe and Russia, for that matter, strike me as very similar to the conversation we could have had four years ago, except, of course, Donald Trump is a radically different president than Joe Biden. So, you know, what do you see as the landscape for Biden in terms of possibility, and what, if anything, would you say the Trump-Russia policy—where did it get us?
HILL: Well, look, I agree with Steve the way that he's framed things here because, you know, we have to be well aware of the constraints that we're dealing with. And as Steve said, each American president has started with their own idea that they could somehow sway the whole relationship through forging some kind of direct connection with the guy on top, which, of course, has been Putin for so long now that, you know, it takes us quite a bit to think back to who it was previously. And that, in a way, fits into the structure in Russia itself for the very rigid vertical of power. But it becomes problematic when we, ourselves, in the United States, start to emulate that. And this is important because, you know, what happened under the previous administration is that President Trump wanted to handle all of the relationships with key leaders himself. So there wasn't even a delegation down to other parts of the administration. So when we talk about the Trump administration, we're really talking about President Trump. And so I'll just talk about what he had in mind and then, you know, elsewhere there, I think, was a lot of continuity in the approach to Russia, which I think gives us a bit of a sense of, you know, where to go forward. And all of us here, including many of the attendees, I've been scrolling down the list, you know, we've all been around this patch of Russia before. You know, I don't want to cast aspersions how old we are now but, you know, we all remember the 1980s, you know, and onwards. And we're kind of wrapping up that kind of forty-year suite from the 1980s, including on issues like arms control, and that's where Trump was coming from. Because back in the 1980s, President Trump, then businessman Trump, who was putting out lots of ads and he was speaking in interviews about how he saw still, at that point, it was obviously very much in everyone's foremost part of their mind, was that nuclear weapons were a catastrophe and that we were on the verge of some kind of nuclear confrontation with Russia. And, of course, we do know there has been some more declassification of documents that there was a real war scare in the early 1980s. And, of course, Trump had also gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis and all the other events of the Cold War. So he was fixated when he came into office on wrapping up the 1980s and arms control. And although it didn't seem like that from everybody on the outside, you know, if you look back to some of these revelations of discussions that he had that have come out in public, the very first meeting with Theresa May when he complains that Vladimir Putin wasn't patched through, he says, you know, "How can this be the one person who can destroy the United States?" So I heard, you know, President Trump repeatedly said that what he wanted more than anything was an arms control agreement with the Russians. He wanted it on his own terms. He wanted to put his stamp on it, but that was his upper muscle. When he kept talking about having a deal with the Russians, he was basically talking about having an arms control deal. Now admittedly, there were parts of people in his administration who weren't quite so keen on that, but that's what he wanted.
And then there was another thing that Trump himself wanted, and that kind of got lost in the mix as well, which was sitting down with Putin, the big arms control deal, and then pulling Putin on to the United States' side to deal with two other issues: one - Iran, and the other one- China. Now, you know, all of us who've been working on Russia for decades know that that wasn't going to happen. But that was kind of basically the parameters of the frame in which Trump himself was personally bringing to the table. Pull Russia over to our side to deal with Iran and China. China, you know, most particularly, and have a big arms control agreement. Now, where was everyone else? We were kind of like, you know, where we always are, which is knowing that it's extremely difficult to have a breakthrough with Russia. Russia is never as weak or as strong as it seems, that Russia wants to have a seat at the table, and while it's at the table, it's going to kick us under the table, just to remind us, you know, that it's there. And also that, you know, it still sees us as a major security threat. And that, you know, whatever we do, Russia is always going to be looking at U.S. capabilities and capacities for action and things that it's done in the past, like election interference, and it's going to try to preempt us doing anything in response or even kind of doing something else. And it was always going to try to get ahead of that, which always makes it incredibly difficult to have a reset because Russia, particularly under Vladimir Putin, who, as Steve has said, has now been there for twenty-one years. As you said, Susan, he hasn't quite got to that in this level, but, you know, he was signaling that he would like to head in that direction. He is the guy who is the continuity, and right now, as Steve is suggesting, he doesn't see a lot of change. So that means that if President Biden isn't going to try anything with Russia on Iran and China, which seems, you know, kind of unlikely, he will have to deal with him in that context, but the Biden administration understands there's not going to be some major change in Russia's outlook on this. And arms control is already kind of pushed a little bit off with the New START agreement already, prefiguring the five-year extension already done, you know, where do you go from here? It leaves us with rather limited possibilities. I'm sure that people will want to discuss that more. But I'll just say what we need to do is manage expectations and set ourselves some very small goals, I think. A lot focused on mitigation, constraining actions, sort of maybe mutual constraints, and then figuring out how we push back against the inevitable actions that Russia is going to take. And I'm sure Sandy has lots of ideas.
