Transition 2021 Series: How to Deal With Russia

Monday, February 22, 2021
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for the Former Soviet Union (1997–2001); @SSestanovich

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

Transition 2021 Series, Transition 2021, and Europe Program

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.


Now Putin has been in power, you know, as you said now, coming up to twenty-one years, Lukashenko, I mean, twenty-four or, you know, whatever it's been since 1994. So, you know, now I can't count; obviously, it's been quite a long time. I want to stop trying to do the math here. You know, basically, Lukashenko has been in power longer than Putin has been, and already people are tired and fed up. Even though, in many respects, people would argue that Belarus has been a sort of quasi-success story. You know, Lukashenko was starting to reform the economy a bit; it's been pretty stable, not provoked by Russia, of course. But here is Putin. He's saying he's going to stay in power potentially till 2036. He is, you know, basically presiding over a complete stagnation of the economy, a COVID pandemic that has turned out much worse irrespective of the development of vaccination, which has been a success, but much worse in terms of the death rate than anticipated. It's going to have these challenges, and he's got to prove to the people inside his own system that he's still got it. Otherwise, what's to stop other people from saying, "Oh, the old man's lost it now." He's not that old, but still, you know, kind of. Look at Lukashenko, maybe somebody else internally starts to think we should start persuading him to move off and go off, you know, to retirement down to that nice palace so we can watch pole dancing, you know, or maybe do some ice hockey or whatever it is that rink, you know, that might have been produced for—a timeframe to retire. So, you know, he's got to be worried that there's going to be that pressure internally, domestically in the elite of the people around him in Kremlin circles, not just as Steve is suggesting, from people calibrating the outside whether the system is under threat. And that means, because of the way that he operates externally, trying to get us when we're down, and that gets to your second part of the question, that Russia becomes vulnerable. And it's not just from the United States; it's from China. It's from anybody else who might kind of see an opportunity to put pressure on Russia in some way. And part of the reason that he's always beating up on the United States is a warning to us. There have been Russian sayings about, you know, it's kind of, to encourage the others you beat up on one person or beat up on one power. Just like Navalny has to sit in jail, as Navalny himself says, so that one million other people don't go out onto the streets or fifteen million people go out onto the streets. Beating up the United States because you're gambling that we won't go and invade you, drop a bomb on you, or retaliate perhaps in similar ways because, you know, they've got quite a good assessment of our system. And they're also hoping that the United States is so bogged down in its own domestic affairs that, you know, we won't have the wherewithal.


So what did they like about President Trump? "America First," and he was a chaos agent. He was disrupting everything and making it very difficult for, you know, kind of the United States to work together with allies to push back on Russia. President Trump said he wanted to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship. So it was all fairly obvious. With Biden, you know, there is the predictability. You know, everyone has been working with Biden in the Russia sphere for decades in all of his different capacities. But what they are worried about is all the things that Sandy just said. And, you know, I worry, frankly, that the more we talk about all the things that we're going to do and, you know, the kind of pent-up vengeance from going back to 2014 onwards, that it will encourage Putin to start taking actions, like Steve says, because he's got to lash out and he's got to show he's in charge for domestic purposes, not just internationally for this perceived weakness. So I would just say, you know, kind of wield the big stick behind the scenes and don't talk about it too much. And, you know, contrary to what people might have seen, there was quite a lot done behind the scenes to push back at Russia. It's just it wasn't talked about quite so much. And I think that's kind of, you know, part of the thing that we have to be very careful about, the more that we signal we are going to do something terrible, the more that Putin, because of this anxiety, you know, will start to potentially sharpen its domestic, you know, kind of, you know, within his own sphere as well as other opposition movements, because Navalny's done something breathtaking. He said to Putin, "I don't care if you kill me. And I don't care if you put me in jail." I mean, when's the last time somebody did that?


GLASSER: And it's pretty remarkable or, as Navalny calls Putin, "Vladimir the Underpants Poisoner." Sandy, we're going to go to questions right now, but I have just a very quick one for you, which goes to Fiona's last point here. What is it that the Kremlin is most afraid of the United States doing right now?


