Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has had a tendency to discount Russia as a serious competitor, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven quite capable of manipulating existing American divisions and dysfunction to weaken U.S. democracy. Does Washington need to reevaluate its assumptions about Russian power? How can policymakers address the domestic vulnerabilities that Moscow and other U.S. adversaries are eager to exploit?
Please join Foreign Affairs Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan and authors Fiona Hill and Andrea Kendall-Taylor as they mark the launch of the November/December issue with a discussion of U.S. Russia policy.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
FIONA HILL is Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and the author of There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-first Century.
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is Editor of Foreign Affairs. He previously spent three years as Executive Editor of the magazine and served in the U.S. State Department, including as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. His narrative history of George Marshall’s post–World War II mission to China, The China Mission, was published by WW Norton in 2018 and named a best book of the year by The Economist and an editor’s pick by The New York Times Book Review. His writing has also appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you. Good afternoon. Welcome, all, to today’s meeting launching the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs.
I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the editor of the magazine. I’m thrilled to welcome two authors of really outstanding pieces and important pieces that are in that November-December issue, and it turns out to be a very, very timely topic as well. So we’re lucky to have them today.
Fiona Hill is the author of the essay, “The Kremlin’s Strange Victory.” Some of that is drawn from her new book, There is Nothing For You Here, but some of it is new, especially some of the stuff focused on the Russia policy questions. Fiona is currently a fellow at Brookings, but she was previously a senior director on the National Security Council covering Russia and Europe from early 2017 to mid-2019, which, as you all, certainly, remember, was a rather eventful time for a whole host of reasons that she covers in the piece.
And before that, she was and she remains, really, one of the foremost analysts and interpreters of Russia and Vladimir Putin, and the U.S.-Russia relationship. So we’re lucky to have her. It was a powerful piece, and she brings as well to that piece a kind of social and political context, I think, is often lacking from foreign policy discussion. So I’m sure we’ll get into some of that today as well.
We also have Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who co-authored a piece in the issue with Michael Kofman on the “Myth of Russian Decline.” Like Fiona’s piece, it really should reframe the way we talk about one of the foremost foreign policy challenges that we deal with week to week. Andrea has also done a bunch of other really fantastic pieces for Foreign Affairs over the last year or two, including one on digital authoritarianism and a recent one on the convergence of China and Russia, both topics that, I imagine, will come up in different forms today.
She is currently a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and before that was one of the U.S. intelligence community’s top Russia analysts, including as deputy national intelligence officer for Russia from 2015 to 2018.
I’m going to ask questions for the first chunk of this and then I will turn to questions from all of you on the line halfway through our hour.
Fiona, Andrea, thanks for being here. Before delving into the historic and strategic depths that you get to in your essays, I want to start with something that’s a little bit more in the news and that’s Ukraine, which I know you’re both paying close attention to. We’ve, obviously, seen growing concern about what the Russians are up to on the border of eastern Ukraine. There have been flare-ups in the Donbas. There are troops massing there.
I’m curious what your assessment of what Putin is up to is and how you think the U.S. should be responding at this moment.
Fiona, let’s start with you and then we’ll go to Andrea on this.
HILL: So thanks so very much, Dan. It’s really great to be here with everyone today and really very nice to be sharing not just a little Zoom screen with Andrea, who I haven’t seen for a while—(laughter)—but also inside of the covers of Foreign Affairs. It’s a real honor, I think, for both of us. So anyway, delighted to be part of this discussion, too.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on with Ukraine, and a lot of reasons why we should be very concerned about Russia’s intentions. In fact—and I’ll see if, you know, Andrea agrees with me here—there are more reasons to be concerned that Russia would go in than there are reasons to think that they might not at this particular juncture because, you know, we have been building up to this kind of situation over a long period of time.
We know that Russia has already gone into Ukraine in the past. This is a continuation of a war that was sparked off in 2014 in the Donbas portrayed as a civil war by the Russians, you know, saying that they’re, you know, just, basically, watching from afar as the separatists of the Donbas and Luhansk region, you know, fight for the independence, sovereignty, and their rights against the, basically, Ukrainian forces who are trying to constrain them. There’s a whole narrative around all this.
But we know only too well that Russian forces are in there. It’s not just proxy forces. We have an awful lot of evidence and information about this. And there are some signs now in terms of Putin talking about sending in humanitarian convoys and, you know, other activities that really have the hallmarks of things that happened much earlier in 2014.
So for all those people who say, well, Russia wouldn’t do this, well, actually, they already have, and, of course, earlier in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which for many of us who were observing this had been on the docket or on the cards since 1994.
You know, if this had only happened twenty years after we’d have concerns about Russia making a move on Crimea that had been put off and pushed off by a pretty concerted intervention by the United States and Europeans to dissuade Russia from taking any activity back in 1994.
There was a memorandum, the Budapest Memorandum, that was basically brokered to try to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty. Obviously, it turned out not to be worth the paper that it was written on. But there was an intervention by the United States and Europeans at that point to dissuade Russia from taking any action.
So that’s part of the long tale. And then, you know, the reasons why Russia wanted to take action are manyfold. First of all, Ukraine has been on the minds of many people in Moscow for a very long time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Crimea, even more so, is seen as one of these territories that got away somehow after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We’re going to be at the thirtieth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union this December.
Putin has been saying for quite some time, going back to 2012, in particular, which was the precursor for the last incursions into Ukraine, that Ukraine is part of Russia’s national heritage, part of its inextricable culture, you know, linguistic, historical, fraternal Slavic ties, you know, completely brushing past the idea that, you know, Ukraine is an independent and separate entity.
There has been all kinds of issues related to Ukraine’s aspirations to join Europe, be this European Union or NATO, all kinds of accusations launched at the current Ukrainian government of Volodymyr Zelensky about their efforts, you know, to perhaps revitalize the potential of joining NATO, the visit by General Austin, our defense secretary, recently to Ukraine, talks about, you know, NATO engagement and exercise over the Ukraine.
All of these are issues that Putin has bundled together. There’s many more issues. I mean, this is—I think, part of the problem is there are so many reasons why Russia could be going after Ukraine at this particular juncture, and the Russians seem to be very much looking for a pretext, either for action now or action at some different time.
