The Russia Challenge, With Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill, Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss U.S. policy toward Russia, and her new book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.

November 9, 2021 — 41:36 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Fiona Hill

Show Notes

Fiona Hill, Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss U.S. policy toward Russia, and her new book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.

 

Articles Mentioned in the Podcast

 

Fiona Hill, “The Kremlin’s Strange Victory,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2021)

 

George Kennan, “Long Telegram” to the State Department, February 22, 1946

 

“X” (George Kennan), “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs (July 1947)

 

Books Mentioned

 

Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2015)

 

Fiona Hill, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century (2021)

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Transcript

Jim:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is the Russia Challenge. With me to discuss US policy toward Russia is Fiona Hill. Fiona is the Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. From 2017 to 2019, she served as deputy assistant to the President and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. Her new book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, is out now. Fiona, thanks for joining me.

Fiona:

Thanks, Jim. It's great to be with you.

Jim:

I want to get to the whole issue of US policy toward Russia, but if we may, I'd like to actually start with your book, which is in large part a memoir about how you got from a small, rather blighted town in Northern England to the White House. So perhaps you could take us on that tour, that journey from where you started to where you ended up.

Fiona:

Yeah, thanks, Jim. And I decided to use that biographical story as kind of the through line to the book and obviously to tell the larger story that touches on foreign policy, public policy, and some of the larger historical trends of the 20th century in particular, but leading up to where we are today and the political crisis, frankly, that the United States finds itself in. And the reason I did that is because of my own experience with massive dislocation, socioeconomic dislocation, back in my hometown of Bishop Auckland because I was growing up with the whole period where the old industries of the region, that were all heavy nationalized industries, they were all nationalized by the British government after World War II as part of the reconstruction effort, were either being closed down or privatized under the Thatcher government, which came in, in 1979.

Fiona:

And so my whole childhood, my teens and my early twenties, when I went off to college and university, was shaped by this period of de-industrialization and hundreds of thousands people losing their jobs all at once. And that gave me a certain perspective, I guess, on world affairs when I sat back and kind of realized what was kind of happening, not just to me and to my family, but to the larger region and how you put that in context.

Fiona:

My father, in 1984, when I was leaving high school, had basically said to me, if I was going to go off and get an education, go to university and college, get some qualifications, there was nothing for me here. "There's nothing for you here," he said to me, which became the title of the book, that I wasn't going to be able to find a good job in my hometown. He himself had lost multiple jobs in the coal fields, then the steel works, the brick works, and he eventually ended up working in the local hospital as a porter on the kind of lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Fiona:

And my family were really strapped for money and in quite dire straights at times. He was basically saying, "Look, I wish I'd had an education. I wish I'd had qualifications apart from on the job, all the things that I could have done with it, you need to go out and do that, but to do that, you're going to have to go somewhere else." And so my whole journey out of Bishop Auckland is shaped by these larger socioeconomic developments, this sort of dislocation as a result of the shift from heavy industry to the new service sector, modernization and innovation of British industry, the privatization, mass privatization of Margaret Thatcher and her efforts under her policies to transform the whole country.

Fiona:

And then by larger international affairs. Because I decided to study Russian, and this is why it fits into the foreign policy themes of the podcast and how this comes out into the book, against the backdrop of the Euromissile Crisis in the period from 1977, when I was about 11 or 12, to 1987, with the signing of the INF Treaty, when I managed to become a student in Moscow. And that 10 year period, again, a very formative point of my life, was one war scare after another, the kind of feeling that the United States and the Soviet Union were going to come to blows that end up being a nuclear exchange between them, especially given the stationing of SS-20 Pershing missiles on various sides of the Iron Curtain, and Europe, the UK and other parts of Europe would be ground zero for nuclear Armageddon.

Fiona:

The whole popular culture, all the politics was infused by this fear of a nuclear conflagration, it was a campaign for nuclear disarmament. People like myself as teens and kids in their early twenties sort of felt this sense of hopelessness, impending doom. And that's the backdrop where I decided to study Russian. And it's that decision to study Russian taken in 1983, 1984, at the peak of this kind of Cold War war-scares that propels me forward from Bishop Auckland, all through a coincidence of incredible timing coming to Harvard in 1989 for graduate school as the Berlin wall comes down.

Jim:

Well, let's sort of slow it up here, Fiona, if we can and sort of take us on that journey specifically, how you got from Bishop Auckland to Harvard, there were a couple of stops in between.

Fiona:

Yes, because in 1984, I decide I'm going to study Russian. And it's really kind of at the behest, even inspiration, of a couple of members of my extended family, including an older cousin of my fathers, who I called uncle Charlie, who during World War II had been in the Merchant Marine for the United Kingdom, taking supplies during the peak of the war to the Soviet Union to Murmansk and Archangel as part of the Arctic convoys. And he couldn't get over the fact that we'd been war time allies with the Soviet Union, and then suddenly we were literally at loggerheads and that we're about to blow each other up.