GLASSER: Yes, I think, Fiona, you have a great point here for Sandy to start us out on, which is what exactly is the agenda at this point with Russia? And, you know, I'm struck by just this endless cycle of sanctions and sanctions over the years and then when they don't produce the results or some new outrage occurs, what's the next thing that's discussed is a new set of sanctions, especially because, as you pointed out, one of the very first things in effect, basically, the first Russia-related foreign policy action of the new Biden administration was to take arms control and the New START deal off the table by just agreeing on the front end to the five-year extension. So Sandy, walk us through what the agenda actually is in your view between the United States and Russia right now? And don't hesitate to get a little granular in the sense of like, well, Ukraine. I mean, you know, Russia is still there. It's been five years. What do we do now? Nothing still? Is this just a frozen conflict, not just between Ukraine and Russia on the Eastern Front, but with all of us and Russia?
VERSHBOW: Okay, that's a lot to address. First of all, let me say that I basically agree with Steve's setting of the scene, but I don't think it's entirely new. I think Putin has seen Russia as essentially at war with the West ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. And it's only gotten deeper and more belligerent since then because he really does see Western ideas, which he sees us as trying to export, as the biggest threat to the kleptocratic system that he's built in Russia. And he sees us as trying to use our support for democracy as a way of tearing the former Soviet states away from Russia and depriving Russia of its right to dominate and subjugate these countries. So that's going to be a constant. I think Putin feels he's gotten basically off pretty easy with Trump because Trump clearly didn't care about Ukraine—he threw Zelensky under the bus. And he didn't really pay a heavy price for all the other aggressive things that he did, whether it's the bounties in Afghanistan or the hacking of our political system or the continued efforts to even use poison to take out his political enemies.
So I think Biden, first of all, is going to try to kind of re-establish our credibility on these issues. He's already commissioned a review of a lot of these things where no significant punishment was inflicted on the Russians, and we may see some early changes to the sanctions regime and the use of other tools, particularly in terms of fighting fire with fire, whether it's in the information space or in cyberspace to try to raise the costs to the Russians for their aggressive behavior. He's certainly not going to be pursuing another reset. I think he's got no illusions about the nature of the Russian challenge, but I do think there's going to be a kind of a two-track approach. On the one hand, he's going to ramp up the pressure and the punishment for past sins and hopefully try to deter the Russians from doing more through perhaps a more subtle approach to sanctions, threatening serious sanctions if Russia takes further steps down the dangerous paths that it's on. But at the same time, I think he's going to ramp up diplomacy. I don't think they're just ticking the box with New START and turning away from dialogue. I do think that there's a whole agenda of arms control that the administration is interested in. They're going to have a very strong team of people with a lot of experience on arms control. And I think that the focus is not going to be on transforming the political relationship but managing that competitive relationship, reducing risks, reducing the dangers of escalation, which will grow with some new technologies that are coming into the Russian and the U.S. arsenals, trying to undo some of the damage to the arms control regime that occurred with the demise of the INF Treaty, maybe even trying to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty, which is more of a symbolic agreement than a highly valuable one. The aim will be to create the incentives through the increased pressure for Putin to change his behavior, at least on some of these issues in the arms control sphere. And I think Putin may be interested because negotiating superpower arms control is sort of the last way of demonstrating that Russia is still a great power. And in that sense, Putin may decide he has to put up with all the haranguing of human rights, values, and democracy in order to get to that top table and work on arms control agreements.