And I think, you know—I’ll just let Andrea jump in here—you know, I think how we tackle this is going to be very complicated, because if the Russians do go in it casts a question mark over all kinds of territorial conflicts in Europe but also further afield in the Indo-Pacific, somewhere that I know Andrea watches very closely as well.
We also have to bear in mind that last year people said nothing would ever happen in Nagorno-Karabakh. Well, between the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Russians, certainly, egged on Azerbaijan to teach Armenia a lesson because Armenia was going off in a direction which the Russians think Ukraine is as well out of—potentially out of Russia’s orbit, and we’ve just seen clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan this week with high casualty rates again.
So I would just say no room here for complacency. And, Andrea, I know you’ve got a lot to—(inaudible)—here but perhaps we can discuss a bit more about what we might do about it together.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. Andrea?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah. Great. I entirely agree with what Fiona just laid out. I mean, I think that there’s no room for complacency. I think this is a really critical juncture. I also think we should put it in broader context. There’s a lot happening in Europe at this moment.
So it’s not just Ukraine. It’s Belarus and Putin’s support and enabling of the Lukashenko regime to manufacture this migrant crisis and send migrants into the European Union. It’s the energy crisis where Putin, if he wanted to, could have done something. But now he’s created a situation, you know, I think intended to convince Europeans that they might not want to take on Putin lest they jeopardize their heating for the winter.
There’s things happening in the Balkans with Dodik threatening to pull the Republika Srpska out of some of these institutions. He, certainly, calculates that he has the backing of Putin. I mean, we could go on and on. I think we have to see this in part of a multifaceted pressure campaign from the Kremlin on Europe.
Fiona already talked about, I think, from a military perspective. I’m, certainly, not a military analyst. But as I understand, the prepositioning of Russian forces, certainly, suggests that they are at least preparing for the possibility of something more significant. And, as Fiona said, the rhetoric in the Kremlin has really changed on Russia.
It’s, as Fiona was talking about, you know, Putin’s op-ed where he sees, you know, Ukraine, really, as just a vassal state, it’s followed by the op-ed from Medvedev in Kommersant. It’s his comments at Valdai where he’s, basically, moving the red lines.
So it used to be no NATO membership for Ukraine, but now it’s no NATO infrastructure. So he’s changing, I think, what he considers his red lines and I think, you know, just bigger picture—Fiona’s talking about this—I don’t think that Putin is willing to accept the status quo any longer.
I think he is thinking about his legacy. He sees the trajectory is not moving in a way that’s beneficial to Russia. I don’t think he thinks that any future Ukrainian leader could implement Minsk or something favorable and, we should add, they’re shutting down the diplomatic channel of this as well. So they said no to a leaders meeting through the Normandy process. They’ve said no to a foreign ministers meeting.
So I think one thing that the Russians have learned is, you know, they try to achieve things through political diplomatic means and when they can’t, then they have to resort to military force. I think that’s where we are.
So your question too, Dan, was what do we do about it. I don’t think that a political decision has been made. And, obviously, we can’t know that. And so there is, I think, a window of opportunity to at least try to change Putin’s calculus. It’s extremely difficult to do this. There’s no issue other than Ukraine that’s more important to Putin.
So it’s going to be really hard. I think the administration has already sprung into action to try to signal Putin—you know, sending CIA director Bill Burns to Moscow. They’ve been—you know, Secretary Blinken put out a very strong statement of support for Ukraine. We’re doing exercises in the Black Sea. We’re on the phones and in Europe trying to build consensus among the Europeans to take the—and to see the threat the same way that Washington is seeing it.
So I think they’re—and they’re working, I think, to put together maybe a response package or something that we could credibly lay on the table in order to try to deter Putin. But it’s going to be really hard. I think the most important thing to talk about is getting at the NATO piece of, you know, what, if any, role does NATO have here, and Putin has—is changing the threshold of his red line.
I think it’s a question for NATO. Do we accept that or should NATO play a more significant role in terms of maybe using NATO funds to create a Ukraine defense deterrence fund or things like that? Those are things we need to be talking about, and I think we have a fairly narrow window in which to do it.
And so, again, Fiona’s point is right on. We can’t be complacent. How many times have we said Russia won’t do that? And so it may be still a low probability outcome but we need to do everything possible to try to prevent that most significant outcome.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. I’m sure we’ll come back to some of these present-day concerns later in the conversation.
But I want to jump back thirty or so years or, I suppose, twenty-nine years and eleven months to the beginning of this stage of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Both of your pieces really focus on what you argue are kind of fundamental misunderstandings in the way we have understood Russia and approached Russia in the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union.
So I’d be interested to hear both of you kind of distill those mistakes into, you know, a few sentences, the way you—the way you laid them out in your piece but then to also consider the counterfactual. If you could go back to talk to policymakers in the early 1990s and explain to them what we now know about the course of this relationship and the state of Russia today, what do you think might have been different about the relationship and about where we are?
Andrea, let’s start with you on this one and then go to Fiona.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Sure. I mean, maybe I’ll just start with where we focused our piece, which is on this kind of narrative of Russia in decline. I think that’s been a very long-standing narrative that Western and U.S. policymakers in particular have told themselves—you know, after the height of the Soviet Union kind of believing that Russia would never be as strong as it was again. And so we’ve kind of constantly underestimated, I think, what Russia has been willing and able to do.
And so I think, you know, in terms of getting Russia right, it’s—and I think the point of our piece is we have to flip the narrative of the way that we think about Russia, that it’s not a declining power, that it’s a persistent one, and by shifting that frame, right, then that suggests different policy approaches.
It’s not something where—that we can simply set aside or wait out now expecting that Russia will decline as a power in the future but, rather, it’s a persistent one that we have to plan for. So I think—I mean, I’m really definitely interested in what Fiona has to say.
But I think we’ve kind of constantly underestimated what Russia is willing and able to accomplish, and so you can think about different junctures where perhaps if the United States had taken a stronger approach whether or not, you know, we might be on a different path than where we are now.
