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Exploring the issues affecting US-Russia relations and the future of diplomacy

There was a lot at stake and a lot discussed Wednesday during President Joe Biden's meeting with Russia's president Vladimir Putin. Nick Schifrin explores the outcome of their summit with Fiona Hill. Hill served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council during the Trump administration, and is the co-author of "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we turn now to Nick Schifrin, who explores what is at stake with a woman who was once at the center of U.S. and Russia relations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, there was a lot at stake and a lot discussed today.

    And so we turn to Fiona Hill. She served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration. She is the co-author of "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin" and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    Fiona Hill, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    The two sides, as Yamiche was just discussing, have agreed to strategic stability talks on multiple topics and to send the ambassadors back to each other's capitals.

    Is that a sign that the relationship, in President Biden's words, can become more predictable?

  • Fiona Hill, Former National Security Council Official:

    Well, it's a good sign. It's at least a step forward, not a step backwards, which could have happened at the summit.

    What will make it more predictable is if we have more meetings at different levels of the government. We have already had Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, meeting with counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev.

    Behind the scenes, there's been exchanges between the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff equivalent, General Milley and General Gerasimov. I think General Gerasimov actually showed up today at the bilateral meeting.

    And so, if we have more of those kinds of meetings — we have had Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, sitting in with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. If they have their own bilateral, and we have meetings like this at that kind of level, then there will be a little bit more predictability, at least in the sense of our two sides of meeting and they're trying to move things slightly forward.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, some of those topics to be discussed in the meetings that were agreed to today include cyber.

    President Biden specifically handed over a list of 16 critical infrastructure aspects that he said should be — quote — "off the table" and promised cyber responses if Russia attacked them.

    Could that discussion prevent future cyberattacks?

  • Fiona Hill:

    It might not prevent them, because there is always the risk that these will be carried out by unofficial non-state actors, these kinds of attacks. We have already seen that with attack on the gas pipeline here in the Northeast region.

    I mean, many of the viewers will probably remember having to queue up for gas a few weeks ago. These were all ransomware attacks by non-state actors. There has to be some sort of specificity in this, because the problem is that, once you have an official agreement at the top level, and the state actors are not carrying this out, it does, unfortunately, leave room for maneuver by others.

    And Vladimir Putin is always telling us, the Russian state didn't do this. So, it has to also be made clear that we will be taking a very hard look at non-state actors operating from Russia who carry out these kinds of attacks. And I think that's part of the discussion as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the other aspects that they will talk about, of course, in these so-called strategic stability talks is the future of arms control.

    But while the U.S. wants to limit Russia's new nuclear-propelled weapons and tactical nukes, Russia is focused on something else, the U.S. conventional weapons and missile defense. Can that difference in what the two sides mean by strategic stability be bridged?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Yes, it can.

    I mean, if there's a whole series of talks about this, that requires setting up a very professional series of talks with people at the right levels from the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense and various experts who are attached to those entities and can talk all the way — this all the way through.

    It doesn't mean, of course, though, that there might necessitate some kinds of different agreements moving forward, because a lot of our agreements have been focused on the nuclear aspect of this. But it is very much the case, as you have just suggested, that Russia is extraordinarily worried about our precision-strike long-range conventional weapons.

    So it gives us something to talk about. We have other concerns on the Russian front as well. But this will be something that will take some time to work out. And it won't be able to be covered by existing treaty arrangements.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The two sides discussed Americans that the administration says are wrongfully detained inside of Russia.

    They are former Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. And President Putin said there could be progress. But the Russians in the past have suggested a prisoner swap, perhaps for Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a U.S. court of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine, and the global arms dealer Viktor Bout convicted in a U.S. court of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens.

    Should the U.S. consider a prisoner swap to release Reed and Whelan?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, you can see a massive asymmetry here already in these two sets of prisoners.

    First of all, Trevor Reed was initially arrested after a kind of an incident where he had clearly been induced to engage in heavy drinking. Some sort of drunken disorderly doesn't really kind of stack up against someone who's been convicted for global arms trading and for, frankly, as a pilot of a plane with large-scale drug smuggling.

    And Paul Whelan seems to have also been set up for a set of charges on espionage, none of which, of course, also rise to the same level.

    So there's going to have to be a lot of things discussed here. So I would not want to prejudge this, because, again, of this asymmetry. But I think that this is a critical issue, because we can't have our two American citizens who have been sitting in Russian penal colonies and Russian jails for some considerable period of time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Beyond the summit, we are three months ahead of parliamentary elections in Russia. And the Kremlin has gone much further than it has in the past at cracking down on opposition and silencing all criticism.

    Is there anything the U.S. can do to change that?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, probably not, because I think this is a sign here of a great deal of disquiet in the Russian system.

    On the one hand, Putin may look incredibly confident. He's always kind of fairly offhand about these things. During his press conference, he was asked, what does he have to fear, and he said, there's no fear in this whatsoever. But certainly coming down so heavily against opposition like Alexei Navalny and his organization suggests something else.

    He, of course, immediately deflected away from this when he was posed this question and started talking about January 6 incidents here in the United States and talked about U.S. heavy-handed response to protesters, for example. But there really is no comparison here.

    I think the thing for viewers to bear in mind, though, is that Russia is going through an electoral sequence that mirrors ours. So, in 2022, you have Russian parliamentary elections at the same time we have our congressional midterms.

    The Russian government is worried that the United Russia, the ruling party, is not going to perform well. And Putin himself has to put himself up for reelection again in 2024. He can't just say, I'm saying until 2036. He's amended the Constitution, but he actually still has to put himself up for reelection.

    So we can see that they're hobbling the competition.

    Alexei Navalny is somebody who was a serious opposition figure who wanted to be president, and he has an actual movement and a party that's been forming around him.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And you were the NSC staff director for Russia during the 2018 summit between Presidents Trump and Putin.

    Is perhaps one of the main differences today, compared to 2018, the performance of the U.S. president?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Absolutely.

    And I think that he was very much on message. He was basically getting his point across why he had that meeting. If he'd been alongside of Vladimir Putin and asked the same questions, there would have been a lot of kind of performance added into this. There would have been a lot more scrutiny about how he's responding visibly, how Putin was responding.

    There'd been a lot of potential for Putin to say something to upset the applecart in the middle of all of this. Putin had his say. Our president had his say. I think that we can all basically wipe the sweat off our brow and say, well, we got through that one.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Fiona Hill, thank you very much.

  • Fiona Hill:

    Thanks, Nick.

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