Jun 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside Biden's Putin prep

Photo illustration of President Biden sitting on a stack of three books that make up the colors of the Russian flag.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Leon Neal (WPA Pool)/Getty Images

President Biden assembled a group of outside Russia experts — including former Trump officials — to brief him for his summit with President Vladimir Putin, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: The previously unreported session demonstrates the extent to which Biden wants to be well prepared, drawing on the experience of officials with first-hand knowledge of the onetime KGB colonel’s tactics and tricks.

  • The group urged Biden not to hold a joint press conference with Putin or afford him any opportunity to try to upstage the private talks with new public proposals.
  • After his first formal summit with Putin, in Helsinki in 2018, President Trump questioned his own intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election: "I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be."
  • Among the group of Biden briefers was Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official who once said she considered feigning a medical emergency to cut short that news conference with Putin.

In Brussels on Monday, Biden previewed his approach for the meeting, scheduled for Wednesday in Geneva.

  • He said Putin is "bright, he's tough and I have found that he is a, as they say when we used to play ball, a worthy adversary."
  • The president helped prepare by sitting down with his briefers — at least some of them virtually — before departing for the G7 summit.

Go deeper: During the briefing, the assembled experts broadly agreed on the approach Biden should adopt: blunt talk leaving no doubt for Putin on where Biden stands, from hacking to human rights.

  • There were roughly a dozen participants, including two of President Obama’s former Russian ambassadors: Michael McFaul and John Tefft.
  • Other participants included Hill, who not only was present for Trump's Helsinki meeting but later testified during his impeachment trial.
  • Rose Gottemoeller, an arms control expert now at Stanford University who served as deputy secretary general of NATO under Obama, and Eric Green, a career foreign service officer who is the NSC’s senior director for Russia, also participated.

Between the lines: Even though the group represented a range of views about how to handle Putin, there weren’t outright disagreements on the approach.

  • Some participants favored looking for more opportunities to engage with Russia, from student exchanges to restoring diplomatic and consular positions.
  • Others argued for an approach conveying a get-tough message at every opportunity.

What they are saying: "Tough rhetoric is great," said Tim Morrison, who replaced Hill on Trump's NSC but wasn't invited to the briefing.

  • "But tough rhetoric without action or consequence is actually kind of dangerous because Beijing and Tehran are also watching,” said Morrison, now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
  • “The object of the meeting is to lower the temperature,” said Samuel Charap, a former Obama State Department official now at the Rand Corporation. “You don’t want to force them to say things that will make headlines or put distance between them.”
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