HILL: That was a great barking dog right at that moment. (Laughter.)
KENDALL-TAYLOR: And I’ve asked my kids to try to have that not happen.
HILL: No, mine’s probably going to do the same. Look, so Russia wasn’t a sleeping dog that we let lie, right. (Laughs.) It was right at that absolute moment of barking up.
But I completely agree with Andrea and I think that, you know, the piece was excellent on the idea of the persistent power because Russia has been persistently underestimated for its history. You know, European powers in the neighborhood, you know, constantly, you know, I would say, did the same, underestimating Russia’s ability to deploy resources and to marshal resources, particularly military losses—resources and to learn from its mistakes.
And, you know, we were off Russia after the Russian Revolution in the early part of the twentieth century and, you know, eventually, over time, you know, they bounced back again. And, you know, that in itself is a frame. You know, Russia is a country that’s undergone what’s appeared to have been two state collapses at the beginning and the end of the twentieth century. But in many respects, the same geography remains—the same core, the same resources, and the same kind of ability, again, to marshal particularly the military aspects of power. Even if, you know, we might have questions about its demography, its economy, that natural resource space of Russia and that singular focus on its security have always enabled it to, you know, kind of punch well above, you know, the weight that we would apply to Russia’s power always is. Remains the world’s largest landmass, for one thing. So Russia has an awful lot of resources going for it and, you know, is able to use things very effectively.
But that frame of loss and that kind of focus on security is something we always have to bear in mind because, you know, Russia is never going to see security in the same way as everyone else. You know, it’s a fact that it always wants to eliminate all risk. It always looks at others that might impinge upon security and do it harm and wants to remove their capabilities and their capacities for action.
There’s always a preemptive element in Russia’s approach to things, especially after the great shock of World War II of Operation Barbarossa when the Germans invaded and took, you know, Hitler by surprise because Hitler had been talking himself—rather, Stalin had been talking himself into the idea that Hitler would not invade. And, of course, there was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and this whole idea that somehow they had been—they created a strategic imperative that ought to happen, and that clouds an awful lot of Russian thinking today because they were caught out and they have every intention of not being caught out again.
And this is, you know, one of the problems when we go back to the 1990s and our whole approach to NATO and NATO’s relationships with Russia, and I think, you know, one of the turning points is 1999 and the NATO bombing of Belgrade during the Balkan Wars because at that point for the Russians it kind of reminds them of that same kind of lesson as before, that when you have a military alliance or another, you know, kind of opponent has military capabilities, there’s a pretty strong likelihood that they will use it. And that’s what Putin is trying to get us to understand today, that he’s already crossed the military threshold of use many times.
We always worried, of course, that he will cross the threshold of nuclear use as well and the tactical nukes in a battlefield that they’ve been signaling at times, and we’re having this whole big debate about our first-use nuclear doctrine at the moment that they’re watching very carefully.
The Russians are always worried that if we have the capability and capacity we will use it, and they’ve made it very clear that they will use it, too, that they will cross that threshold, and they have on multiple occasions. And NATO in 1999, the bombing of Belgrade is a seminal moment in that period because we’d been telling Russia that NATO was no longer a military alliance that was arraigned against them.
And what they saw in the case of our bombing of Belgrade is that it could be, and they worry every time about a conflict in their neighborhood that they have vested interests in, like Ukraine or Belarus—back at the time in 1999 it was Chechnya, basically, a region within their own territory that they’d had multiple rounds of conflict with—and they’re worried that actually if we looked at what Serbia was doing in Kosovo that maybe we might think the same thing about Chechnya and Russia.
And I was in St. Petersburg at that point of the NATO bombing of Belgrade for a conference, and even the most pro-Western, or, let’s just say, favorably inclined political figures who were at this conference towards the West suddenly thought, well, NATO could be turned against us.
And so that may be one of the most fundamental points of misunderstanding. We kept trying to reassure Russia, of course not. We’re going to have the NATO Russia Council. We were going to have—you know, NATO was no longer that kind of alliance, and, you know, kind of they don’t believe it. And the fact that Russia has pulled back its mission at NATO because, of course, you know, we caught them out spying, you know, other kinds of, you know, activity and they’ve pulled back from those kind of contacts also heightens the danger at this particular moment.
So some of the things that we’ve been talking about about Ukraine and about how we’ve got on, you know, to this sort of situation where Russia sees any kind of Ukrainian association with NATO, with the European Union, with anybody else, you know, as a kind of threat, has roots going back to that kind of period and the way that they saw what happened in Belgrade in 1999.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Can I press you on NATO for a moment? There’s, as you, of course, know, a strain of argument that NATO expansion was a mistake and guaranteed that Russia would become a permanent enemy in the post-Cold War. There’s a great piece by Mary Sarotte in this issue making a version of that argument.
I’m curious if you look back on NATO expansion and see it as a mistake.
HILL: Well, look, I was a much younger scholar then, and, you know, certainly, not in any particular position to prevail on this. But I will also point out the George Kennan thought it was a mistake. My thesis advisor, Richard Pipes, who was no friend of the Soviet Union and, you know, kind of, you know, was pretty hard and his—actually was also the national security senior, you know, director for Russia or the Soviet Union, and Ronald Reagan, you know, really wanted to have a much harder offensive-defensive push against the Soviet Union at the time, also thought it was a big mistake. And I had the occasion to talk to Professor Pipes about it on numerous occasions. I was doing my history Ph.D. with him. And his viewpoint was that, you know, we had, indeed, pushed very hard on—you know, on Russia, to—well, Soviet Union to kind of bring about, you know, the kind of collapse of the Soviet system.
But then, you know, we’re in that same kind of situation that we should have also been at the end of World War II to kind of put things on a different footing. And he was kind of pretty well aware that Russia, although it was a kind of a new Russia, would continue to see NATO as an alliance that was formed against Russia, as indeed they did and I saw that, you know, kind of myself in real time in 1999.
So, you know, I think there’s a pretty strong case made—that can be made that it was a mistake to enlarge NATO. There was even a discussion of, you know, various points about bringing Russia into NATO, not just in the NATO Russia Council but bring it in as a member, of course, with deep suspicion on the Russian part.