Fiona:

And he basically said to me one day with my dad when we'd run into him in our town, "Fiona, you're good at languages. You ought to go study Russian and figure it out." And I thought, "Yeah, I should. Why not?" And it's that naivety of the kid who's in their late teens and I thought, "Oh, I could become a translator. I could kind of maybe help with some arm's control negotiations or something," because we're starting to going to get that feeling that something needed to be done.

Fiona:

Another cousin of my mom's was in a campaign for nuclear disarmament when she was a Greenham Common woman. These are the woman's peace camp that's set up outside of an air force base in the south of England, Greenham Common, where they were basically stationing nuclear equipped aircraft, for example, for tactical nukes. And as I said, the whole atmosphere was suffused with this idea of impending nuclear doom and I thought, "Well, instead of just sitting worrying about it, panicking, having nightmares, I should try to do something."

Fiona:

And so 1984, what an amazing time to decide to study Russian. It was also Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, big brothers watching you. And it's just before Mikhail Gorbachev comes into power in the Soviet Union. And I go to St. Andrew's University where I get basically a place to study Russian from scratch against the backdrop of the UK miners' strike. And at the miners' strike, miners from the Soviet Union from the Donbas, which of course now is a huge coal area in Ukraine, which is being contested with the Russians, they have a whip around their unions, which of course are pretty much controlled by the government, but they basically raise money for the miners of the UK. And I actually get some of that money as part of kind of my stipend to study Russian, to help me with some of the basic Russian language courses.

Fiona:

So this is kind of amazing. The miners of the Donbas helped me kind of go and study my basic Russian language course. And Donbas is still, at that point, part of the Soviet Union. And kind of things like that just keep on happening. It's the timing. I get a scholarship to go to study in the Soviet Union as part of the British Council's Russian language undergraduate study committee in 1987, just as Gorbachev and Reagan are in the midst of all their symmetry and they sign the INF treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, putting pair to all of these nightmares about an inevitable exchange of intermediate nuclear missiles, SS-20 Pershing missiles, after this whole 10 years of my life being shaped by this.

Fiona:

That's just an amazing thing. And I'm in the Soviet Union, just in time to see the peak of perestroika, glasnost, Gorbachev and Reagan meeting in Moscow for the Moscow Summit in the summer of 1988. I get a job there as a stringer for NBC News. I get to meet all these Americans. I see people like George Shultz kind of doing interviews. I see Gorbachev and Reagan walking around on Red Square, Reagan giving his famous speech at Moscow State University, and I'm just hooked.

Fiona:

And I find out from an American professor, again by chance, about all these scholarships to Harvard and to other universities in the United States, and so I decide to apply. And then miraculously, I get a scholarship to Harvard in 1989, arriving just in time for the Berlin Wall to come down and for the whole opening up of the period that leads, not just the disillusion of the Soviet Bloc, but the eventual disillusion of the Soviet Union itself. And I'm studying Soviet studies at Harvard-

Jim:

Pretty good place to do that.

Fiona:

Pretty good place. The [inaudible 00:08:08], the Davis Center for Russian Studies, but at the time was the Russian Research Center. And I get this degree, a master's degree in Soviet studies, and within months it's obsolete because the Soviet Union has gone on me. It's just disappeared, off to the ash heap of history.

Jim:

So you go to Harvard, you get your PhD, but you make the decision to stay in the United States, why?

Fiona:

Well, a number of factors. Again, a bit of the long arm of lady chance in very strange ways. So I finished this master's degree in Soviet studies and this is just before the Soviet Union has come apart in that summer. I'm thinking again on that track of, "Well, I could become an interpreter, or maybe I could become some sort of junior diplomat involved in negotiations with the Russians." And I apply for a particular entrance cohort into the British Foreign Service, into their research and analytical division, equivalent of Intelligence and Research, INR, in the US State department, because I'm still very much a British citizen. I remember thinking that I'm going to go back to the UK immediately after the master's degree.

Fiona:

And this was a kind of a highly selective entry. It wasn't like the mass entry into the foreign service. And it only came up every couple of years and there was only a very small number of places, and I applied and there was also a chance that I might have gone from there to the GCHQ in Cheltenham, which is the place that you sort of sit around listening to, at that time, Soviet fighter pilots, trying to figure out what are they up to because my Russian at this point was really very good.

Fiona:

I'd spent a year in Moscow, I'd been trained at the Translators Institute. I was kind of thinking to myself, "This was the path, the master's was supposed to be the next step", and to cut to the chase, they lose my application materials and they lose it in the most ridiculous way possible. I'm right through to the final selection, and my file falls behind a radiator in the Foreign Office, along with someone else's and I don't hear anything and I'm pretty convinced that I've got a good shot at this. I thought at least I'd get one of the interviews and I hear nothing, because I've already gone right to the point where I've sent in my birth certificates.

