The following is a transcript of an interview with Fiona Hill that aired Sunday, June 20, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”
JOHN DICKERSON: We want to take a closer look at what that US-Russia summit accomplished last week. Fiona Hill was the National Security Council’s senior director for European and Russian affairs during the Trump administration. Good morning.
FIONA HILL: Morning, JOHN.
JOHN DICKERSON: Dr. Hill, I want to start with news this morning that the U.S. is preparing new sanctions against Russia over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. What do you make of those sanctions?
HILL: Well, those are actually obligatory because Navalny was poisoned, as we all now know, with Novichok, which is a banned nerve agent, essentially an illegal chemical weapon. It’s the same substance that was used in a different form against Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia in Solsbury back in 2018, which some people might recall. And on that same occasion, it also triggered a similar set of sanctions and other responses the Russians undertook to actually destroy all of their chemical weapons stockpiles. But, of course, we’ve discovered they kept a lot of these novel agents, probably betting on the fact that they were so secret and so highly classified when any Western governments knew about them, that nobody would ever actually get to the bottom of the use of this substance and certainly wouldn’t divulge it. But they were caught out when they used the same thing against Skripal in Solsbury. So they were at it again.
JOHN DICKERSON: So would this have been something that President Biden would have brought up in the meeting with Putin? Or is it something kind of, because it’s automatic, kind of is outside of their- of the exchange of carrots and sticks?
HILL: Well, I don’t think he’s outside of the exchange, and President Biden, by his own account, did raise Alexei Navalny and not just his posing, but the fact that he is now in jail, having returned to Russia after recovering in Germany. And, you know, the Russians were already put on notice that the death of Navalny would be seen as a really serious event that would basically get some responses as well. So I think, you know, the Russians were certainly forewarned and, you know, probably well aware that these sanctions were coming.
JOHN DICKERSON: Speaking of forewarnings, President Biden presented President Putin with a list of 16 areas in infrastructure and he said they were off limits to cyber attack. And then I was interested- the president said this, “I pointed out to him that we have significant cyber capability and if, in fact, they violate these basic norms, we will respond with cyber.” So was essentially President Biden saying that’s a red line, cross it and we retaliate?
HILL: Absolutely, he was and you know, we’ve made those redlines clear in the past to Russia on a number of fronts, not just in cyber, but also in the military realm. And there have been some red lines that when the Russians have crossed them, we have responded. I mean, the important point is to make that response credible. So it’s not so much that we’re telegraphing it publicly, but that some response happens behind the scenes. There’s a clear message sent to the Russians that they understand this. I think the dilemma is, you know, not being entirely comprehensive in- in your list of what’s off limits because what the Russians are- they’re very much testing the guardrails at all points, they are testing the limits. So I think we can also expect that there might be some covert action that might go beyond the 16 areas that are off limits, perhaps ransomware attacks, criminal attacks, something that’s hard to attribute. And then we’re going to have to go back to them with additional lists of things that are off limits as well. So this is going to be a back and forth, I suspect.
JOHN DICKERSON: Speaking of covert information, do you think, since you are so familiar with these kinds of meetings that President Biden would have said to President Putin privately, given him some evidence of what the US knows and proof that the US has not only about what Russia has been doing, but about how far our reach of retaliation could have been. Privately, would he have shared that kind of information to back up his threats?
HILL: I don’t think that he would have said something quite explicit because, look, there’s a real concern that the Russians can get ahead of everything that we are wanting to do. I mean, that’s why people are very cautious about talking to the media, because Putin is the master of preemption. If he thinks you are going to do something, he’ll get ahead of it. He’ll head that off or he’ll do something himself that then will require some other different form of retaliation. But look, our militaries have been very effective at this. We’ve had a long-standing channel between the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff- of Staff, General Milley, on our part before that was- it was General Dunford with their counterparts, General Gerasimov. And we’ve been very clear that if something happens in the military realm, we will respond. And that did happen in Syria in 2013 when Russian paramilitaries were pretending to be Syrian rebels and shot down our forces. And there were very heavy casualties on their side after there was a US response. That’s the kind of message that you send. You do it privately. It doesn’t have to be the president. It can be at the professional level by intelligence operatives or envoys or our- our military officers. And then they see the response and then the message is reinforced. So, again, it has to be very carefully calibrated. But I think that President Biden, by sitting opposite Putin, looking him in the face, as he said, and then being very clear about what the red lines are, is already setting the tone for next sets of meetings, which I would imagine will be the other professional levels in the US and Russian governments.
JOHN DICKERSON: The world- the word Cold War gets thrown around a lot. Can you characterize whether that’s applicable with respect to this cyber dance that is going on or how should we really think about the nature of that conflict?
HILL: Well, the cyber war is a hot war, same with the information war, because actions are already happening, right? I mean, we know that the Russians have had this massive penetration of our systems, the SolarWinds hack. We’ve seen that they have interfered in our election by trying to get onto critical systems. We’ve already seen these ransomware attacks, which, you know, many of the suspects have been criminals for hire or at least have not been reined in by Russia, which is tantamount also to certainly allowing attacks to take place on everything from pipelines to hospitals and other systems. And in terms of information war, I mean, we know that the Russians have been out using social media platforms, all kinds of propaganda. So we’re already there. I mean, what we’re trying to do is try to reel that back- and to basically win that back, that is, and try to get some kind of restraint here. So we’re basically, I guess, now with the dilemma of how do we do that? Can we get a comprehensive cyber agreement like we do in the nuclear weapons realm, or is that just going to be too difficult?
JOHN DICKERSON: All right. We’ll have to leave it there. Dr. Hill, thanks so much for being with us.
FIONA HILL: Thanks so much, JOHN. Thanks for having me.
JOHN DICKERSON: And we’ll be right back in a moment.