Biden vs Putin

Alan Zendell, February 22, 2022

Remember the testimony during the Senate trial of Trump’s first impeachment? If you watched much of it, you were impressed with Fiona Hill, who served as Trump’s chief Russia expert, which is not to say he paid any attention to her advice or expertise. Ms. Hill may be the most qualified person among the western alliance to address both Russia’s cultural history and Vladimir Putin’s thought process. Educated in the UK, she served as Chief of Staff to the British Prime Minister before becoming an American citizen and advising American presidents, beginning with a position on George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

While Ms. Hill does not work for the Biden administration, (she is a fellow at the Brookings Institution,) the President is seeking her counsel concerning the Russia-Ukraine crisis. By way of context, Ms. Hill is no idealogue. Brookings is well known as non-partisan and centrist, and Hill has advised governments at both ends of the political spectrum. That makes her remarks contrasting Biden’s approach to Russia with Trump’s most enlightening.

In an interview with CNN’s John Harwood, she said Trump’s approach to foreign policy ”was like nothing Hill or her national security colleagues had ever seen.” She went on to say, “There’s no Team America for Trump…not once did I see him do anything to put America first. Not once. Not for a single second,” claiming Trump treated NATO like a “protection racket.” In fact, historian Heather Richardson reported today that Russian state television said the Trump administration gave Putin a four-year reprieve from pushback from the west.

By contrast, she sees Biden’s strong approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin already paying dividends. “It might have deterred a full-scale invasion. Now (Putin) is basically recalibrating, recalculating.” Hill won’t go so far as to predict that Biden will convince Putin to back off, but gives him enormous credit for re-vitalizing NATO and holding the western alliance together. The final outcome, she says, will depend on whether he can keep it together indefinitely as the sanctions imposed by the US, UK, France, and Germany kick in.

The sanctions announced today are intended to cripple Russia’s ability to obtain financing from western countries, isolate the breakaway parts of Ukraine that Putin recognized as part of Russia, and prevent the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from coming online, which would cost Russia $15 billion in annual revenue. But there will be economic pain on our side as well, as we will see sharp increases in energy prices.

There’s been an unprecedented flurry of diplomatic activity to head off a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the possibility of a dangerous broader war involving Europe. Such a conflict would trigger the mutual defense clause of the NATO Charter, which means the United States would be obligated to defend any NATO state that came under attack. It’s a dangerous powder keg that must be handled with delicate precision, and in many ways is reminiscent of two previous situations. One is Europe’s failure to unite to prevent the Fascist regimes in Italy and Germany from seizing territory from their sovereign neighbors. Standing tough might not have averted World War 2, but it wouldn’t have looked like an open invitation to Hitler and Mussolini to take whatever they wanted…or like the one Trump gave Putin during four years of worshipping him.

The more relevant parallel is the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which a poorly prepared Kennedy administration went head-to-head with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Much has been written since then about how Kennedy’s foreign policy team handled the crisis, a lot of it negative, which is why the involvement of people like Fiona Hill matters so much now. Kennedy had filled his cabinet with what the media called the Harvard Elite, academically brilliant, but lacking an adequate understanding of the Russian mentality.

I was studying Russian at the time at Columbia, and my professor provided insights that in retrospect seem right on. Russian is subtly different from either the Latin or Germanic languages from which English evolved, and that difference can be critical in diplomacy. It’s virtually impossible to communicate clearly with an adversary if you are not fluent in its language, and many historians believe that Kennedy’s diplomacy was hopelessly outmatched. It’s possible that nuclear war was averted only by the wise statesmanship of Mr. Khrushchev. Some people attributed the disconnect to the fact that Russian does not use tenses as we understand them in English. Rather it uses “aspects” which involve entirely different conceptions of past, present, and future.

It’s essential that President Biden rely on advisers like Ms. Hill, who is both fluent in Russian and has decades of experience studying the Russian mindset. We can’t predict yet how successful Mr. Biden will be, but we should all be grateful that it is he at the helm instead of his predecessor.

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