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Former Russia Adviser On What 2018 Trump-Putin Summit Signaled For Biden-Putin Summit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Remember the last U.S.-Russia summit?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: Helsinki - three years ago, when then-President Trump sided with Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies. Well, tomorrow it is President Biden's turn to face Putin across the table here in Geneva. For a glimpse of what that encounter with Putin might be like, we're going to bring in someone who's been there.

FIONA HILL: Well, it's not the first time we've met or the first time we've been at a table together. I've been captured on other occasions sitting near him, so, you know, we are fairly familiar with each other.

KELLY: That is Fiona Hill. She was in Helsinki as Trump's top Russia adviser at the White House. The Biden team consulted her before this summit, too. When I checked in with her today, I asked about something she'd said in a different interview when asked for her thoughts on Helsinki.

Did you really consider faking a medical emergency to interrupt and derail that press conference?

HILL: I'm afraid I did.

KELLY: You considered letting out a scream and falling back into the media behind you.

HILL: Falling backwards - that's right. I'd heard a great deal of foreboding about this press conference. In any case, I didn't think it was a good idea to have one. And it proved to be an even worse than terrible idea. It was so mortifying listening to it. I just thought, how could I make it out?

KELLY: I mean, can you be specific about when you say it was so mortifying? As you were in the room and the press conference was unfolding, what was going through your head?

HILL: Well, unfortunately, it unraveled exactly as feared, which was it degenerated into a whole back-and-forth about what had happened in 2016 with the Russian interference, which is obviously logical. And it had less to do with what had actually happened at the meeting and more to do with all of the drama around the Putin-Trump relationship and, you know, all the aftereffects of the Russian intervention in 2016 and all of the baggage that, frankly, President Biden still has to deal with.

KELLY: So that was 2018. I mentioned that the Biden team consulted you before this summit. Can you share what kind of help they were looking for or what you were able to tell them?

HILL: You know, in my observations so far, the people in the Biden administration are behaving in a way that you would expect them to and to want them to do to seek input from others who've previously done these kinds of meetings, to think very carefully about how they're going to pass on messages and to relay what happened there and, you know, basically, to try to make this as normal as possible under the extenuating circumstances. And extenuating circumstances, of course, are that we're in a pretty heated confrontation with Russia. And this is to try to regularize a set of meetings and a diplomatic context that you would be able to take forward once the two presidents have met.

KELLY: Although, it does sound as though you would not be surprised at all if President Putin showed up with a few tricks on his sleeve, was trying to throw President Biden off his guard. What does that mean for President Biden's approach, how he should carry himself into these meetings?

HILL: Well, I think I'd be surprised, let's just say, if he doesn't. So maybe that's the way of putting it better than, you know, saying surprised if he did. And Putin is the master of the unexpected. And he would actually surprise us if he didn't do this, and that would be very interesting to pass - why not? He wants to have a relationship that is essentially a managed confrontation right now with the United States because Putin is mobilizing at home ahead of his own election season. And he's trying to explain to the Russian people why he, Vladimir Putin, should stay in power indefinitely. And it's because there's an external adversary who is up. That's the United States in their depiction. So if we kind of disappeared from the scene and all was normal and, you know, we were having a nonconfrontational relationship, it would be very difficult to justify the mobilization that requires keeping people like Alexei Navalny in jail and generally having a rather militarized posture in the international arena.

KELLY: I was going to ask, what is your read on - it seems that cyberattacks not only aren't stopping but are escalating. We're looking at the military presence that is - remains on the eastern border of Ukraine. Is it coincidence that that is all happening in the runup to this summit?

HILL: No, not at all because Putin wants to be seen as a - the leader of a major global power, superpower, that he's sitting down with his equivalent, being able to thrash out a kind of a truce or a peace agreement that would have a rules of the road on issues like cyber, nuclear security, you know, what we all call strategic stability, how we regularize this relationship. And again, it's important not just for home but also for abroad because what's the major player on the scene right now that we're all concerned about? It's actually China. And Russia has presented itself as a strategic partner of China. And by sparring with the United States, by being seen to be equal to the United States, Russia is showing that it's a major player as well that China has to take seriously. So there's a lot going on here for Putin.

KELLY: What of substance do you expect these talks to produce?

HILL: I don't imagine that there will be a lot of substance. And actually, what's interesting in all of this is the throughline from Helsinki seems to be continuing in terms of what is likely to happen and what the Russians really want. They want to have strategic stability talks, meaning talks about the future of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. The Russians also want clearly to have a cyber agreement in some fashion. That's obvious. I mean, they're, you know, basically cyberhacking their way to the negotiating table to make sure that we understand that they're a cyber force to be reckoned with. They could do something on our command and control systems. And they certainly, you know, can hire plenty of proxies, ransomware, hackers and criminals for hire.

And they also want to have regular meetings at different levels of the U.S. government - State Department, Defense Department, chairmans of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Councils. They want to be back in the business of having diplomacy. And frankly, we do, too, as a way of trying to manage this relationship.

KELLY: Last question - it's often noted that Vladimir Putin is a former intelligence officer, KGB. Did you get the sense that that background figures into his negotiating style?

HILL: Absolutely. He's always looking for everybody's vulnerability, how he can manipulate and blackmail you. His whole point is, how can he work with people, which means that, you know, he's ruthless, aggressive, full of dirty tricks and just, you know, basically looking into how he can take advantage of every situation.

So he's applied everything that he's done as a intelligence operative into his position as a political leader. And we have to remember, Putin isn't under the same scrutiny of the media. Putin doesn't have to be accountable in the same way that our president does. So he has, in a way, free reign to do whatever the heck he likes and to make as much mischief as possible. So our team America, our president, no matter who it is, is hobbled right from the very beginning. It's like stepping into a boxing match where your opponent's got everything already, and someone's loosened your gloves, someone's taken away your stool, your mouthguard, and your whole team are not rooting for you.

KELLY: Fiona Hill - she was senior Russia adviser on the National Security Council under President Trump. She is now back at the Brookings Institution.

Fiona Hill, thank you.

HILL: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.