Fiona:

This is the old days, Jim, you and I remember, it's not like you can replace this stuff very easily. And I've sent it registered, and I didn't have a phone or anything and I didn't photocopy it, anything. It been real effort to get all this material together. It's the final selection for the top five people they're going to interview. And I hear nothing and eventually I'm really worried about this and I get to a payphone and I'm putting in quarters, the old days of payphones, trying to call the Foreign Office to find out why I haven't heard anything, because I should have heard by this point.

Fiona:

They said, "We didn't get your application materials." And I said, "But I've got the slip for registered mail that says you received them on this particular date and kind of there's a signature and all the rest of it," because you get the slip back in the mail and they said they'd look into it. And of course then they find it, covered in water stains and dirt and dust bunnies from the back of the radiator and a bit of an old plant or something along with somebody else's file, and indeed it was received, but I wasn't in the final pool and they'd already gone on and offered people positions and they can't reopen it.

Fiona:

So they said, "Sorry, you'll just have to apply next time." And I'm thinking, "Next time, when's next time?" And they said, "Well, maybe two or three years from now because we've got the pool for now", and I'm thinking, "Disaster, what am I going to do next?" And that's how I end up staying in the United States because one of my professors, Timothy Colton, who many people know, he hears about this tragedy and I run into him as I'm walking through Harvard Yard and he spots me and he says, "Hey, Fiona, I've just heard about a job down at the Kennedy School with Graham Allison, they're looking for some interpreters to help them work on this project they're doing, the Grand Bargain."

Fiona:

Basically trying to figure out how the US can help the Soviet Union then and Gorbachev, basically transform their economy. This of course becomes very momentous and fortuitous timing and he said, "They need some people to help translate some documents and things that they're doing, and I recommended you and I mean, it's not like you've got a job to go on to." Thank you very much, Professor Colton. He said, "Maybe this would be helpful."

Fiona:

And boy, was it helpful because I end up then getting a full-time job with Graham Allison and his team at the Kennedy School, its on-campus work, I can extend my visa after I've graduated. And that then puts me on the path for staying in the United States because it's somewhat like the Kennedy School of Government, I get introduced to all these different networks of people, I start working on these technical assistants projects. And then I decide to stay on to do my PhD because I immediately hit a glass ceiling. It's very obvious that, I mean, like everybody in the junior kind of years, you realize you've got to move on there with the qualifications.

Jim:

Need more credentials to [crosstalk 00:12:04].

Fiona:

Exactly, you soon realize that the credentials aren't enough, particularly I'm going now in a slightly different direction. And I've given up on being an interpreter of the British Government or the UN or something at this point, but I've used all of my interpretation and translation skills. But now I realize I need to credential myself further before my now obsolete degree in Soviet studies. And so I decide to do a PhD in history and keep it Harvard because I can just stay within that context. My visa can be extended and one thing leads to another and I start dating an American.

Jim:

Okay, so that also comes [crosstalk 00:12:31]. So we first have the fruitful era in which somebody mislays a file, changes the direction of your life, we also have the love interest. You get your PhD, you eventually end up at the Brookings Institution as a Senior Fellow.

Fiona:

Where I meet you.

Jim:

Where we meet you, we were colleagues back in the day.

Fiona:

That's right.

Jim:

And you become an American citizen, you do a couple stints in the US Government working for the National Intelligence Council as I recall. So I'm curious, you're at Brookings in late 2016, early 2017, you decide to join the staff of the National Security Council for the Trump administration. Again as a former Senior Fellow at Brookings, I will note that descriptions of Brookings often come with the description, "The left-leaning Brookings Institution." So how does someone from the Brookings Institution end up on the staff of the Trump administration?

Fiona:

Well, look putting the circumstances of aside, I think we also know that Brookings, like the Council and CSIS Carnegie, is much more centrist and when you and I were there, initially of course Richard Haass, now your boss at the Council, but was our boss too and was very much steeped in Republican Party politics and indeed goes on to work for George W. Bush and his administration. Our initial president was Mike Armacost, again another Republican, former ambassador in the State Department. And it's just kind of the feature of the way that people talk about think-tanks is there's always some sort of assumption there of some parties on bias. And both of us are very well aware that there are people of many different political persuasions there, but I am completely unaffiliated.

Fiona:

I've never had a party allegiance in the UK or even certainly not in the United States. And it's really on the basis of my professional background and this kind of long tale of work on Russia that this comes about. It was very unexpected to me, but from my previous stints in the government, in the National Intelligence Council, I was the National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia, kind of being the chief analyst for all of the intel reporting and doing a lot of briefings. I worked from the last couple of years of George W. Bush to the first year of the Obama administration. And in that period, I worked with a number of people who end up, one of them on the campaign for Trump, which is a bit of a surprise, but others who are then getting detailed in, or even brought in through the Republican Party apparatus.

Fiona:

Among the people that I met in the National Intelligence Council was General Michael Flynn, who at the time, 2006 to 2009 when I'm there, was the intel guy for the chairman's office for the Joint Chiefs. And he's my counterpart and we worked together very closely on Russia and related issues, although that's not really his background, that's kind of what we ended up working on in that timeframe when Admiral Mullen was the chairman. And so fast forward, this is extraordinarily strange to me, because I had kind of lost contact with what he'd been doing, he'd gone off to then head the Defense Intelligence Agency, and after that I'd sort of lost the thread, he pops up on the campaign, I have to say in a somewhat rather unexpected fashion.

