Fiona Hill on What Putin's Plotting—and How to Stop Him
"It’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s going to be exhausting. Putin wants to grind us down. But we can’t let him."
As you may have noticed from the headline, this isn’t a post about the classics. That’s because we at Octavian actually have three preoccupations: not just culture, but also economics and geopolitics (in my former life I was managing editor of Foreign Affairs and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy). So we’ve decided to broaden our newsletter to include those other topics as well. Why the Classics will still be a weekly feature, but you can expect to see more posts on international affairs, finance, and ideas in the weeks ahead. We think it’s a great, distinctive mix. But let us know what you think in the comments section; we always want to hear from you.
Now back to Russia. With diplomacy floundering, the Biden administration is warning that President Vladimir Putin may invade Ukraine at any moment. Indeed, Moscow’s promise to withdraw some forces from Ukraine’s border seems to have only led to an increase of Russian men and matériel in the area. Never has the question of what’s actually coming, and what to do about it, felt more urgent. So I decided to call someone who has studied Putin and Russia, from both within the U.S. government and without, for decades. A few years ago, Fiona Hill was well known in the foreign policy community—the British-born Hill had served as an intelligence officer in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations—but but less so outside of it. Then her riveting testimony during President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearings in 2019 turned her into a household name. Now Hill, the author of There is Nothing for You Here, is a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at The Brookings Institution. On Wednesday, she and I spoke about Russia, Ukraine, what Vladimir Putin is thinking, and how to stop him. The conversation was fascinating, as you’ll see below.
Octavian Report: Let’s start with why now? Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin decide that this was the moment to start ramping up pressure on Ukraine and the West?
Fiona Hill: It’s something he must have decided back in the spring or summer, because his buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border began in March and April. Not to the extent that we’ve got now, but enough to provoke the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin in Geneva in June.
Part of the explanation for his timing has to do with a series of developments that made him think that Ukraine was slipping away from his orbit. This started when the Biden administration came into office in January 2021. Under Biden, the United States has put Ukraine back in the national-security spotlight—unlike President Donald Trump, who tried to turn it into his own private issue for domestic purposes. Biden has also depersonalized the issue, and I think that got Russia’s attention.
Meanwhile, Ukraine was trying to tackle corruption. President Volodymyr Zelensky started to make moves against some of the oligarchs, including people like Viktor Medvedchuk, who’s close to Putin. He also worked more closely with the IMF to put the economy on a different footing. And Zelensky tried to resolve the conflict in the Donbass in Ukraine’s east. All that, and Zelensky’s efforts build up the Ukrainian military and move closer to NATO, signaled to Putin that Ukraine was moving further away from Russia.
Then Putin was dissatisfied with what he got out of the Geneva meeting with Biden, and that caused him to ratchet things up much further. And I think he was emboldened by things that were happening in Eurasia and in Europe.
OR: Do you buy the argument that the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan affected Putin’s thinking?
Hill: Yes, I think it did in several respects, as did AUKUS [the Australia-United Kingdom-U.S. deal for building nuclear-powered submarines]. Those moves told Putin that Biden can make tough decisions, and will do things over the heads of the Europeans, who he clearly didn’t consult much on Afghanistan or AUKUS. I think Putin thought that, if he moved really fast to put immense pressure on Ukraine, he could push Biden to make a similar decision to cut his losses in Europe.
OR: Do you think Putin has decided whether or not to invade Ukraine?
Hill: I honestly don’t know. He’s trying to test us. What’s important to understand about his military deployments is that they’re not defensive. When Russia has held military exercises in the area in the past, they’ve been defensive. But the current military exercise in Belarus is practice for an invasion. The air and naval maneuvers in the Black Sea, which include amphibious landing craft, are also offensive. That’s different from the past.
OR: I know you can’t read Putin’s mind, but what do you think is his top objective? Is he actually interested in Ukraine, or seeking to divide the West, or to push back NATO’s frontiers?
Hill: It’s all of those things. The written documents Russia sent the United States on December 17 of last year laid that out really clearly. The idea that this is just about Donbas is a fiction. Clearly he wants to have all of Ukraine within his grip; otherwise, why would you start practicing for a full-scale invasion?
People are saying it’s a bluff. Well, hang on. Putin is positioning himself to show that he has some kind of offensive intent. The Russians may not invade now, but they’re showing that they have the capacity and the willingness to do so at some other time of their choosing.
Putin wants to have operational surprise, he wants to keep the pressure up. And he is hoping that pressure will cause Ukraine to implode and explode. Putin is seeing if he break Ukraine short of invading, as people and capital flee, investment seizes up, countries relocate their embassies, etc. Can this cause Ukraine to crack? Can Putin provoke more infighting among Ukrainians that might lead to Zelensky getting pushed out? Remember, Ukrainians have a high propensity for that kind of behavior. How many times have we seen the Ukrainian government change in recent years?
He’ll keep the pressure on NATO too, because he wants NATO to look like the aggressor. And he’s hoping to humiliate the parade of dignitaries from European countries who are visiting him, in order to undermine their standing back at home. He’s been more careful with Biden, because Putin sees him as the person who could give him a deal. He knows that Biden is a trans-Atlanticist who understands NATO. Biden’s got good relations with the Europeans. So Putin thinks Biden can deliver. Trump couldn’t produce a deal on anything.
Putin is also thinking about Russia’s next presidential election in 2024. And he’s thinking about the U.S. midterm elections in 2022; if the House and the Senate flip, Biden won’t be able to do anything. So he feels real urgency
OR: Do you think there’s anything that either Biden or Zelensky could give Putin that would satisfy him?
