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Now that Joe Biden’s first face-to-face encounter with Russian leader Vladimir Putin since becoming president of the United States is in the history books, the best way to determine whether it was all for show, or if it will lead to substantive diplomatic breakthroughs, will all come down to what happens next, according to a prominent former top official with the White House National Security Council (NSC).
And make no mistake, said Fiona Hill: Putin needs to have something to show for his meeting last week in Geneva, Switzerland, with Biden.
Biden held his highly anticipated sit-down with the Russian leader at the very end of his first overseas trip as president, in which he also visited with several world leaders and attended a conference of NATO leaders
“We’ll have to see if there are additional meetings at high level. We heard as we cut out of the summit, there will be plans for having strategic stability talks, talks about how we’re going to manage our respective nuclear arsenals,” Hill said of the Putin meeting. “The Russians have a lot of new novel weapons. The Russians themselves are extraordinarily concerned about some of our long-range precisional strike weapons. The old treaties we’ve had in the past, the [Intermediate Forces] treaty we’ve pulled out of, the New START treaty. We’ve extended it for a short period. That has to be renegotiated.
“The whole nuclear world is much more complex than it was before because we’ve got China as an increasingly worrying nuclear power. The main problem is in cyber, as you were alluding to,” added Hill, who served as director for Europe and Russia at the NSC during the Trump administration and rose to prominence as a witness during Donald Trump’s first impeachment. “That’s where we’ll have to sit down and have serious cyber talks, not just at the working level, but something that takes it up to try to reach some kind of agreement.”
But it’s crucial for Putin’s standing in the world that he gets something tangible from the Biden meeting, Hill said.
“That is a very important win for Putin. But it’s not a win if nothing happens out of it. That’s an episodic event. He can’t take that to the bank for a long time and cash it in. He’s got to present himself at home as a great statesman because he has to subject himself to the election. We keep hearing he’s going to stay until 2036. But he’s got to show he’s still popular,” she said. “In the meantime, coming up there are parliamentary elections for the Russian Duma. Basically the ruling party uniting Russia has to subject itself for re-election and they’re not looking very popular.
“On the back of that, Putin has a big problem with COVID and the pandemic. He’s got a lot of problems on the domestic front. He’s only got about 10 percent of the population vaccinated. He spent all this time being an anti-vaxer, talking down on the vaccines including Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, Moderna. Now Russians don’t want to have shots in their arms either,” Hill added. “Putin has to figure out how to navigate things. He can’t live off an episodic meeting with the United States president in Geneva for a long time. He’s got to show something out of it.
“The problem with the previous administration, with President Trump for Vladimir Putin, fantastic meetings from his perspective, able to push all our political buttons, make fun of us, always have sit-downs or telephone calls, but he never got any kind of agreements,” Hill said. “That wasn’t really all that worthwhile. He has to get something out of this, as well, something more than the meeting in Geneva.”
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