VERSHBOW: Well, I don't think they're afraid of more sanctions. They clearly don't want them. The sanctions have worked to some degree in kind of rendering the Russian economy stagnant and discouraging foreign investment. But I think they are more worried about our ability to destabilize Russia and the political system. That's where they are the most neuralgic. So we have to be careful to calibrate our response. We have to respond to some of these things that are still hanging from the last administration, but we have to calibrate it in a way that kind of focuses on both, you know, future punishment that you will face if you continue to go down the road and not front-loading all the measures and driving Putin into a corner, but balance that against the desire to engage on those issues where we still have an interest, whether its arms control, risk reduction. I think even Iran getting back into the JCPOA in a way that restores rapid Iranian compliance; the Russians may actually have a helpful role to play there if we give them some incentives to do so. And, you know, working on Ukraine and some of these other issues to defuse geopolitical risks, whether it's in the Middle East or closer to Russia's borders. So I think it's the internal destabilization that's the biggest fear, and that's why Putin is worried about Belarus because it could be another case of regime change from the street, which is absolutely anathema to Putin. And it could be playing enough of a game with the "smart voting" that Navalny has championed to tarnish the victory for United Russia in the fall elections and further demonstrating Putin's declining grip on events, which he, you know, dearly wants to avoid.


GLASSER: All right, let's go ahead and have the operator take some of those questions. I know we have a lot of them, so we'll try to get through as many as we can. Thank you.


STAFF: We'll take the first question from Joe Nye.


Q: Very great openers, and we all agree with no reset. But I'd be curious to know, is there any limited agreement, which may be possible out of Putin's or Russian self-interest? For example, during the Cold War, we got nonproliferation. That's still a common interest. And I was earlier this morning on a session, a track II-type with academics from Russia, about limiting escalation in cyber. And I had written an article suggesting you could look back to the limited-type agreement, which is not something where you try to codify a treaty like arms control but have declarations of behavior, which are out of bounds with constant communication about how you deal with them. Is it possible that we could do something with Putin and Russia on limited things such as nonproliferation or a limited-type agreement on, say,  cyber, or is it just expecting too much?


GLASSER: That's a great question. Thank you so much, Professor Nye. Steve, do you want to take this or Sandy? You've referenced a couple of times what you think might be some arms control possibilities. But Steve, why don't you go first?


SESTANOVICH: I want to pick up one thing just to in a "watch this space" spirit. John Kerry got on the phone with Lavrov last week to say, you know, we're really interested in establishing contacts, we want to work with you in the Arctic Council related to climate change, we're really looking forward to the Paris Agreement. John Kerry is acting like somebody who really wants early signs of cooperation that, you know, enhance his status as, you know, the alternative secretary of state. Certainly, when people talk about cooperative possibilities, the list includes climate, health, cyber, as Sandy said, Iran, and then there's, of course, always this kind of weird issue of trying to peel them away from the Chinese. But on cyber issues, and then I really will turn to Sandy, all the cyber people I talk to say, "Yes, it would be great to have rules of the road. And don't underestimate how much more difficult this is than ordinary arms control agreements where we were looking at much more definable capabilities that were measurable." Verification became a big buzzword in arms control negotiations. Verification in cyber rules of the road is much, much more difficult. So I have been impressed by the people that I talk to on this subject, by the difficulty of making something out of this cyber nonproliferation or arms control parallels. I hope Sandy has a more hopeful assessment.


VERSHBOW: First, I do see a number of areas where we could actually make deals that would be in our mutual interest beyond a follow-on to the New START Treaty, which is something for the next two, three years—not an immediate win. But I think in the area of confidence-building measures, conventional arms control, there's a lot of things that we could do in terms of capping the size of exercises, restricting, you know, the size of exercises, especially close to each other's borders. No more of these no warning snap exercises. A lot of these things have been under discussion for several years. The Russians have been pretty dismissive of them, but it may be a mutually beneficial way of reducing the risks of escalation. There may be some regional issues where, you know, the Russians are mostly playing the spoiler, but there may be an opportunity right now in Libya, where there's a new international peace plan, that the Russians might see in their interest in supporting, defusing their tensions with Turkey, which is on the opposite side of the internal fault lines inside Libya. The Europeans are interested in this. So that's worth a shot. On cyber, I don't think we'll ever reach an agreement that you could enforce or verify or even trust the Russians to honor in the breach, but having a dialogue among experts showing each other where our most sensitive points are, what kinds of cyberattacks would be seen as particularly escalatory, disruptive to social stability, you know, where you're really playing with fire if you do that. And that applies to what we do as well with our offensive cyber. We're not inactive in this area. So the dialogue itself might have some kind of stabilizing effect, but I don't think defining international norms would ever get through the Senate with a two-thirds majority.