You mentioned Ukraine. I think Biden and his team won't have any high expectations, but I think they're going to make an effort to succeed where previous efforts have failed, both in the late Obama administration and during the Trump years. To try to convince the Russians that just prolonging stalemate in the Donbas is going to become increasingly costly for Russia in terms of sanctions, in terms of complicating his domestic agenda, and to perhaps grasp the reins in the international diplomacy from the Germans and the French and so-called Normandy format, and try to change Putin's calculus and get a deal on the Minsk Agreement, which doesn't solve all of our problems. Crimea will still be a long-term challenge, but it will at least undo some of the most serious damage that the Russians have done to the international order. And in that regard, he may appoint one of his undersecretaries or the deputy secretary of state to be the full-time envoy for Ukraine diplomacy.
Will it succeed? Maybe not; the probability is low. But doing nothing is, I think, highly risky—it kind of leaves this bleeding wound, which could flare up into open conflict at any time. And then, in the near term, it, of course, undermines Ukraine's sovereignty and its ability to fully carry out its reforms and join the West as we would like it to do. But in the end, you know, managing the competition may be the most we can do. We may have to be patient about a more fundamental change in the relationship, but at least we should be offering Putin a path even if he doesn't take it right away. And the last thing I would say is we have to sort of think longer-term about a future better Russia and try to invest in that, reaching out to Russian society as much as we can—Putin's making that difficult—trying to restart exchanges, improve our media outreach to Russian people, particularly the younger generation, show the Russian people that despite what they're hearing in their official propaganda, the United States actually wants to have a constructive relationship with Russia. That's very difficult when you have a leader who is trying to poison his enemies and destabilize societies. But down the road, Putin is not immortal, and we may be able to get back on a path of top cooperation and partnership. Not perhaps the glory days of the 90s but something that will be more constructive and stable in today's very lousy relationship.
GLASSER: Very lousy relationship is a good way of summing it up, isn't it? You know, look, you mentioned poisoning his enemies. Let's talk for a second about what's happening inside Russia that's driving, ultimately, the relationship and Putin's entire political standing. Sandy, why don't you go ahead and start on this? How serious of a threat do you think he perceives Navalny to be and the wave of protests that has greeted both the poisoning of Navalny and Navalny's decision to return to Russia, and it appears to make himself into a political martyr and to be sent off now to a prison camp? What does that do to Putin's domestic situation but also has it affected their relationship with the U.S.?
VERSHBOW: Look, the short answer is Putin does feel very threatened by Navalny. He wouldn't have tried to kill him and wouldn't have locked him up again, you know, in total defiance of the West. I mean, he's poisoned his relationship with Germany, who used to be Russia's best friend or at least the best of a relationship that they have when it came to Europe. And I think that we're hearing threats to break off relations with the European Union if they continue to press these issues. But I think for Putin, Navalny, while his ratings right now are low, has tapped into a real sense of frustration and dissatisfaction on the part of Russian people, and the fact that he got these country-wide protests even in the dark of winter gives Putin concern that he won't be able to manipulate future elections as successfully as he's done since his early days in power. So it may look like overkill from our point of view, but I think he feels that showing real firmness, locking up anybody who tries to join street protests is the best way of, at least, intimidating people who are still not necessarily Navalny supporters, but getting tired of Putinism and to get them to kind of go back into their homes and keep their heads down. So this may be an exaggerated concern on Putin's part because, I think, he does, in his own mind, believe that there's a massive conspiracy against Russia to promote Western values and undermine the Putin system. But on the other hand, he's not entirely wrong. Our values do have appeal even in an atmosphere of anti-Western propaganda. And in time, this restiveness that we've seen, whether it's in Khabarovsk, across the country in support in Navalny, or even in Belarus, which used to be the relatively docile neighbor, that the power of Western ideas shouldn't be hard to underestimate.
GLASSER: So, Steve, you mentioned this in your opening remarks. Is this notion of what are we actually hearing from Putin? And I've always found that it's, you know, if you screen out the noise here in Washington, it's actually quite important to try to understand what is the rhetoric coming from them? What do you think is driving this over-the-top campaign on Navalny and his supporters? And does it have any international implications?