Fiona:

And I was doing a bit of a double take, "Is this the General Flynn that I know from my NIC days, the same guy?" Because he came across as extraordinary political, obviously in that context, not at all as I recalled him. And then the other person was K.T. McFarland, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, who I'd met on many occasions at the Council and who had worked in previous administrations going... She'd worked in the Reagan administration for example, in the White House, and had a program on Fox News on defense and security issues and had invited me on several times to talk about Putin in Russia and the work that I'd done.

Fiona:

K.T. approaches me for some larger context about Russia and what was kind of going on, and the next thing I'm asked by both K.T. and General Flynn, if I would be willing to take on the position. I had hoped that I would just be able to offer my perspective as we like to do from think-tanks kind of basically, "Here's what I would tell you, here's the context, thank you very much," kind of and then we go back to what we're usually doing and writing about things, but no, they actually asked me if I would come into the administration and the whole intent had been to try to figure out what to do about this interference in 2016, and also to try to sit down with Trump and explain to him just what Putin and the intel services and everything else were up to.

Fiona:

Well, let's just say it didn't quite work out like that, but that was the idea of coming in and there were a whole host of people I'd worked with at DNI, many of the people I'd worked with and knew from Pentagon times going back to that Bush-Obama transition and others that I knew from the Republican Party circles, either on Capitol Hill from the Bush administration when I'd been in the NIO then too. And so there was actually a large group of people who I'd previously worked with and others who were detailed in from across the government, from the Russia, another committee that I knew really well from my long years of working, people I'd known from grad school, honestly, as well as other jobs at the Kennedy School. And I thought, "Well, look, there's a team of people in here I know, we might be able to do something to mitigate this disaster of Russian interference in 2016."

Jim:

I think you make an important point, Fiona, that is lost on many people or maybe not understood, which is as you go from administration to administration, a lot of the people who staff a president, particularly in the area of national security, foreign policy, are people who aren't political. They are, as you describe yourself, sort of nonpartisan experts, they work for the government because they're hoping to bring their best analysis to inform American Foreign Policy rather than being an advocate for the candidates on... I'm glad you made that point.

Jim:

Obviously for you, you work in the Trump administration, your book details what your experiences are working for Trump. I do want to move on to the question of what US policy toward Russia should be, but I would probably be remiss if I didn't ask you, A, what was it like working for Donald Trump and B, what are your reflections after having testified in his first impeachment hearings?

Fiona:

Yeah, well, I left quite a lot of this out in the book because I have to say that I became greatly disturbed and very worried about the state of our domestic politics as a result of working within the White House in this tumultuous period, and it remains so, and that was one of the reasons for writing the book and trying to lay a lot of things out about how we got from A to B and how I got from A to B as well, my own personal [crosstalk 00:18:21].

Jim:

[crosstalk 00:18:21] the subtitle of your book is Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, and you're certainly, given your personal biography, someone who had opportunities and was able to make something of them.

Fiona:

Yes, and I mean, and part of the book, which we're not going to talk about quite so much in this podcast because it's on Foreign Policies to show how the crisis of opportunity, particularly in the United States, but also in the UK, has led us to the populous politics that we see now. And what I mean by that is this constraints on social mobility. So people feel that they're left out of a system that is basically giving all of its benefits to a very tiny group or an increasingly tiny group. It's not just about income inequality, but it's about the idea that used to be ingrained in Americans, certainly when I came here in 1989, that anybody would have a chance to do whatever they wanted to within reason.

Fiona:

I mean, there's always going to be poor people, not everyone's going to be rich, but that everyone would have a chance for mobility, geographic mobility, social mobility, economic ability. When I came in 1989, there was expectation that people would do better than their parents. And that had been kind of basically ingrained, that idea of the American dream, is all about opportunity. And today the United States has the lowest social mobility of any advanced country. UK is not too far behind, but the United States is shocking about how difficult it is for people to get ahead.

Jim:

But that's not how we see ourselves. We see ourselves as the land of opportunity.

Fiona:

No, and that's part of the political frustration. So you've only got a 7% chance to do what I did, which is go from... or even less because I've gone from a much lower pass of quintile to the much higher point at the top of the quintile, but 7% to go from the bottom 20% to the top 20% and probably a kind of a one in a million snowball-hells chance to do what I did. And I do know other people who have done it in the US context, but all my kind of age and it's much more unlikely for somebody who was born in the eighties and moving on in the nineties.

Fiona:

And I also get an education which is completely paid for by scholarships, grants or my local government in the UK. I have no educational debt. I mean, how many kids these days...? I mean, you with older kids, I mean, who's going to leave without any educational debt these days unless their parents can pay for them? Which means that their meritocracy keeps getting more and more concentrated in kind of a tiny cohort of people who can afford to pay for their kids, so their kids can always keep on getting ahead.