Well, I think that whole idea that Russia would just accept our institutions, our Cold War institutions like NATO, and to some degree, also, you know, the European Union that comes out of that same Cold War setting is something that it would just want to join without any kind of adaptation was, obviously, entirely misplaced.
And as I talk to many Germans who were kind of my age or older who had been emboldened over these discussions, they really kind of feel that we missed an opportunity to reframe—we could have kept and maybe adapted NATO in some forms—but to reframe that discussion to an opportunity to sort of sit down with Russia and work out a new European security, understanding, you know, back in that early part of the 1990s. And by the time we start to attempt that in a half-hearted fashion later on it’s kind of too late.
But, interestingly, what I think, you know, Russia really wants, and I’ll see if Andrea thinks the same thing, with all of this, you know, bellicose action against Ukraine is to force us to the table to actually get that settlement. But now, there’s so much else on it, on the table—the cyber, you know, there’s all of the other—the satellite missiles. You know, we’re seeing—I think they’re upping the ante here, and they want to have a comprehensive settlement that just, basically, gives them a sense of what their place is not just in European security but globally.
They want an acknowledgement that they are the other superpower still. It’s now China, the U.S., and Russia, but they want it and they want also very clearly a sphere of influence and an acceptance of a major role and a major say in Europe, and they’re kind of pretty much trying to get us to the table again by gunpoint.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Andrea, would you share that basic view?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: I do. I mean, I think I probably have a different view on the NATO expansion question and I think that’s, largely, for me, informed by talking with people like Dan Fried and Sandy Vershbow and other people who were working at the time on that issue.
I think there were a lot of issues other than NATO expansion itself that also played a role in feeding Russia’s perceptions. And, again, it gets back to that basic question of, like, you know, whether or not those countries have a right to choose their future orientation and their—after the end of the Cold War, there was a huge demand by those countries to want to move into NATO’s orbit. And if, you know—I mean, it very much is a similar discussion, I think, about Ukraine today is, you know, that no country should really have a veto over the trajectory and the desire by these countries in the orientation and the path that they choose.
So I think we could probably go down the NATO rabbit hole for a very long time. So I’ll come to just agree with Fiona—
KURTZ-PHELAN: We’ll avoid that.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: —this piece where we are today, which I absolutely think that Putin is trying to compel us to the table, I think it’s, in large part, I think, maybe why they’re shutting down the Normandy format. I think they want the United States to play a more significant role.
I think Putin, you know, he—when Putin looks at Europe now, you know, he doesn’t see the EU itself as a geopolitical actor. You know, obviously, he has different relationships with individual member states, but I do see this as really trying to compel the United States to the table so that he can be the peer on par with United States.
And I think, you know, part of this multifaceted pressure campaign, again, with Fiona agree that, like, he wants his sphere of influence, and I think by him pursuing this multifaceted campaign he’s trying to intimidate Europeans and scare them such that maybe he thinks that he can get them to take a more—a less confrontational approach and just say, please simmer this down. We don’t want a conflict in our backyard.
So I think he’s driving at that, trying to kind of get Europe to make those types of concessions on his sphere of influence because they might not want to incur the pain that he is slowly ratcheting up.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So I will choose from my long list of questions for both of you just one more—one more for each of you and then we will go to questions from those listening.
Fiona, let’s talk a bit about your time in the Trump administration. Obviously, we all spent a lot of those years trying to understand some of the, you know, sort of astonishing behavior that you had a much, much closer view of. Then there were years of sometimes overheated speculation about what was behind it.
As you watch this play out, what do you think was fundamentally behind the kind of Trump-Putin relationship or Trump’s adulation of Putin and to what extent did you see that reflected in policy? Or do you buy the notion that there was a real difference between what we saw from the president and what U.S. policy was at the time?
HILL: Well, I mean, there was a lot of continuity in U.S. policy beyond the president, honestly. I mean, actually, the Biden administration is doing an awful lot of things that were actually, you know, happening behind the scenes that weren’t hitting the headlines, you know, in terms of having—trying to have meetings with, you know, Russian counterparts to try to find some stabilization to push back on, you know, certain issues.
There, you know, was, however, another, you know, dimension that actually President Trump was not a big fan of NATO. So, you know, that’s kind of—(laughs)—that rabbit hole of NATO, you know, kept kind of coming up. Now, can I completely accept what Andrea said about, you know, the desire of other countries like Poland, you know, and others in particular to join there, too? And sometimes, when the Poles talked to Trump and he had, you know, personal affinity to Poland, he would go, oh, OK, you know, I kind of get it, you know, that, you know, the NATO was very necessary and that other countries have, you know, different views about Russia here.
But his fixation was on—Trump’s fixation was on Putin and the style of Putin, you know, who he was as a leader, that strong, powerful leadership. I mean, this is how Trump articulated it. He was less interested in Russia itself and, you know, he wasn’t really interested in getting into the depths or the history of Russia.
You know, remember, on many occasions, it was quite clear that, you know, kind of the—Ukraine was part of Russia because of language, you know, not really kind of understanding, you know, the differences and, you know, the fact that, obviously, Canada is not part of the United States just because they share a language or, you know, United States is no longer part of the United Kingdom, you know, for the same reason.
But he just wasn’t really interested in Russia, per se. He was more interested in the style of Putin, and he had business interests in Russia. He’d always been interested in building Trump Tower. That was kind of clear that he was sort of thinking, you know, about that. But the fixation was really about Putin, the style of Putin and, you know, the way that he governed Russia and his perceptions of how he did that.
The problems, of course, were the Russian intervention in the 2016 election, the perception that Russian intervention had a major role in, you know, basically, electing Trump. I take a difference with that in the book and in many things that I’ve said I don’t believe that was the case.
But, of course, that made it extraordinarily difficult for there to be a coherent policy towards Russia because there was always going to be that great suspicion about, you know, Trump and his relationship with Putin and with Russia, and a big, you know, basically, divide between what everybody else was trying to do and what Trump himself was wanting to do, because often, he would like to, basically, enrage, deliberately, the Congress, the press, you know, kind of popular opinion by, you know, kind of courting Putin and, you know, wanting to have one-on-one meetings with Putin.