SESTANOVICH: Well, one thing that a lot of commentators have said is behind this is anxiety about the September parliamentary elections, which will be the first nationwide balloting in four years. I think that's possibly right. But we shouldn't underestimate Putin's advantages in controlling that election. The opposition parties that are on the ballot will, you know, get about 10 percent each—the Communists, the Zhirinovskyites, the others—don't pose a fundamental challenge to his domination, and United Russia won a big victory in the last parliamentary elections. He can keep Navalny's people off the ballot. He's been very successful with that, and while they may be able to creep on in this or that face, it'll be difficult for them to make much headway. A very shrewd Russian political observer said last week that the Russian anxiety, that Putin's anxiety, is not about the outcome of the elections but about the context in which the elections take place. That is, if it's in the context of regular protests, you know, hard to control, demonstrations with some violence, this will even raise doubts about the legitimacy of elections, will make it seem as though they're more of fraud, will make the environment feel more like Belarus. And behind the scenes, you know, the Russians had been sort of maneuvering Lukashenko aside. And that one of the anxieties that the Russian elite feels, and a Russian friend of mine says, you know, all of his friends who are kind of in the borderline between the opposition and the insiders are actually pushing themselves to reassess what the future of the regime is going to be, what its legitimacy is, coming out of this episode. You know, the attempted murder of a major opposition figure is something really new for the Russians. It's had a bigger shock, I think, than Putin probably anticipated.
What's the international implication of that? A regime that he feels less confident, less cohesive at home is going to be, for some purposes, more interested in showing that it can have a normal relationship with other countries but also much more worried that in its international interactions, it's shown to be on the defensive, unable to control its own people, its own government. And I think that makes Russia more of unpredictable power. Not necessarily in the sense that we should expect, you know, violence, but it's pretty hard to think of Putin as the predictable guy who just is running a stable regime. This is a more unpredictable, more volatile domestic environment with implications, I think, for all the rest of us who have to deal with it.
GLASSER: So Fiona, this is a great point to ask you. Was that your kind of working theory of the case in terms of working inside the U.S. government and what Putin was, right? You know, your assessment of what he is and is likely to shape what your recommendations are and what to do about him, you know, did you see him as a relatively stable actor? And also, I'm sure people would want to know, we're going to have a lot of questions, by the way, and you should start to put your hands up if you want to have a question because we got a lot of people on the line and we'll try to get to as many of those as possible in just a minute. But Fiona, what do you think Vladimir Putin really thought of Trump, and what do you think he thinks of Joe Biden?
HILL: Well, first of all, in terms of Putin as a stable actor, he's never a stable actor. He's the wildcard in this system because of the way that the system is constructed. So if anything happens to challenge his power that, you know, Steve is laying out, there becomes an element of unpredictability because he is trying to shore up his power both domestically and internationally. I think there are some really important points and things that Steve said that I just want to, you know, highlight in a slightly different way. First of all, of course, this isn't the first assassination of major opposition. It's the first failed assassination attempt on an opposition figure because Nemtsov was gunned down successfully on the bridge in front of the Kremlin. I mean, that's a pretty shocking episode. And, of course, it was tied to Ukraine. So, you know, Sandy, rightfully pointing out that Ukraine remains a point of acute neuralgia and that we'll ignore that at our peril. So on the other front in terms of Navalny, obviously, as we know from Navalny's own research into who was out to get him and the Bellingcat expose, which was pretty remarkable stuff, is that they've been keeping tabs on him for a long time, figuring out ways of taking him out if necessary. Now, why did it become necessary to try to do it then? For the reasons that Steve was suggesting. You know, it becomes a challenge, perhaps coming up to those elections in September, but it becomes a challenge to Putin because he's starting to get some traction against the backdrop of what's happening in Belarus and elsewhere and all of these ongoing protests across the whole of the country. So these are not just the protests in Moscow, where Putin knows he's not very popular, or even protests in his home city of St. Petersburg, but these are the protests across entire swathes of Russia, which is always difficult to control. And back in the 1990s, when Yeltsin lost his grip for a whole variety of reasons, part of it was because, you know, Russia itself was unruly and very difficult to rule. You know, you basically had a lot of developments in regions, all kinds of groups from the top down to the bottom challenging the control of Moscow.