Jim:

And education's far more expensive than it was when we were younger.

Fiona:

It certainly wasn't in the late eighties. Exactly. I mean, you and I have the same generation and there was a lot more opportunities for people in our cohort. And that really kind of feeds into what I start to see in the Trump administration. Trump is not thinking about national security in the kind of ways that we would hope he would. I was very disappointed about that. He's playing domestic politics all the time. He's sort of privatizing foreign policy for those purposes. Although I would actually argue, there's a lot of continuity between his foreign policy and previous administrations and that the Biden administration, we can talk about, there's also picking up on many of the things that he did.

Fiona:

But in the domestic arena, he's playing to the base of grievances for people who feel that they've been cut out, left out, by elitist, depending on how you describe it, and elected bureaucrats or the super rich, super wealthy, super educated who are just leaving everybody else behind. And he's playing to that big cleavage in education where... he's playing to the non-college educated populace who just [crosstalk 00:21:17].

Jim:

And we're both on the other side of that cleavage.

Fiona:

Exactly.

Jim:

We're both highly educated, went to institutions...

Fiona:

Yeah, I used to be well and truly on the side that they're on. I mean, my father went down the pits at the mines at 14. Had no qualifications whatsoever, no exams from school to speak to, only trained on the job. And my mom went on to be a nurse, but I mean, all of her qualifications were also job training. They weren't in any kind of elite institutions. I'm the first in my immediate family to go to college. But that used to be the general aspiration, but Trump's playing, like many other people, on this kind of cleavage now and that the American dream has disappeared for those without any further education. And that's what I kept seeing inside of the institutions, playing to division, playing in the National Security Council, the way that the domestic politics fed into everything.

Fiona:

And I thought that I could cook through all of the noise of domestic politics and be able to focus on national security and I discovered that I couldn't. And that's how we end up, all of us, nobody could, in the first impeachment. And I come away from that deeply disturbed about the state of American politics, as I think I made quite clear during my testimony. This effort to not just run domestic political errands by people who are loyal to the President and trying to pervert Ukraine policy, for example, but also just this whole privatization of the national security and foreign policy sphere with all kinds of people leaping in.

Jim:

What do you mean by that? The privatization of foreign policy.

Fiona:

I mean, by all kinds of people who are sort of strap hangers, hangers on to the President, sort of leaping in there; you have lobbyists, you have advocates for people who have taken on foreign entities and foreign governments as clients kind of lobbying and are getting in through an open door for personal interest. People have business interest, but they've got to know the President or a member of his family, and they're just kind of leaping in there. This is why Masha Yovanovitch, our ambassador to Ukraine, was sacked, was removed, because a couple of Ukrainian-Americans, who were working with Rudy Giuliani and have their own business deals, decide she's in the way, along with a group of corrupt Ukrainian officials.

Fiona:

And they decided to denounce her to Trump and it's captured on a video that they themselves take during a dinner in Trump International Hotel in April 2018. And we only discovered this during the course of all of these investigations into the whole circumstances surrounding this phone call between President Trump and President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, where he asks President Zelenskyy to help him basically defame his opponent in what will be the 2020 Presidential Election, Joe Biden.

Fiona:

But we only find out in the course of all of this, that these guys are the people who are responsible initially for the sequence of events that leads to the removal of our ambassador to Ukraine, Maria Yovanovitch, because they tell Trump that she's bad mouthing them. Complete lies. And he says, "Get rid of her. I want her removed," because he's so sensitive to criticism that he can't take the idea that somebody might be bad mouthing him. And he believes them immediately because they're from his peer circles and he knows they work with Rudy Giuliani and they're donors, as it turns out, illegally to campaigns, because they're now [inaudible 00:24:04] is going on against them, but it's that private enterprise that's kind of leaping into foreign policy and sets off a whole chain of events.

Jim:

Okay. In your book, There Is Nothing For You Here, you detail this and go in a lot more detail in terms of your experience in the Trump administration. But what I want to do now, Fiona, is sort of look forward and sort of look at US policy toward Russia as it is, and perhaps how it should be. You made a reference a moment ago, which I think is correct, that there's a fair amount of continuity between the Trump administration and the Biden administration, when it comes to Russia.

Jim:

I would note that you were in the White House when the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy in December 2017, which tried to reframe the nature of American foreign policy as one of being about great power competition, about China and about Russia. My sense is that framing has stuck. It seems that, as again you mention, the Biden administration has embraced that wholesale, but I was struck when I was reading your recent foreign affairs article, which is drawn from the book that you wrote, let me quote you here, "Even though foreign policy circles in Washington and Moscow still view US-Russian relations through the lens of great power competition, the struggle for Europe is over. For the United States, China, not Russia, poses the greatest foreign policy challenge of the 21st century."

Jim:

So that leads me to ask the question whether or not we should think of Russia in terms of great power competition, or should we sort of recast how we think about our relations with Russia?