So the biggest problem in our policy was lack of consistency and no coherence, certainly, at the top and mixed messaging at all times. But behind the scenes, there was an effort to do a lot of the things that we’re sort of seeing now and that, you know, was very similar to previous administrations going, you know, way back, because we’ve always been trying to find a way of managing this confrontation with Russia and putting it on a different track.
And the problem is, as I explained in the Foreign Affairs article, Russia still sees this struggle for Europe and we don’t. I mean, we kind of think it’s over. We still can’t understand why we’re getting trapped in this geopolitical perspective, although I think we’ve explained quite clearly in the last, you know, segment of discussion why Russia persists in this. It’s a persistent power, as Andrea describes. It’s persistent in its viewpoint and its views of Europe and what European security is about and this desire for a sphere of influence.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Andrea, I want to push you a bit on the China-Russia relationship and how we should see this from a U.S. vantage. There are a lot of people here and, certainly, people in the Biden administration who really look at Russia and see it as a sort of subset of the broader concerns about the U.S.-China relationship, which have a tendency to kind of subsume everything at the moment.
What do you see as the state of that China-Russia convergence and to what extent do you see a potential for U.S. policy to prevent them from getting closer, to prevent that from becoming a threat to us? And especially, do you see any argument for seeking some kind of rapprochement with Russia for the sake of preventing closer convergence with China?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Great. So, yeah, definitely something we’ve thought a lot about. I mean, I think when you look across every dimension of the Russia-China relationship that the evidence points to a deepening relationship.
So whether it’s kind of in the political, diplomatic, economic, technological, democracy, and human rights and the defense domain, the relationship is deepening. And, initially, it may have started as kind of a marriage of convenience. But I think, you know, the longer that this relationship persists the more it’s seeping down past the Putin and Xi level.
It was originally, I think, very much driven from the top down. But the more that these two sides are interacting with each other at increasingly lower levels of government, whether it’s technology exchanges, military exercises, it’s—I mean, I think that’s what relationships are built on, right, is they’re built—those interactions help overcome some of the historic mistrust, maybe perceptions of one another, that in the past have been barriers to their deepening relationship.
I think that they have a fairly meaningful and very significant relationship. I think it’s important for the United States, however, to be—have a nuanced discussion about this, right. We shouldn’t overstate it. There are real limits on what they’re willing to do. And so it’s really important that we prioritize the problem so that we’re not using the banner of Russia-China alignment in every region on every issue to throw resources and chase the problem.
You know, I think it’s not really a problem in the Mediterranean, for example, but in the Arctic or other areas we might want to pay more attention. The way that we’ve thought about it the implications are most significant in the defense domain and the democracy and human rights domain.
So militarily, I think we see Russia selling increasingly sophisticated weapon systems. It’s making it easier for the Chinese to keep the U.S. out of their backyard and that’s a problem, right.
And in the democracy and human rights domain, I think that’s one area where there are the fewest strains on their relationship. They are very much aligned, I think, in the way that they see the world, their desire to push back on democracy, which they both see as a thinly-veiled attempt by the United States to exert its influence.
They learn from one another. You can see Kremlin, the—Beijing adopting some of the Kremlin’s disinformation tactics. They work together to bolster illiberal leaders. They’re working to shape norms and standards in international institutions. I mean, so I think they’re—and it doesn’t necessarily—and not in every instance are they overtly coordinating these things.
But at a certain point, I don’t know that that matters, right, and it’s—they’re singing from the same sheet of music and so it amplifies what they’re doing. And I think that’s the way that we’ve thought about this relationship. I think their partnership is more than the sum of their parts.
So yes, Russia is a problem and China is a problem. But together, it’s greater than the sum of their parts and I think that’s what we have to be attuned to.
What to do about it is a really hard question. Yeah. You know, their alignment is for—you know, clearly, the U.S. posture has played a role in this, especially post-2014, where Russia really doesn’t see a future in the West. It has reinforced their need and their urgency to align with Beijing. As the U.S. confrontation with China heats up, too, it also makes China a more—makes Russia a more valuable partner for Beijing.
So it’s difficult to know what to do about it. They do have natural fissures and tensions in their relationship, and in some cases, like Central Asia, you see China increasing investment in places like Belarus and Ukraine, in Iran, so that one can hope that some of those natural fissures will kind of, you know, play out naturally.
I think we have to be—this notion that we can split them apart, I think, is a fool’s errand. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to pursue a policy with Russia that’s gradual, incremental, where we can engage with Russia we should, that there might be people around Putin who are questioning the value of this path that Putin has put them on.
So, in my mind, it’s a longer-term strategy. It’s gradual. It’s incremental. But I do think we need to be trying to shape Russia’s calculus so that they want some interaction and engagement with the U.S. rather than being wholeheartedly subservient to Beijing.
We don’t want a Russia that’s all in with China. That is, I think, what we need to prevent. The ground for doing that is narrow but we should try when we can. So I think that that’s kind of—you know, for Russia, they don’t want to be a junior partner either, right, and they’re—they have always wanted to be an unaligned pole in this multi-polar world. And so we just need to find a way, like, to facilitate their ability to do that. We want them to pursue a more independent foreign policy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fiona, let me give you thirty seconds just to add anything or dissent from anything in that answer.
HILL: Well, I think that was really comprehensive. I mean, Andrea has really covered all of the waterfront there. I mean, I do think that we should—you know, when we’re thinking about Ukraine, you know, for example, it may not be that China would necessarily welcome a Russian incursion into Ukraine.
When Russia annexed Crimea, for example, China gave cover to the Central Asian states and others that were being pressured by Russia to recognize the annexation and, you know, they didn’t, you know, for example. And during the incursion or the invasion of Georgia in 2008, of course, this took place during the Summer Olympics in Beijing and the Chinese were not happy by the split screen imaging of their opening ceremonies, on the other hand, you know, the Russians going down the rocky tunnel into Georgia with tanks, et cetera.