GLASSER: Fair bet. All right, operator, let's get another question if we can.


STAFF: We'll take the next question from Célestine Bohlen.


Q: Yes, hello, I'm Célestine Bohlen. I'm the press fellow at the Council this year. I have a question for Ambassador Vershbow. You said that perhaps the United States could wrest control of the Minsk negotiations away from the French and the Germans, and I just wondered why you think that would be helpful and how you think that would go with, in fact, our allies? Thanks.


VERSHBOW: Maybe wresting control was a little too militant to turn a phrase, but I think we should exercise leadership here if only because the French and the Germans have had seven years, and they've produced nothing essentially. And the Russians, I think, feel that they can pretend to negotiate and play the different parties off against each other. So I'm not saying blow them out of the way. I think we need to work with them. They bring a lot of leverage, particularly bringing the whole EU along on sanctions, which, fortunately, are linked to Minsk's implementation. You know, the Russians aren't going to get those sanctions on Donbas lifted without implementing Minsk. But I think stronger U.S. leadership could improve the chances as long as we combine that with an effort to generate more leverage than we've had in these negotiations. Whether it's sort of holding out the threat of more sanctions, continuing to support Ukraine's military capabilities, even taking steps which the Russians would deem a little bit provocative by deepening Ukraine's integration in NATO, showing that the Russians can't just drag this conflict out for decades and think they have a permanent veto over Ukraine's future security relationship with the West. So these are the kinds of things that the U.S. can do to make the negotiation more effective. It still may be short of, you know, the winning combination of carrots and sticks that will solve it, but it's worth a try, and I think Biden seems to signal to Putin in his first phone call that if you want better U.S.-Russian relations, that the road to that destination starts in Donbas, and I think that was the right message.


GLASSER: Interesting. Okay. Let's get some more questions going. Thank you.


STAFF: All right, our next question will be from Andrew Borene. Mr. Borene, Please accept the "unmute now" button.


Q: Hello, can you hear me? Apologies. Thank you, everyone, a great panel. My question is kind of less on the strategic axis and more on the horizon of the next two to three years. We've seen the shift toward the Gerasimov hybrid doctrine fusing military, cyber, political, and diplomacy, so to kind of move away from the statecraft conversation. But aside from Putin as a center of gravity with these kinds of non-Putin components in shaping Russian foreign policy and military doctrine, do you see Gerasimov doctrine hybrid warfare escalating in the next several years of the Biden administration? And if so, how does that get addressed to kind of the operational, tactical level for the U.S. to either counter or mitigate that?


GLASSER: Fiona, do you want to take that?


HILL: Sure, I think that's a really important question, Andrew, because we're not dealing with, you know, the Russia of the past. And, you know, I like to kind of think of Putin- this is a sort of weird analogy, but, you know, he's less Von Clausewitz and more Ho Chi Minh. He's the kind of person who, you know, went up the back corridors of power in the KGB, the kind of the black ops sort of the dirty tricks, and he's put a lot of emphasis on the time, increasingly through his presidency and the time that he's been there, on these, as you're calling them hybrid warfare techniques, information space, and also then increasingly, the use of special forces but as proxies as paramilitaries. And what we've seen is, you know, Putin trying to do a lot on the cheap because what he's trying to do is avoid the threshold of a conflict with the United States or with NATO. And we are still in a very much gray zone, particularly when it comes to these cyber issues. And this is why I think, you know, what Stephen and Sandy have just said is very important, because we don't really have rules for the road when it comes to cyberattacks. And even if we might be able to figure something out on the obvious areas of critical infrastructure, you know, tax on command and control systems, everything from our electrical grids or hydropower, dams, things like this, we've had a very hard time on dealing with the SolarWinds kind of hack, for example, because of that sort of falls into the realm of espionage. And from the Russians' point of view, we do that, and they do that, you know. How would that get bundled in? Or what we saw that they used extraordinarily effectively during 2016, which is the hack and release of very prominent people's emails or exfiltrating data and putting that out onto the internet in the way that they used Wikileaks and, you know, other mechanisms, for example. And then there's the use of social media, the Internet Research Agency—I mean, how do you bundle all of that together? I think that's why, you know, Steve was saying this is very difficult. It's maybe easier to talk about some of these things from the larger strategic stability perspective. You can roll some of the cyber into some of the talks as Sandy is suggesting, for example, but basically these hybrid techniques, this is what Putin is all about. He's about somebody who is finding the easiest, low-cost, and hardest to detect methods of taking the United States on in that information space and basically turning our own weaknesses against each other.