Fiona:

I think we have to be very careful about getting stuck in these frames. I mean, you and I have worked on foreign policy issues for a very long time and we know how seductive framing can be and how then everything is basically shaped in policy terms or even people's whole outlook on issues. And often as a result, they miss other things that are going on here. Now, the Russians would love us to have that frame. And I think just recently, one senior official, maybe it was General Milley, I'm not really sure here so I apologize if it wasn't General Milley, talked about a tripartite world, a tripolar world with Russia, the United States and China.

Fiona:

And of course, the Russians are delighted because they do still think about the world in geopolitical terms.

Jim:

And they want to be an equal.

Fiona:

And they want to be an equal. And so the idea of this is very seductive for them too and they're always kind of feeding into this. Because certainly when I would try to suggest to Russians that the world has actually changed, and they love the National Security Strategy framing actually, they would say, "No, it isn't, we're still on a geopolitical foes." And I would say, "Look, we are not carving Europe up."

Fiona:

And there was an episode when I was sent out to deal directly with the Russians in April 2019, when we were trying to resolve the situation in Venezuela to basically try to get a coalition of countries together, to force Maduro to recognize the Guaidó interim government and to try to put Venezuela on a different track, thereafter Madura basically affects a self-coup keep himself in power there. And we were constantly getting kind of thwarted by various different issues.

Fiona:

It wasn't the most strategic approach that could have been done but, a lot of complaints about that as well. But we managed to frame it in such a way that the Russians immediately saw an opportunity for doing one of these great geopolitical exchanges. I mean, people may recall that the Russians very quickly moved to take advantage of the Venezuela situation, to send in a whole bunch of GRU military intelligence guys on a plane and tell Maduro, "Stay in place," because they became convinced the United States was going to invade via Columbia. They're playing out in their minds the old Cold War scenarios, "This is Panama, Haiti, or this is kind of all of these other games that the CIA and the United States like to play in Latin and South America, is our chance to get back in the game again."

Fiona:

And so they kind of bunch of guys on a plane and they get out there. And then they're kind of suggesting to us behind the scenes, "How about we do a swap for Venezuela and Ukraine?" Because they believe that what's happening in Ukraine is a proxy war with the United States, this is the old style Cold War, we're trying to divide up Europe still. We are not, we're trying to find a solution to bolster Ukraine's sovereignty and independence.

Fiona:

And of course Ukraine's become this nasty little item in our domestic politics as well, because of all these machinations on the kind of Russia 2016 intervention, that's just become so complex. No one can make any sense of it, but the Russian's sort of smell an opportunity. This is illustrative of the kind of the risks here. And so I am sent out to kind of disavow them of the fact that we are going to make any kind of swap between Ukraine and Venezuela. And they're basically saying, "You're talking about the Monroe Doctrine," and we say, "We're not. We're talking about what used to be the Yeltsin Doctrine about the near abroad and the new Putin doctrine, 'You keep out of our territory and we'll keep out of yours.'"

Fiona:

And they basically want to sit down at the table and hash out kind of where the dividing lines between our interests and theirs are.

Jim:

Draw lines on the map.

Fiona:

Draw lines on the map, yeah. And they think that a Venezuela-Ukraine swap would help with this, and we're just like, "No, this is not happening." Venezuela is being dealt with in its own terms and Ukraine has to be dealt with in its own terms. And that's part of that great power competition framing that the Russians kind of see, "This is great." That means that we are still into this dividing lines in Europe. It gets to the bottom of NATO and NATO expansion. They see Ukraine as a proving ground, a fighting ground, Belarus the same, Georgia, all of the territory, the Baltics included, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic. These are all still up for grabs. We're still trying to kind of work things out in Eastern Europe.

Fiona:

And of course, the United States or most of the.... apart from those who are still fixated on Russia and Russia policy, have moved on. They're worrying about the rise of China, everything going on in the Asia-Pacific. And Russia is having a harder time proving to us that they have a major role in the Asia-Pacific. And at one point, President Trump was a bit incredulous when Putin reminded him that Russia has a border with North Korea. I mean, obviously it's a very small sliver of a border with North Korea, but President Trump was certainly not thinking of Russia as a major player in the Asia-Pacific.

Fiona:

And so the Russians have also then tried to flex muscles, make it very clear that the recent talk about firing on a US ship somewhere near the Sea of Okhotsk to kind of remind us that they're there too, because they're trying to play into this depiction of the world as a tripolar great power competition, when really many of the risks that we have from Russia at the moment is for them still trying to grab our attention to stay in the game and using more insidious forms of influence. What they did in 2016, of trying to interfere in our election system, hacking and releasing of emails. I know getting into the Facebook and other platforms, dirty money, ransomware, all kinds of financial crimes, influence of political parties, the kinds of stuff that they also used to do during the Cold War.

