Russian election interference is back in the news with recent U.S. intelligence reports detailing propaganda efforts during the 2020 presidential race. So, it was timely that the Intelligence Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center engaged Dr. Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, to discuss how the Biden administration can move forward with Russian relations. Hill, formerly an associate director at the Belfer Center’s Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, was welcomed by Paul Kolbe, director of the Intelligence Project. While Hill found the recent intelligence reports less titillating than the media outlets portrayed, she believes they serve as a reminder of how Russia enjoys creating chaos.  

Hill exposed the difficulties the Biden administration faces when dealing with a volatile adversary who still holds a grudge about imposed sanctions, NATO expansion, and U.S. support for democratic movements in the former Soviet Union. But, she says, the real problem is that Russia sees the relationship differently: “For Russia, there is a perpetual sense of loss. First there was the defeat during WWI when they did lose a physical war against world powers. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of the other republics seemed to gain something as independent states. In Russia, there is the perception of not having gained anything.” 

In addition to sorting through these old issues, there are new demands. “It's not just the conventional standoff between Russia and the United States anymore,” Hill says. “We’re now in contention in cyberspace.” For example, American social media platforms enable Russia to interfere and create chaos. “What’s changed are the tools,” Hill says, “what hasn’t changed, very simply, is really the kind of pattern of these relationships and the fact that we still find ourselves in confrontation with Russia like we did with the Soviet Union.”

Dr. Fiona Hill on a video call.

“The goal is to professionalize and stabilize a relationship, find points of contact, get back to diplomacy, but have realistic, very low-bar expectations.”

Dr. Fiona Hill

But Hill is clear that the chaos created in our recent elections only amplifies issues of our own making. The Russians aren’t inventing these divisions, she argues: “They’re just riding the wave of dissonance and dissent and the fractiousness in U.S. politics.” For Hill, “The first step is to get our own house in order. We’ve proven ourselves to be extraordinarily vulnerable to outside manipulation.” This includes the work the new administration is doing to reach across the aisle to tackle socioeconomic and political problems, as well as regulation of social media platforms to counter disinformation. 

Hill also advocates using diplomatic channels with Russia. “We want to be very clear about what we’re concerned about and what we won't tolerate and what action we will take if something is done,” Hill says. At the same time, she cautions against sanctions: “The use of sanctions is uppermost in everyone’s mind all the time, because it's a kind of a tool that we know how to use, and it plays to our strength in terms of the role of the dollar as the global reserve currency.” But it falls short in a number ways. “Europeans don't like the weaponization of the dollar,” Hill says, “because unless the sanctions are done in close coordination with Europe, they can have a lot of collateral damage.” And in doing so, they cause a lot of resentments particularly in the European Union.

With Russia on the EU council meeting agenda next week, Hill suggests the meeting open with the litany of things that the Russians have done to—and in—other countries: “They should set up a task force at the EU level to get some kind of baseline response to dealing with that kind of activity.” 

Banner image: Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, arrives for the House Select Intelligence Committee hearing. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

"The Problem with Russia: A Conversation with Dr. Fiona Hill"

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