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Ex-Trump adviser says Putin living in a ‘bubble,’ out of fresh ideas to move Russia forward

Fiona Hill, Russia adviser in the National Security Council until July 2019 (Kuhlmann /MSC/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A former senior foreign policy adviser to President Donald Trump said U.S. policy toward Russia continues to be hamstrung by partisan politics but that Moscow also needs to change its behavior for bilateral relations to improve.

Fiona Hill, who served as the top Russia adviser in the National Security Council until July 2019 and authored a book on President Vladimir Putin, also said the Kremlin leader may be slowly losing touch with his population after more than 20 years in power.

In an video discussion hosted by the Wilson Center think tank in Washington on July 29, Hill lamented that Russia remains the subject of “endless” conspiracy theories and congressional hearings over its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which makes it tough for the administration to pursue progress on key bilateral issues.

“We can’t keep living in this frame of 2016 forever,” said Hill, who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “National security issues should not be partisan, they should not be politicized because they affect all of us, and the risks of something getting out of control are far too high.”

Hill, however, said Russia continues to view the relationship with the United States as a geopolitical competition and carries out “tactical operations” that undermine bilateral relations.

Russia has supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his nation’s nine-year civil war, and helped Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar in his fight for control of the North African country. The conflicts at times have resembled proxy wars among world powers.

“The more that we are in this tactical mud wrestling fight with Russia, the less we can move forward on addressing big issues” like nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, and the coronavirus, she said.

Hill said the United States has been trying to “stabilize and professionalize” the relationship with Russia in recent years through meetings between foreign policy, defense, and intelligence officials.

If Russia wants to restore its seat at the table with global powers, it needs to stop “kicking the hell out of everybody” under the table, she said.

The Russia analyst said she thinks that Putin has become complacent after two decades in power and questioned whether he can adapt to the changes taking place inside the country.

“He is in something of a bubble. I don’t want to say that he has lost his edge, but I do think he has kind of lost a little bit of the feel of what is going on domestically, and that is inevitable,” she said.

She called changes to the Russian Constitution that elevated the primacy of the Russian language and Orthodox religion as “very dangerous.”

Russians approved the changes — which also included an amendment that allows Putin to potentially rule until 2036 — in a June vote that was marred by irregularities.

Hill said that Putin had been cautious earlier in his political career to avoid issues that might spark ethnic or religious divisions.

“He is obviously fairly confident that he can pander right now to this larger [ethnic Russian] base, and I worry about this. I worry that is a failure to see how things have evolved,” she said.

Putin seems to be out of “fresh ideas” to move Russia forward this decade, running the risk that his “brand” becomes stale, she said.

The Kremlin’s current foreign policy is not the answer to that problem, she said.

“[Putin] keeps saying he is going to do something for the country, but mud wrestling with the United States from here to perpetuity isn’t really doing something for the country,” she said.

Hill said Putin could seek to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election to sow discord if he thinks he will derive greater benefits from doing so.

High voter turnout and more “civil discourse” between Democrats and Republicans would reduce the impact of any Russian interference, she said.