Fiona:

But what really is taking advantage of political vulnerabilities, political infighting and divisions, and corruption in Western societies, because the main goal is to kind of show that the West is no better than Russia, because Putin is very much focused on keeping himself in power. This is not purely about geopolitics, but the regime's survival. And Putin, as the sort of like the champion of Russia, the great savior against the malign West that's always trying to kind of bring Russia to its knees, the old Cold War image of Russia as a superpower, his whole image and his presidency is tied up in that and he feels very vulnerable domestically. And so as he pushes up that bigger picture, that framework of a great power competition is become very useful for him for domestic mobilization.

Jim:

So what then should our framing be, Fiona? How should we think about Russia policy in that context? And I ask, especially because Russia seems recently to have moved closer to China, Moscow and Beijing have deepened their relations, and many people would argue that it's never a good strategy to pursue policies that lead your main potential adversaries to close ranks.

Fiona:

Well, I certainly agree with that. I mean, irrespective of the framing of great power competition, it's clearly not in our interest to have Russia and China working in lockstep to basically thwart American interests at all terms. And also if Russia is opening up the door for more Chinese actions, following in Russia's footsteps, we've already had the massive exfiltration of data by the Chinese, we've had intellectual property theft. And we clearly are in a systemic competition with China on the economic insecurity front on all terms here and I would actually also argue that we need to be very careful about that as well.

Fiona:

We do not want to have that framing either because the bigger picture is the world has changed. We kept trying to bring this up with the Russians. We have a couple of massive existential threats and the Russians are feeling that now; climate change, and we've still got COP26 going on in Glasgow, the second part of that, no longer the leaders, but people trying to actually thrash out what are we going to do about an existential threat that affects every single one of us.

Fiona:

I mean, who cares we're in a great power competition when the world is burning, honestly? I mean, if we really started thinking about this in a sensible kind of way. I mean, Russia's fires on the Tundra and their forests and their peat bogs, have been larger in size than all of the fires in the American West taken together. Their methane emissions from natural causes, from the melting of the permafrost, which acted as kind of a capstone for keeping that in, are enormous.

Fiona:

United States and Russia, the biggest emitters of methane, which was a big focus at Glasgow, in the world, we could work together on this actually, because it's going to be very challenging to reduce those emissions. It's not just flaring from associated gas and oil fields, but these emissions, these natural gas emissions out again in the melting permafrost and in the seas where the sea ice used to keep it in too, in the Arctic region. I mean, we've got a lot of trouble here in our hands.

Fiona:

And then the pandemic. Russia's got so used to using anti-vax propaganda, I mean, we've got plenty of our own, but fueling that, they wanted to talk down all the other Western vaccines and talk up Sputnik, their vaccine. And it's really boomeranged in a terrible way for them. They have the highest infectivity rates and highest mortality rates of any time during the pandemic and one of the reasons why Putin couldn't go to COP26.

Fiona:

They've got a mess on their hands, and we ought to be able to work with them on some of these critical issues. We should have been able to get a global vaccine program up and running with the Russians instead of playing vaccine nationalism. We've done that before with smallpox, multipledrug-resistant tuberculosis, we eventually did it with HIV Aids after the Russians had a disaster with it. They blamed the US as well, on a capitalist country, it was a Western disease, it turned out of course not to be, they had a terrible Aids crisis, especially with heroin use and needle infections. Just like lots of Europe had too.

Fiona:

We've got ways in which we can work with them. So my argument here is we've got to be able to change that paradigm with the Russians and Chinese as well. I mean, we've got former secretary Kerry running around everywhere trying to get the Chinese and Russians on board with climate change. We've got to figure out how busting out of those paradigms to try to find some kind of way forward where we can work with them as well.

Jim:

But you seem to be running uphill into a stiff wind with that advice, Fiona, as I sort of read the mood here in Washington, DC, people agree that Russia is the adversary. And whether you're talking about their relation with Belarus, what they're doing with Ukraine, activity in the Middle East, you already mentioned Venezuela, that what the United States has to do is meet that with even more toughness, more sanctions, more coercion, which seems to then sort of feed into what I take to be Putin's sense of imperilment from Western actions.

Fiona:

We are most definitely in one of those terrible vicious circles, there's no doubt about it. Like you say, we are going to be running into headwinds. There's no doubt about it, but we've got to bear in mind that this is going to be extraordinarily difficult and with Vladimir Putin, ostensibly remaining in the Kremlin until 2036, this is going to be a long haul, a long game here. I mean, it'll get back to Kennan's Long Telegram and the whole point of how do we constrain, restrain and basically blunt the impact of Russian actions?

Fiona:

Because the point is that they don't want to let this up. As I say in the Foreign Affairs article, for Putin, it's kind of a domestic imperative for him. He's not just making the world or trying to make the world safe for autocracy and authoritarianism, he's making it for his personal clique. I mean, an awful lot of these authoritarian regimes now, be it in Russia, in China, in Turkey, elsewhere, it's all about personalization of politics and keeping a particular set of people in power and then shaping and retrofitting the ideology and the kind of international stunts around that as well.

