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‘Obviously Putin has his number’: why Russia wants a Trump presidency again

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Vladimir Putin has had Donald Trump’s “number for some time … knows how to manipulate him” and still sees him “as an asset”, the former White House Russia expert Fiona Hill said, discussing the Russian leader and the Republican presidential frontrunner.

“That’s literally [Putin’s] trump card,” Hill told the One Decision Podcast, hosted by the reporter Jane Ferguson and Sir Richard Dearlove, a former head of MI6, when asked if she thought the Russian president, bogged down in war in Ukraine, was betting on Trump beating Joe Biden next year and returning to power.

Hill added: “The anticipation that Trump’s going to come back is something for Putin of a boon … he can play with that. He can use it as kind of a warning … scare the Ukrainians, the Europeans, the rest of the world. Putin is pretty confident, given his experiences with Trump in the past, that Trump will be quick to try to resolve the … war in Ukraine in his favor.

“And, you know, obviously, Putin has had Trump’s number for some time, he knows how to manipulate him … he has been very good at the art of flattery with Trump. He sees Trump as an asset in many respects.”

From 2017 to 2019 Hill was a senior national security aide in the Trump White House, eventually coming under the spotlight as a witness in Trump’s first impeachment, for seeking to blackmail Ukraine for dirt on political rivals. In 2013, she published Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, a widely praised study.

Though Hill made her name in Washington foreign policy circles she was born and raised in the north-east of England, attending St Andrews University in Scotland before studying at Harvard.

Joe Biden has led a global coalition in support of Ukraine but US funding for Kyiv is currently held up in Congress, Republicans loyal to Trump demanding hardline immigration measures in return for more aid. On Wednesday Punchbowl News, which reports on Capitol Hill, noted the “growing isolationist wing” of the Republican party, notably including the installation of a Trump ally, Mike Johnson, as House speaker.

“Washington has cooled on Ukraine,” it said.

Hill said Putin increasingly sensed a chance to end the war in his favour.

“Myself and many other colleagues are already getting little feelers being sent out to see whether the United States and the west are ready to negotiate,” Hill said, adding that this “suggests that Russia would like to see this ended, but … completely on Putin’s terms: no return of territory, the opportunity to put pressure on Ukraine over the longer term and certainly no reparations.”

Now chancellor of Durham University, Hill is also a member of the board of overseers at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. On the One Decision Podcast, she also discussed her well-received memoir, There Is Nothing For You Here, which was published two years ago, famously prompting Trump to call her “a deep state stiff with a nice accent”.

Trump and Putin have been entangled on the world stage ever since Trump entered US politics in 2015, amid warnings of Russian interference in American elections. In 2018, Trump was widely criticised for a subservient display at a summit with Putin in Helsinki. In 2019 a special counsel investigation of Russian election interference and links between Trump and Moscow ended with multiple indictments and extensive evidence of attempted obstruction by Trump but no proof of collusion.

Widely seen as an aspiring autocrat, Trump regularly praises Putin and other authoritarian leaders.

In New Hampshire last week, Trump told supporters: “Putin of Russia says that Biden’s … ‘politically motivated persecution of his political rival’ is very good for Russia because it shows the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach others about democracy.’ So we talk about democracy, but the whole world is watching the persecution of a political opponent that’s kicking [Biden’s] ass.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 91 criminal charges under four indictments and also faces assorted civil cases and a ruling in Colorado kicking him off the ballot for inciting the January 6 insurrection. Regardless, he leads Republican polling by vast margins and is competitive or leads Biden in general election polls.

Hill told One Decision that because Trump “can be extraordinary, unpredictable … Putin probably has to tread very carefully, in fact, not to insult him, and not to kind of cross lines [because] Trump … lives for himself”.

But, she said, “Putin is pretty confident that he can stoke up the culture wars here, there and everywhere. And just with a little bit of deft use of political influence operations and propaganda, he can keep things that are moving in his direction already, moving in his direction.

“In any case, everything that Trump surrogates or Trump himself says about Nato [he has threatened to withdraw the US], about Europe and European security, about world and global affairs, about Ukraine, everything that’s happening on Capitol Hill … for Putin, this is just for him a sign that again, everything is going to rapidly switch in in his direction, his favor.”

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