Vladimir Putin was once asked how his background as a KGB officer helped him lead Russia. The main thing, Putin replied, was his experience “working with people.”
According to Russia expert and Trump advisor Fiona Hill, this innocuous-sounding bit of “KGB jargon,” as she described it in her book, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, offers valuable insight into Putin and his leadership of Russia. “Working with people” [rabotat’ s lyud’mi] was a hallmark of the Soviet spy agency under Yuri Andropov, who ran the KGB for much of Putin’s 16-year career there. For a former case officer like Putin, Hill wrote, “it meant studying the minds of the targets, finding their vulnerabilities, and figuring out how to use them.”
Hill, the senior director for Russian and European Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, has helped plan the upcoming summit with Putin on July 16th in Helsinki, Finland. She accompanied her boss, National Security Advisor John Bolton, to Moscow last month for a meeting with the Russian president. Few people in the Trump administration understand Putin better than Hill, a British-born, Harvard-educated expert who took a leave of absence last year from the Brookings Institution to join the NSC. But how much attention Trump will pay her in Helsinki is another matter. Not long after Hill was hired, Trump mistook her for a White House clerk and then misread her confusion as insubordination, according to The Washington Post. When Trump met Putin alone at the G20 summit in July 2017 in Hamburg, Germany, he excluded Hill, in part, out of a desire to control potential leaks. It’s already been decided that she won’t be attending the private, one-on-meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki.
That, among other things, has become a major point of concern for U.S. experts on Russia. A one-on-one meeting gives the former KGB case officer a “tremendous advantage” over Trump, says Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Obama. Trump will be the fourth U.S. president Putin has met with in his two decades in office, and the American president could use Hill’s expertise while delving into the thorny issues that divide the two countries: namely, Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the presence of Iranian troops in Syria and the status of the Crimean peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
For starters, there is the very likely possibility that Trump may agree to something he shouldn’t. When the two men met alone in Hamburg, Trump emerged with a plan for what he called an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit.” It appeared that Trump had joined an effort to thwart election hacking with the foreign adversary that the United States had sanctioned for hacking the 2016 presidential election. (The White House immediately walked the proposal back.) Putin prefers smaller meetings – such as the “POTUS+3” meeting McFaul attended in 2009 with Obama at Putin’s country estate in Novo-Ogaryovo – because he believes he has a better chance of making a personal connection and winning the concessions he seeks. “I’ve been in half a dozen meetings with Putin with various U.S. government officials including Obama and he is an effective communicator of his point of view,” McFaul says. “I worry that with a president like Trump who just doesn’t have that same experience with foreign policy that he could be nodding along with the Putin narrative.”
Putin may have other levers of pressure he can apply in his private meeting with Trump. Michael Carpenter, former Director for Russia on the National Security Council under President Obama, sees Trump getting “completely outplayed by Putin” based on Putin’s experience and Trump’s susceptibility to flattery. “There’s also the likelihood that Putin has kompromat over him,” says Carpenter, now a senior director at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. “A brief allusion to that is quite possible during the meeting. I can imagine Putin using a little turn of phrase referring obliquely to the Moscow Ritz incident, such as ‘Moscow has the most beautiful call girls.’ He’s essentially saying ‘Yeah, we do have beautiful women and I know something about that wink wink, nod nod.'”
The U.S. intelligence community has its own set of concerns about how their Russian counterparts may try to exploit the meeting in Helsinki. “[The Russians] are certainly going to have the place wired for sound and video, so whatever he says they will have it,” says Steven L. Hall, a retired chief of CIA Russian operations. “I would be really horrifically surprised if they didn’t. They certainly have the capability.” Putin likely views Helsinki as an opportunity to gather fresh kompromat on an American president who stands a good chance of saying something in private that he later regrets, Hall says.
Trump, not surprisingly, has shrugged off these concerns. “‘Will President Trump be prepared? You know, President Putin is KGB,’” the president sneered at a Montana rally on July 5th. “He’s fine. We’re all fine. We’re people. Will I be prepared? Totally prepared. I’ve been preparing for this stuff my whole life.”