Fiona:

And so Putin sees his position as under siege from opposition and all kinds of other kind of problems going on. He obviously doesn't want to find Russia in any shape or form in any kind of difficult relationship with China, irrespective of historic and possible future tensions. He wants to latch himself to China, but he has to also show China that he's a worthy partner, not just a sort of second fiddle or kind of lesser entity. And the Russians know the Chinese are not that kind of enamored with them as the Russians are enamored of the idea of a strategic partnership with China.

Fiona:

And so he's constantly got to be performing, showing that they're taking on the United States for domestic and international audiences and just his whole mindset is one shaped by the Cold War, shaped by the adversarial relationship with the United States, as is the Russian intelligence services. What would they have to do if they weren't continuing to play that game against the United States? Is Estonia or Georgia or Ukraine kind of just where they would focus themselves? It absolutely isn't.

Fiona:

I mean, you can see it by the amount of investment they've put in into their intelligence operatives in the United States. Their embassies were literally dens of spies. Ours were not, we'd moved on from all of this. So the point is that we have to find ways of blunting it, get rid of their intel operatives, kind of close up our own loopholes, make ourselves less vulnerable to subversion and their kinds of policies and that will over time force them to change their calculus. It's just going to take time.

Jim:

I should note, you know a thing or two about Mr. Putin, you wrote a biography, I think it was titled Mr. Putin. Is it The Kremlin's Operative? Did I get the title right?

Fiona:

Operative in the Kremlin, yeah.

Jim:

Operative in the Kremlin.

Fiona:

Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin. Yes, with our old colleague, Clifford Gaddy, back in the day at Brookings.

Jim:

So I highly recommend that book. I mean, there's a lot more we could talk about in terms of US-Russia relations, Fiona, but we're coming the end of our time and I guess what I'd like to do is to close by going back to where you started. Do you go back to Bishop Auckland much? What do people in Bishop Auckland think about seeing you appearing on the telly at night?

Fiona:

Well, I'm about to find out because I'm going to go back kind of between Christmas and New Year to see my mom, who still lives there. And I've certainly had a lot of emails and texts and phone calls from people. I was going back to Bishop Auckland on a very regular basis up until COVID hit. In fact, I mean, the last time I was there was just before I ended up getting embroiled in the whole impeachment process. I was there for a chunk of time in 2019 after I'd left the NSC, visiting my mother-in-law and my relatives, driving around and at the time thinking about writing something, I wasn't quite sure what, and I started to kind of lay some of the groundwork there about thinking about de-industrialization and populism actually is what I was thinking about working on.

Fiona:

I hadn't quite framed it in the way that I had in the book yet. And yeah, I mean, a lot of people have been quite surprised. Let's just say they were completely shocked when I appeared in front of millions of people, global audience, at the impeachment. I mean, I think most of my relatives just couldn't quite fathom it. I couldn't quite fathom it actually. In retrospect, after I kind of came out [inaudible 00:38:41] the fact that I'd been on the page of every major international newspaper. I just never anticipated that.

Jim:

And it may have been quite different if somebody hadn't lost a file behind a radiator.

Fiona:

It would've been. I mean, there are many ways along this that I just think about happenstance, right. I think that's the case in most people's careers. It's just how chance encounters, strange quirks of fate that take you on a path, but certainly kind of going back to where we started, I'd always been interested in Russia and from that heady environment, that rather unnerving environment, of the Euro Missile Crisis, beginning in the late 1970s when I'm basically coming to my political consciousness and always then having my whole world outlook shaped about what can we do to kind of, as Michael Charlie said, "Figure out why they want to blow us up?"

Fiona:

But now it's all about why they just still want to think of us as the adversary. And this is not about, often when I try to talk about it in this more nuanced way, because I've spent a lot of time in Russia, I know a lot of Russians, that you've got to practice strategic empathy here and understand where they're coming from. And I understand where they're coming from, a totally different basis, as I explain in the book, when I got to the Soviet Union, it was the land of workers. I was from the working class. I immediately felt an affinity with everyone I met, not on a political basis, but just as like, "Yeah, their dads were coal miners and steel workers. And they were the first in their family," often at my Institute, "To go to college," they were also trying to train to be interpreters.

Fiona:

They had the same outlook is I did. They didn't care about the politics, they're not members of the communist party. The whole world was changing and they were just sort of thinking about what were they going to do with themselves. And many of those people I met then are in the Russian government in senior positions, or they did become interpreters and they would interpret at the United Nations. And there's a couple of them that I know here in Washington, DC. One, his family basically left the Soviet Union, they fled kind of on a trip and didn't go back. And another won a Green Card in the lottery. So I have a long and very diffuse and diverse experience in Russia and I'm still trying to figure it out. If we get stuck in a framework, we might not see an opportunity to put this on a different track.

Jim:

On that note, I'll close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Fiona Hill, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of the new book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century. Fiona, it's always a delight to chat.

Fiona:

Thanks, Jim. Thanks for having me.

Jim:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen, and leave us your review, they help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and articles mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on CRF.org. As always opinions expressed in the President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe did double-duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay, thanks for listening.

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