Hill: I do think that there’s a good idea out there that [former U.S. Ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul has articulated pretty clearly. He calls it Helsinki 2.0, and the idea is to give Putin a big splashy set-piece renegotiation of European security. That’s the only formulation that would work for everyone’s individual security. But what the Russians really want is to resolve all this with Biden over the heads of the Europeans, in a way that gets the United States to withdraw from Europe, or at least pull back. Which of course the United States was doing before all this started.
Putin certainly didn’t want a more robust NATO, so he may have miscalculated there. Given all of the factions in the West and the debates we engage in all the time, the Russians anticipated that they could just push buttons like they did in 2016 during the U.S. election, and we’d all just fall apart or fall on each other. And that hasn’t happened.
OR: Were Ukraine to step back from NATO accession, as Zelensky has been hinting over the last few days, would that do anything to mollify Putin? Because if he’s really interested in the big game, that’s a small prize.
Hill: Right. He’ll take it, of course, and pocket it. But he really is going for something much bigger. He want the neutralization of Ukraine, or it’s neutering. He wants it to be demilitarized. And he wants the same thing for the other former Soviet republics, including the Baltic states.
OR: Speaking of Zelensky, why do you think he has so consistently downplayed the West’s warnings about an imminent Russian invasion?
Hill: He doesn’t want panic. I talked to the Ukrainian ambassador about this, and she’s a former finance minister. They don’t want to tank the economy. They don’t want everyone to flee. Because that would give Russian what they want. Putin would like to turn Ukraine into Afghanistan as it is now under the Taliban, having lost all foreign lending and having its money in foreign banks withheld.
OR: In his column this week, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman raves about Biden’s handling of the crisis. I’m curious how you would grade the administration’s response so far. When this all started, it seemed like Putin was making an obvious play for attention, and I wondered if the West shouldn’t just have ignored him.
Hill: It’s dangerous to ignore Putin. I think that’s part of why he’s acting out now—because he thought he was being ignored. After the U.S.-Russia meeting in Geneva in June, the Russians got really pissed off because they didn’t get what they wanted. They got [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman coming to have meetings with them, but they didn’t get any fast-track diplomacy to address all the things that they wanted. So they escalated. They believe that we only listen to them if they use force. Every time you try to park the Russians somewhere, they take the keys and drive around the parking lot, smashing up all the cars.
OR: So how do you grade the administration’s response? It seems to me that Biden’s team has learned a lot of lessons from Afghanistan.
Hill: Yes, they’ve applied all the lessons. And I think they’ve done a pretty good job. Where the Russians have used disinformation, we’ve used information. The Russians can’t maintain this state of military readiness for long, which is why everyone’s been warning about an invasion. We’ve shone a spotlight on the things they’re doing and the risks they pose in the way we would for an approaching hurricane or a tornado.
The problem is this is just one phase of what’s going to be a long haul. We’re going to have to develop different sets of contingencies to ensure we don’t let our guards down. Putin thinks about this like a tournament with multiple bouts. So he’s going to keep on at this, and try to find an operational surprise. What else can he do? How can he take advantage of what’s happened so far? How can he turn our wins into losses?
So we have to figure out how we’re going to posture ourselves moving forward. We’ve got to remain vigilant and keep on calling things out. And we have to maintain unity, which won’t be easy, because the French, for example, clearly think that the United States is exaggerating the dangers, even though they see the same things.
OR: The Helsinki 2.0 approach is meant to wrap Russia up in a blanket of new treaties. Would such a broad diplomatic engagement do much to reduce Russian meddling, either in the United States or in Ukraine?
Hill: It wouldn’t. We’re back to what George Kennan wrote about in the Long Telegram. We’re back to containment, and trying to contend with Russia’s malign activities.
OR: Do you think the kind of severe sanctions the United States has promised if Russia does invade will actually accomplish anything? And if not, can you envision a better, more effective response?
Hill: I think there are all kinds of other responses. We have to think about how we blunt the effect of any cyber intrusions. We have to blunt the way they bribe Westerners with lucrative board positions; it’s not [former German chancellor] Gerhard Schröder. We’re going to have to change our posture.
It’s tragic because sanctions will really hurt regular Russians. Not every Russian businessperson is a oligarch, nor is every Russian citizen some kind of security operative. And we want to maintain ties to the Russian people, but it’s going to be very difficult now. Russia has declared itself to be the ultimate revisionist country, totally at odds with the security architecture of Europe. It’s thrown down multiple gauntlets. So it’s going to be very difficult to put ourselves back on any kind of cooperative track because there’s no trust, no confidence. We’re in similar situation now to the one we were in in the 1980s.
OR: Some academics such as John Mearsheimer argue that America’s biggest enemy is not Russia, it’s China, and that we should therefore do everything we can to bring Russia on side, just as, during the Cold War, we brought China on side against Russia. Let’s say we decided to make that our policy. Would it even be possible to turn Russia into a partner of the United States against China?
Hill: It’s not possible—Russia has just come out with a declaration with China making it very clear that that’s not going to happen. And Russia doesn’t want that to happen, because Putin needs to maintain confrontation with Washington for domestic purposes. So the idea of trying to split off Russia from China is a nonstarter.
OR: What do you think will be the most likely outcome of the crisis? Will the West cave? Will Ukraine cave? Will Putin invade? Will he do something less than a full scale invasion, like Crimea 2.0?
Hill: If we keep our current posture up, we might be able to head off some of those things. But all of the things you’ve laid out are equally possible.
You know, I hate the fact that we’re now back into a position where Russia looks like a threat, because people like Mearsheimer are right: the big long-term challenge is China. But Russia is intent on destabilizing everything and upsetting the whole current European security order. So we’ve got to find a way to stop Russia while managing the conflict to prevent violence from breaking out. It’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s going to be exhausting. Putin wants to grind us down. But we can’t let him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.