Kerry Attempts to Restore Frosty Relations with Russia

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC's World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. It's not like it's a repeat of the Cold War, but the atmosphere between Russia and the US lately has been chilly. Today an effort to warm things up, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian president Vladimir Putin. They're trying to smooth out the wrinkles in the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Fiona Hill is the director of the center on United States and Europe and a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings institution. So the big wrinkle that needs ironing out is the US trying to get Russia to increase pressure on the regime in Syria? Fiona, so explain the calculus for us. What does Kerry want from Russia and Syria, and what should he realistically expect?

Fiona Hill: Well obviously, Secretary Kerry is very much helping Putin [inaudible] to use his relationship with Basher al Assad to negotiate with the opposition, at least to find some way out of current impasse. On a realistic front though, the best that Putin could possibly hope for is to try to persuade the Russians not to block any action that the US and the other might take.

Werman: You know both Putin and Kerry pretty well, so tell us, what do you think was said behind the scenes about Syria that we're not hearing?

Hill: Well, Kerry is the consummate diplomat, he's somebody who prides himself on his reliability and being a man of his word. I'm sure he was trying to persuade Putin, who was a great skeptic of the United States, that he had a plan for Syria, that if he undertook to do something, then he would carry this out. Putin is skeptic of the United States because he's extremely disappointed with any US official from the present on down's ability to deliver on any undertakings that they have made, do it will be a very difficult job for Secretary Kerry to persuade Putin that this is going to be different.

Werman: What is the background to the chilled relations right now between Russia and the US?

Hill: Well, the relationship between Russia and the US is notorious for looking like a rollercoaster. We've had peaks of the expectations of partnership, all the way over the last 20 years, and then the troughs that we're in now. What we always find is that it becomes hostage to domestic politics. The United States is a very convenient domestic tool to mobilize against. Blaming the ISA's death for all ends of abominations, both domestically and internationally. To try and shore up his best base of support.

Werman: Y'know, following the Boston marathon bombings, a few weeks ago it looked as if US and Russian intelligence agencies were about to start pointing the fingers at each other for intelligence failures. How do you think the marathon bombings have affected relations between US and Russia?

Hill: Well, they've obviously made a very strong case, at least on the surface, for president Putin's claim, y'know, right from the offset that Chechnya was part of the border wall around terrorist, its part of this arc of terrorism that had been preoccupied within so many different arenas. It does open up the prospect of the US and Russian working together in the upcoming Sarahi winter Olympics, in the beginning of 2014.

Werman: Fiona, let me just circle back to the meeting between John Kerry today. You've just co-authored a book about Vladimir Putin called "Mr. Putin, Operator and Kremlin", and I notice that Putin today kept Secretary Kerry waiting today for three hours before their meeting. Can you take us inside Putin's mind? How do you think he sees the moment to engage with the US?

Hill: Well, this has become standard operating procedure for Putin. It really throws everyone off balance, and puts him in the driver's seat when he eventually shows up. Secretary Kerry was actually quite lucky. I could have been much worse. He's kept, y'know, regional presidents wasting for 5, 6, even 7 hours. Executives of Oil companies, international oil companies, you name it. This is something that [inaudible] the fact that he is most definitively in charge. He likes to get people off balance, he likes to get to kind of exploit their [inaudible] frustrations, and kind of turn the things around to his advantage.

Werman: Fiona Hill, at the Brookings institution in Washington, thank you.

Hill: Thank you so much, Marco.