You know, the Winter Olympics are in China in February, early February—what, the 4th to the 20th, something like that. You know, I mean, maybe we can somehow prevail upon the Chinese to actually also suggest this as, you know, kind of a great thing to be doing because China is very interested in investment in Europe.
You know, the relationship with—between China and Russia, as Andrea is suggesting, is not in a vacuum. You know, there are tensions. Russia often wants this strategic partnership with China a lot more than it seems than maybe China does. There are lots of tensions with China and India in the Himalayas, of course, China and Japan and pretty much everybody else in, you know, the Pacific and various arenas.
And maybe that’s another way of putting pressure on Russia or even suggesting to Russia, look, do you really want to get that close to China, you know, given all of this complexity. So I think we have to be creative and also not just think about everything through a European channel when we’re, you know, thinking about Russia and China, but also kind of remembering there’s a different kind of dynamic out there in the Asia Pacific.
So, you know, we might have a bit of wiggle room here. We just—as Andrea is suggesting, we can’t really try to force or pull them apart. But we can, you know, perhaps get some more complexity into there that, you know, might make that relationship different from what it is right now.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We’ll go to questions. As a reminder, we are on the record. This is all on the record, including your questions. And please keep questions relatively crisp and direct so we can get to as many as possible.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will be from James Gilmore.
Q: Great. Thank you very much. I’m grateful for this, and I am somewhat of a Fiona Hill watcher. So I’m glad to be here. I actually read your book, Mr. Putin, and I’ve been watching what you say carefully. Not always with approval, by the way, but sometimes.
Listen, I just got back from nineteen months as United States ambassador to OSCE. So I met with the Russians and everybody else in the downtown in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna every week with the OSCE, and I’ve watched the situation deteriorate.
I’ve written on it and warned that after Afghanistan that we had better make up our minds right now what we’re going to do and, in the end, when I’m done in about two seconds I’m going to ask you two the question, what do you think we ought to be doing.
But I’m very concerned about this. I think that Afghanistan sent a message that we’re not going to do anything. I think that when I was there, Marshall Billingsley came over and was prepared to negotiate on tactical nuclear weapons as a condition for New START. President Biden went in and just gave it to him, which I thought was another dangerous signal.
Now, I just got back from Ukraine just a few months ago. I went over there with the American Foreign Policy Council. The Ukrainians are sharing not only their belief of their danger but also their determination to resist.
Here’s the bottom line question is this. You know, I’m very alarmed, frankly, and I’m very alarmed by this and I think it may be too late.
So the question is this. If they move into Ukraine now, what would your advice be to President Biden? Because if he does nothing, the way I think that it looks like that he’d almost be forced to do—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Ambassador Gilmore, let’s—can we let them answer so we can get some other questions in?
Q: Yeah. Yeah. OK. I’ll stop.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sorry to interrupt. Fiona, do you want to start?
Q: What do you think we ought to do if they move into Ukraine? What should we do, nothing or, frankly, resist?
HILL: Look, you know, I think, Ambassador Gilmore, you know, first of all, sir, also, thank you for your service. I remember meeting you before you went out to the OSCE and you really did an excellent job out there. And, you know, this, you know, issue as you, you know, lay it out, this is exactly what Putin is banking on.
He did, indeed, as, you know, you’re suggesting take messages, you know, kind of—or basically take on—draw conclusions from things that have happened, perhaps inadvertent messaging. Certainly, you know, kind of seeing the United States coming out of Afghanistan.
They did the same, of course, but after ten years rather than after twenty years. Now China has stepped in there as well and it becomes another arena where Russia has to factor China in. New START, I actually also share your agreement. I thought that was far too quick. I would have, certainly, done more to negotiate there. And, you know, the same signals that you are hearing on Ukraine we’re all extraordinary worried about.
I think, you know, unfortunately, that there’s limits to what the United States can do, unless it can really get everybody else to pull behind it, and what I mean by everybody else it’s not just the European partners—you know, like France and Germany—but it’s other major European countries that have a vested interest in this.
And it also is getting a larger international response. I mean, I think it’s probably fanciful to think that China, you know, would do something, you know, right now. But India, Japan, and others, you know, to basically speak up because, as you’re suggesting, there are so many other territorial and other disputes within the OSCE territory this is going to, you know, turn everything on its head. And our credibility in terms of saying no more, you know, forcible actions in Europe and annexations of territory, you know, we haven’t recognized this as the first annexation of territory since World War II. You know, this is opening a threshold.
We’ve already seen Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, and also didn’t do, you know, too much there either. And I think that, you know, just exactly as you’re saying here we have to have a response but it has to be a collective response.
And I’ll just give an example of my own frustrations with this. When we had the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in the U.K.—you may remember this, Ambassador Gilmore—we had an opportunity to really push back hard on the Russians. We wanted to expel intelligence operatives, as many as we actually possibly could, from all of the European countries, not just the United States, who were carrying out these kinds of acts. And we found that the Europeans—many of the Europeans did not come forward forcefully. We really missed an opportunity.
So, really, the onus is going to be on us to have a very firm response. The U.K. has actually said that it may send several hundred troops to Ukraine. So we have to show the Russians that we are determined to push back.
It can be militarily but it can be other means as well, and there’s a lot of things that we could be doing behind the scenes to take action that—you know, I hope we are, but I kind of suspect that we’re not at this particular moment, and that’s probably because of this complacency elsewhere. As you say, you’ve come back from Ukraine. You’ve come back from Europe. You’re very disturbed.
But as Andrea also said, she’s hearing from Europeans that they’re not seeing, you know, things in quite the same way. You know, and I can, you know, kind of circulate around all kinds of messaging that I’m sort of seeing out on the internet and in kind of public where people just do not believe and believe that this is U.S. propaganda that we’re actually suggesting that Russia might take action. But I think we can see all the kinds of signs that they are preparing to do so.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Andrea, your advice to the administration?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, I agree with a lot of what Fiona said. I think in addition to things like Afghanistan, I think, you know, one of the things that maybe created to this perception by Putin that he might be willing to do something more aggressive is that I think we have sent a signal, unfortunately, that we are so focused on China—I mean, this was also kind of the point of our piece—that we’re so focused on China that Washington doesn’t really have the appetite for a serious confrontation with Russia because we’d rather be spending our energy and our resources on the China challenge.