So I think that what we're going to have to do is shore up our own defenses. That's going to have to be as the first order in cyberspace as well. You know, we may be contemplating offensive posture, but we have to also think about the best offensive defense. You know, how do we keep Russia out of the systems in the first place, which is going to be difficult because it's a public-private all-of-society effort in many respects. But that's also going to have to be the case on many of these fronts as well, the information warfare. And then the use of paramilitaries becomes very complicated, and that's why we have to also be very clear about the rules of engagement with Russia. And we were all the time over the last four years as well, so you may remember the incident in Syria where the Wagner Group, the paramilitary forces, basically shot at American special forces, and we shot back with some pretty high casualty rates. And that was because the rules of the road had been made extraordinary clear, the rules of engagement had been transmitted very clearly to the Russian military. And the Russian military, of course, had no oversight of these paramilitary organizations. So I think that in these kinds of discussions that Sandy is suggesting, which would take part in the military level, but also in the NATO context, there has to be messaging to the Russians saying if you start to use these hybrid methods, in other words, proxies, cutouts, paramilitaries, you know, that will also fall into, you know, the same kinds of rules of engagement that we've had all along with your regular forces and so also to try to force the Russian military to rein some of these activities in. So it's a very complicated situation that we're in now, and I think it requires us to think about this in a much broader way and also being very clear ourselves about what we will accept and what we will not.


GLASSER: All right, I think we have time for a couple more questions.


STAFF: We'll take our next question from Jill Schuker.


Q: Hi, can you hear me okay? Jill Shuker, OECD. Despite the report, the State Department report of this morning or yesterday, how significant does the U.S. and Biden opposition to the Nord Stream pipeline change the equation between Russia, Germany, and the EU and the EU, Germany, and the U.S. relationship? What do you think the prospects are in terms of the pipeline and the change that may come about if we reject it?


GLASSER: Well, I know everybody on this panel has a lot of opinions on that, and we've all been around this discussion for a long, long time at this point. Steve, do you want to start us off on that?


SESTANOVICH: Let me say a word about this. I think my starting point here is we should not exaggerate Russian leverage over Europe by virtue of the scale of its gas exports because gas markets have changed a lot while the percentage of Europe's supplies coming from Russia fluctuate. The ability of European countries to turn elsewhere if they're subjected to pressure from the Russians, I think, is actually reduced. However, there are, you know, this is a project that's very far along, everybody's dug in. It is certainly possible that what the Biden administration is doing in taking out a position against this is to try to set up a negotiation with the Germans as to what it is that would make it worth it to us in terms of energy security, sending a message to Russia and so forth, to back off. One other initiative that the Germans might take in terms of getting certain kinds of payments to the Ukrainians for transport over a set period and other arrangements. It is possible that the Biden administration is simply declaring war on this and won't accept anything other than the termination of it. And it's a great moment to do it because then the Russians will have lost the entire investment. On the other hand, it will inflict a certain kind of blow on relations with Germany that ought to be a pretty high priority to get right for the new administration. So it's a difficult issue, but it seems to me what we ought to bear in mind is not exaggerating Russian strengths and seeing a formula that might make it possible to live with the pipeline.


GLASSER: So Sandy, I want to get one final question, but okay, literally like a one-sentence answer here. Do you agree with Steve that there actually is the possibility that the Biden administration is just going to go for it and try to kill the thing outright?


VERSHBOW: Well, Congress is certainly pressing to just kill it. But I think the Biden administration is hoping that without too much time being exposed to congressional criticism, they can convince the Germans to offer some assurances, especially on the Ukraine dimension of this. Some kind of longer-term Russian commitment, which may or may not be honored in practice, to use the Ukrainian gas transit system, which gives Ukraine $3 billion or more a year in revenue. And if the Russians reneged on that deal, you know, shut it down or something like that. So I think they're trying to get that kind of a deal, which I think would be satisfactory because the Ukraine angle is more important for the reasons Steve cited than the energy security arguments.


