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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.”

Go deeper

Sep 22, 2021 - World

Scoop: Russia seeks trilateral talks with U.S. and Israel on Syria

Secretaries Blinken (left) and Lavrov. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry\TASS via Getty

Russia has asked Israel to encourage the U.S. to agree to hold high-level trilateral talks on Syria, two senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: Israel's main focus in Syria is getting Iran out, and that would likely only be possible through U.S.-Russian cooperation. 

Updated Sep 21, 2021 - World

Russia to blame for Litvinenko's killing, European court rules

The grave of Alexander Litvinenko at Highgate Cemetery in London. Photo: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday that Russia "was responsible for the assassination of Aleksandr Litvinenko" in London.

Why it matters: Former KGB officer Litvinenko, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died in 2006 after being poisoned in London with Polonium 210, a rare radioactive isotope. Russia has always denied any involvement in his death.

Biden claims "era of relentless war" is over in first UN speech

Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time since taking office, President Biden laid out his vision for how the U.S. will confront what he characterized as a "decisive" next decade in human history.

Why it matters: In the face of unprecedented global challenges — the pandemic, climate change, rising authoritarianism — Biden made a case for multilateralism, democratic values, the rule of law and empathy for common struggles.