So, you know, I wonder if part of this is Putin calculating that, you know, the United States and Europe included isn’t really up to a fight. I would say in terms of what we do, I mean, I think the point is—that Fiona is making is if Russia has crossed the line into eastern Ukraine it’s a little bit too late, and I think what we really need to do is to be doing everything we can now to clearly communicate what those costs are to Putin.
The deterrence piece is key. And I think, in my opinion, I do get the sense that this administration has sprung into action to try to build the consensus within Europe. I’m hearing that NSC and State Department officials are, you know, either in Europe or on the phone trying. They’re sharing intelligence. That has, I think, really set off Washington in its seriousness in the way that they’re taking this certain situation.
So, I mean, I guess—you know, and where I started earlier in my remarks, right, we’ve sent Bill Burns to Moscow. Austin is going back to Ukraine. Secretary Blinken has made some very significant strong statements about support for Ukraine.
So we’re trying to build the consensus and, again, I think here, to go back to—just to reiterate what I said is that thinking about what NATO’s role in this should be, right now, the United States is by far the most significant provider of security assistance to Ukraine. Some other European countries are but it’s kind of thin, I would say. And so can we work through NATO to either use some of the common funds or other mechanisms where we could more seriously provide security assistance to Ukraine to enable them to fight back and defend their own sovereignty.
So I think all those things need to be on the table. I think we’re trying very hard to signal and I think we’re trying hard at this juncture to try to build, A, the European consensus to take the threat seriously and putting together what potential packages would be. We’re also hearing that there could be a potential Biden-Putin meeting again, you know, maybe even happening virtually by the end of the year.
I think that would be the opportunity for President Biden to clearly and directly communicate what the potential costs could be. That’s the way it works best with Putin. It has to be leader to leader and it needs to be, I think, behind the scenes so it would enable Putin, I think, to give him a little more wiggle room to adjust maybe what he was planning to do without looking weak among the constituents.
So I sense that the bureaucracy is really moving on this and taking it very seriously. Just the million dollar question is, you know, is it enough? There is no issue more important to Putin than Ukraine.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Susan Baird-Joshi, who asks: Climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the greatest challenge humanity faces. Is there an opportunity for Russia, China, and the U.S. to collaborate in a meaningful manner or for Russia and the U.S. to pressure China to reduce emissions?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Andrea, do you want to start on this one?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: I can. So this is an area where I haven’t historically paid a lot of attention but has really crept up my radar. I just got a new book from Thane Gustafson at Georgetown who wrote—just wrote a book called Klimat and so I’m trying to get smart on this issue.
Obviously, Russia is the number-four emitter so they have a significant stake in climate change. I think the challenge in working with Russia and China on this issue is that both countries are trying to kind of extract concessions from the United States in order for cooperation. That should be in their interest to do anyway.
So, for example, we’ve seen Gazprom already trying to suggest that they should have some sort of sanctions relief so that they can start implementing some of these climate adjustment adaptations because, obviously, those are costly to implement.
So, you know, on paper, of course, the answer is yes, we should be able to work with a country like Russia on climate change. It’s going to be terribly expensive for Russia to adapt and adjust to climate change. The melting permafrost is going to wreak havoc on their infrastructure. They’re having crazy—you know, horrible wildfire—big fires. So there are some really significant costs here to adjust to climate change.
Those, in theory, should incentivize and create some ground for potential engagement. But, again, it’s just with the Russians they always make it hard, and it is my hope that we can find a way to cooperate on it. But I think, you know, it’s going to take a little finagling.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fiona, do you want to add anything?
HILL: Yeah. Just a couple of things. I mean, look, if we go back to the question as Ambassador Gilmore posed it, it’s going to be very hard to work with Russia on anything if we end up with a conflict in Ukraine.
So any opportunity to engage with the Russians goes right out the window because, you know, we’re trying both at all times to be able to do two things, you know, deter Russian actions—malign activity, you know, directed against us and others—and find some kind of way of engaging in a way that’s not appeasing the Russians in some way but moves the relationship onto a different front.
There is some opportunity in climate change. But, frankly, if Russia’s, you know, goal at the moment is to go into Ukraine that kind of throws all of that off because that would, you know, kind of just put us back into another punitive round, not just of sanctions but of, you know, rupturing relationships completely and, you know, obviously, might even put us on a direct war footing. There you go. So, I mean, that becomes a big problem.
The other thing is, just as Andrea has laid out here, China and Russia are in two completely different places. China sees green technology as an opportunity. It’s not as invested in oil and gas because it didn’t really have the same resources Russia does. It has a lot of coal and, you know, that it would have to transition out of. It sees green technology as an opportunity. It’s part of its long-term planning. You know, kind of China 2045—you know, the big plan that they have, you know, going out decades, you know, kind of also envisages China dominating in this—in these sectors by, you know, 2025, you know. And so China’s at the forefront.
Russia is the land of brown technology, old technology. It’s invested heavily in, you know, new techniques for extracting oil and gas, but Russia has not really move forward on innovation and diversification. Its coal industry is now profitable after decades in which it wasn’t, and this is not the best time for it to be moving away from this. And so, you know, really, just as, you know, Andrea is saying, a lot of difficulty in adjustment and adaptation for Russia.
There’s some things we could work on like methane emissions cutting and tackling together. But, again, if we’re going to be in all-out conflict we’re going to have a lot more problems on our hands, and that’s our dilemma, too, because every time, you know, we want to engage with Russia we get accused of appeasing them.
I mean, I wasn’t quite sure what Ambassador Gilmore was referring to at the beginning. But, you know, whenever I try to sound positive, you know, about thinking about things we could do with Russia I get a whole host of, you know, emails saying, how dare I appease Russia, how dare I talk about engaging with Russia or anybody else, for that matter.