The same can certainly be said of Vladimir Putin. “He goes into these things with the preparation of a KGB case officer,” Carpenter says. “He reads carefully the psychological profiles and understands an individual’s weaknesses and strengths. He’s a master of psychological manipulation. Putin is equally capable of being obsequious and aggressive.” When Putin met with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy during Russia’s invasion of Georgia, he “was physically intimidating his interlocutor, using profane language,” Carpenter says. In a one-on-one meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2007, Putin brought Konni, his black Labrador, into the room. Merkel is afraid of dogs. While the cameras flashed, Putin watched Konni sniff Merkel’s legs and sit at her feet. “The dog does not bother you, does she?” he asked. “She’s a friendly dog and I’m sure she will behave herself.” (Putin later apologized.)
Like most heads of state, Putin is also incredibly well versed on the issues – from energy production to foreign trade to the ground war in Syria – but he is unlikely to get into the weeds on policy with Trump. “He is going to try to appeal to Trump on the kind of ideological things that they share,” McFaul says. “And let’s remember that’s what is different about Trump compared to all other American presidents who’ve met with Russian officials. This conservative, nationalist, populist, anti-multilateral perspective that Putin has had for years, well, there’s a lot that Trump agrees with Putin on that. And then you add to that the beating up on the liberal media, Putin will do that and joke about that. They’ll bond over that. In the same way that Putin has a complicated relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, well, now it appears that our president has a complicated relationship with Merkel. So there is a lot of material for Putin to play with that adversely affects, from my point of view, what our national interests are.”
According to The Washington Post, Putin has already been laying the groundwork for this summit. The Russian president has lamented the “fake news” and the “deep state” conspiring against them in his phone calls with Trump. “It’s not us,” Putin reportedly told him. “It’s the subordinates fighting against our friendship.” Earlier reports of Trump’s chummy phone calls with Putin prompted former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to praise Putin’s skills as a case officer. “He knows how to handle an asset,” Clapper said on CNN, “and that’s what he’s doing with the president.”
Putin’s success in getting the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to stand next to him in Helsinki represents a remarkable turn of events for the Russian president. It was only four years ago that Putin ate lunch alone at the G20 summit in Australia because no world leader wanted to break bread with the head of a regime that rearranged the borders of countries, poisoned citizens on foreign soil and provided the missile system that brought down a civilian airliner over Ukraine. “There’s not a single person in the U.S. government that wants this summit to happen except for Trump,” says Bill Browder, an American-born investor in Russia who became one of the Kremlin’s biggest enemies.
The real risk of a private Trump-Putin meeting is that the two men will hash out a secret understanding outside the presence of aides and note-takers. Julia Davis, a Russian media analyst, says she has been seeing some disturbing signals coming from the Kremlin. “Sometimes the Russian media reveals things before they’re known in the American media,” Davis says. “For the summit, they were talking about Trump and Putin meeting in private long before it was announced here. There’s also a lot of talk about how they were hoping that Trump and Putin will enter into a secret verbal agreement. The summit will have a written agreement that covers all the basic stuff like combating terrorism and Syria, but they’re saying there will be a secret verbal agreement that Trump will look the other way regardless of what Putin does in Ukraine.”
This is the worst-case scenario for Trump’s National Security Council, a president who rewrites policy with Russia while ignoring his foreign policy experts and advisors. “That’s the danger, that there won’t be a grand bargain where we can pore over a piece of paper but rather an accommodation that will take shape over many moths and therefore be more difficult to expose as a sell-out of U.S. interests,” Carpenter says. A Kremlin spokesman added to the intrigue when he announced that Putin passed along a personal message to Trump during his June 27th meeting with Fiona Hill and John Bolton.
All of which puts Hill in an impossible spot: she likely understand better than anyone how Putin’s abilities are a perfect match for her boss’s vulnerabilities – and it’s unclear whether she has the power to do anything about it. In her book, she quotes a remarkable explanation Putin gave during his first year in office as to how he might go about manipulating and co-opting someone. “In order to work with people effectively, you have to be able to establish a dialogue and bring out the best in your partner,” Putin said. “If you want to achieve the result you have to respect your partner. And to respect means to recognize that he is in some way better than you are. You should make that person an ally, make him feel that there is something that unites you, that you have some common goals. That skill I think is the most important skill.”
Seth Hettena is the author of Trump/Russia: A Definitive History.