GLASSER: All right, we have time for one final question.


STAFF: We'll take our last question from Nick Schifrin.


Q: Hi, everyone. Thank you for doing this, and I want to go back to Professor Nye's initial question. We've talked quite a few times about the rules of the road when it comes to cyber. Fiona, you were describing the importance of defense—let me just ask very specifically. The Biden administration is about to respond to SolarWinds. That will not always be public, of course, but some of it will be defensive, some of it will be offensive. What is the response that you guys would urge the Biden administration to take on SolarWinds that could also perhaps start a process toward a rules-of-the-road discussion? Or do the two have to be completely separate? Thank you.


HILL: Well, they don't have to be completely separate, Nick, at all. And I think it's important, and we've been all talking around about this, about clear messaging. You know, whenever we're going to take some action to address some of what the Russians have done has to be a cause and effect. And that's why, you know, it's very important to get in mind what we're doing with sanctions and, you know, what I said earlier about don't threaten something that we're not going to do. And also, be very careful about how much we ramp up the rhetoric for domestic purposes because the Russians will then assume we're going to do things and take pre-emptive action. You cannot time and time again and see this as a clear pattern. We threaten to do something, and Russia is always one, two, three steps ahead because they don't have to have congressional oversight. They don't have to go and kind of fill out reports. And you know, Putin doesn't also have, you know, the same freedom of information, you know, kind of requests and other things that he has to deal with.


And I would also say that whatever we do on the offensive side, we shouldn't be talking about it because, you know, then, you know, the Russians will know. And I've often said before, it's like we're walking down a dark alley with a flashlight pointed at us and, you know, the Russians are like a mugger going down, and we're just going, "Hi, we're over here." You know, come and mug us now. So we need to be basically much more mindful about the environment in which we're operating with the Russians. But I think they are nervous about us actually taking action because, you know, we could playback to them of many of the things that they've done to us. And so they want to tie our hands. They've been promoting since 2017 a mutual nonaggression pact, whereas they want us to say that we've been doing all the kinds of things that they have, which actually is not true. We haven't been hacking and releasing, you know, Putin's emails, not that I think Putin sends emails, but we haven't been doing it. It's so obvious we haven't been doing many of the things that they have been doing to us. But what we do need to do is exactly that is to sit down, but make it very clear that if they're not going to knock it off, then the action will be taken. But I do think that the first order is a really good defense because right now, as it is very clear in the public realm, and Nick, you and others have been covering all of this, we don't yet have the systems in place to detect these kinds of attacks. And when it's pure espionage, they're not going to stop that. They're just not going to stop. They may, you know, kind of take a pause on some of the command and control and secure systems, but they're not going to stop at espionage. So we have to figure out how to get them out of our systems and then how to prevent them from getting in the first instance. So that should be the first order of issue.


GLASSER: Steve, I'll give you a final word. I'm mindful of Sandy's very important comment of what Putin is afraid of, and that is the U.S. intervening in some way in Russia's domestic affairs or doing not to Russia as Russia has done on to the United States. So is there any way to both avoid that and to avoid being mugged over and over again?


SESTANOVICH: You know, Susan, I think one thing we haven't talked about enough here, and it's true of almost every issue that we've considered, is what you do before you engage the Russians. And that is making sure that you have a united front with your friends and allies. And that's true for energy policy. It's true for Ukraine policy. It's true for cyber policy. It's true for climate change. It's true for the Arctic. And in every one of these cases, I would say, the biggest constraint, and in a way maybe even the biggest fear that the Russians have, is they actually are going to have to deal with the united American bloc, because if that's the case their ability to get what they want is severely limited. And so I would say the first phase of whatever policy we're talking about, whether it leans more towards the confrontational side or the cooperative side, is to make sure that you've got genuine solidarity.


GLASSER: All right, a very upbeat note to end on. What a great conversation today. I have to say this could go on and should go on for a long time, but I want to thank CFR for bringing this group together and for all these really excellent questions as well. I know this will be posted on the CFR website, if you missed part of it, but in the meantime, I thank Ambassador Vershbow, Stephen Sestanovich, and Dr. Fiona Hill, and all of you. Thank you.




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