So we’re caught in a bind here, you know, by the structure of this confrontational relationship. Thinking of positive ways of moving it, you know, all get back to, well, what is Russia’s malign intent here?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to the next question, Sam.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Dan Runde.
Q: Thanks so much. This has been an excellent discussion. I’m in this business. I pay my mortgage on think tank work. This has been a really high-caliber discussion. I’m so pleased to be a part of it.
My question for the two of you is, given all that’s been discussed—and I understand the arguments about NATO expansion versus not NATO expansion—what do we—what can we offer to countries like Ukraine and Georgia who would like to join NATO?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s try to get a minute from both of you on this so we can get one more question in.
Fiona, why don’t you start?
HILL: Yeah. I mean, look, there’s lots of things that we can offer them. But this gets back to our problem now with Russia because Russia is, basically, saying that all of this isn’t acceptable.
You know, Russia made it very clear that a Membership Action Plan was unacceptable, even though that wasn’t membership back at Bucharest in 2008. They kind of moved on into Georgia, directly related to that. And every time, you know, we’d come up with a new formulation for Ukraine—you know, various visits, exercises—you know, the Russians, you know, basically, show that that is unacceptable to them. As Andrea said, they keep moving the red lines.
So, you know, there’s all kinds of creative approaches that we can take. But every time the word NATO is mentioned, you know, this goes back to those feelings and, you know, kind of perceptions and paranoia of 1999 that I mentioned. You know, Russia immediately starts to react.
Whether we could kind of come up with more creative approaches to security, I mean, of course, we could. But again, we’ve got this dilemma here that Russia, particularly Russia under Putin and the people who are around him, are fixated on the idea of making sure that no NATO in any kind of form for any of these countries. So it’s really put us in a bind here.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Agree. I mean, that—it’s just the fundamental question and people are really polarized on it. I think, you know, part of the problem, too, is just what is the appetite in Europe for moving forward on these things. I think there’s just no consensus at this point. You know, the door will remain open. No one wants to close the door. I don’t think that’s even being discussed.
But at the same time, I just don’t think that there’s appetite within NATO itself for any more significant moves. I mean, I think we could talk about things like for Georgia or for Ukraine to make them a major non-NATO ally status. I think sometimes that may be more symbolic than actually enhancing capabilities.
In my transatlantic community people are also talking about whether or not we would want to create this deterrence fund that I was referring to before that would kind of use either NATO common funds or have the participation of more NATO member states contributing to build Ukraine’s military capability.
So those are some ideas. Bu, I mean, it’s just a really difficult question and it’s difficult to find consensus on it, and I think that’s why we kind of continue to be stuck.
HILL: Well, one just quick point on this. It’s going to be very interesting to watch how Russia reacts to Turkey in the NATO context—
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Yeah, because the drones have been—
HILL: Yeah, with the drones This is very significant and extremely interesting. So I would just kind of put that out as a marker for people. We don’t have to get into it now. But watch the drones and watch Turkey and how Turkey and Russia interact, because Turkey’s always been a bit reluctant to have NATO in the Black Sea. And at one point, you know, I started to wonder if Turkey was looking for a condominium with Russia in the Black Sea. But now Turkey is actually stepping up into its old historic geographic neighborhood here, exerting its own interests in Ukraine, which go back a long way, you know, taking once Crimea under its suzerainty if not its sovereignty, and Turkey is actually seeing an opportunity here for it to take on Russia in a different domain. So, you know, I think watch that space, too.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. Watch the drones is a good tagline for this hour.
Sam, let’s get one more quick question in.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Jay Markowitz, who asks: How do Russia actions in—how do Russian actions in Ukraine inform and influence what China will do in Taiwan, and how does—should Taiwan influence the U.S. response to conflict in Crimea?
KURTZ-PHELAN: A huge question. Let’s do forty-five seconds from each of you trying to shed some light.
Andrea, why don’t you start?
KENDALL-TAYLOR: So I think what’s clear is that these two theaters are now linked and we have to think very carefully about how what we do in Ukraine, how the way that that sends signals to Xi that might shape his calculus for his appetite for more aggression in the Indo-Pacific.
So I think, just to be short, the two theaters are linked and so we can’t kind of take one in isolation from the other anymore.
HILL: And that’s, you know, kind of why I was suggesting earlier that we want might want to engage with countries like India and Japan because, you know, Turkey has got its own interests in Ukraine and the Black Sea. Turkey’s taking, you know, kind of steps that are not necessarily coordinated with NATO even though it’s a NATO member. India and China has an exchange in the Himalayas over a territorial dispute and there have been—servicemen were killed on either side. That’s just, you know, a very short time ago.
You know, the Indians should not be interested in Russia moving into Ukraine because, again, as Andrea is saying, this could set the table for not just Taiwan but for other territorial disputes that China has—Senkaku, Spratlys, Scarborough Shoals. China has shown, of course, that Taiwan is paramount in its interest but all these places it’s claiming, you know, is in its interest as well.
And so for Japan, that has a complex set of relationships with Russia, you know, as well as China, but also interests in Ukraine and the Black Sea and elsewhere, you know, there’s also some leverage there.
So, you know, if I were, you know, trying to think about this now I’d try to think about other countries that we could bring in to put pressure on Russia, you know, through their own relationships because of their own concerns about territorial disputes.
Japan, of course, has a territorial dispute still with Russia but China is much more of an existential threat to Japan at this point than Russia is. So, I mean, there’s other ways of getting at this because, as Andrea said, these things are linked.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: And the interesting thing—the India piece is really interesting and I think that is a really important kind of fissure in their relationship. So what, you know, recommendations we’ve made in the past, too, would be to allow Russia to sell weapons to India because India needs those in order to deter Chinese aggression. So those are potential fissures and, in some cases, we just need to allow the natural tensions in their relationship to really play out.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Everyone who has not read the fantastic pieces by Fiona and Andrea in the new issue should go and do that. Go out and buy Fiona’s wonderful book, which covers this and much more.
Andrea, Fiona, thank you so much for the essays and for joining us today. It’s been great to have you.
KENDALL-TAYLOR: Thank you.
HILL: So much.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thanks, all. Take care.